How German Expressionism Influenced Tim Burton: A Video Essay

Cin­e­ma Sem Lei has made a nice super­cut video essay that explores the influ­ence of Ger­man Expres­sion­ism on the films of Tim Bur­ton. There’s unde­ni­ably some direct quotes: The first shot com­par­ing the cityscapes of Metrop­o­lis and Bat­man Returns, the shad­ows on the wall of both The Cab­i­net of Dr. Cali­gari and The Corpse Bride, and the sim­i­lar­i­ties in the hair­cuts of Metrop­o­lis’ Rot­wang and Christo­pher Walken’s Max Shreck (the name a trib­ute to the title actor in Nos­fer­atu) again in Bat­man Returns. (Beetle­juice is noto­ri­ous­ly absent.)

But there’s also a sense that Cin­e­ma Sem Lei’s video is cut­ting off a crab’s legs to make it fit in a box. Not every­thing in Burton’s films has a direct link to Ger­man Expres­sion­ism, and to do so is to pre­tend that this silent movie style lie dor­mant between the 1920s and 1982, when Bur­ton cre­at­ed his first ani­mat­ed short, Vin­cent. (Watch it here.) It’s to ignore that Bur­ton most like­ly got his Expres­sion­ism, like many oth­er ’80s film­mak­ers, sec­ond and third hand.

Ger­man Expres­sion­ism didn’t result in that many films, but the ones that did have become famous for their vision­ary aes­thet­ic, stand­ing out visu­al­ly and intel­lec­tu­al­ly against the oth­er films of the day. When many of its direc­tors fled the Nazis and moved to Hol­ly­wood, the style began to influ­ence hor­ror movies and film noir. One oth­er place where Expres­sion­ism popped up was in the ani­mat­ed films of Warn­er Broth­ers, Dis­ney, and MGM, some­thing Bur­ton def­i­nite­ly grew up watch­ing. The com­ic exag­ger­a­tions in Tex Avery are noth­ing but expres­sion­ist, and the design of both the desert vis­tas of Chuck Jones’ Road Run­ner films, and his wild sci-fi designs bear the dis­tor­tions of Cali­gari’s sets.

So while we can see the angled rooftops and spindly stairs of Cali­gari in the shot of Burton’s Vin­cent sulk­i­ly climb­ing the stairs to his room, a more direct influ­ence was the art of Dr. Seuss, and while a skele­ton might play a bone as a flute in Murnau’s Faust, it’s Burton’s child­hood love of Ray Har­ry­hausen that you can see in the skele­ton band from Corpse Bride.

Also, it’s not known when Bur­ton may have seen these clas­sic silent films. Grow­ing up in the ‘70s he would have had to seek out prints, or look at stills in books about the his­to­ry of hor­ror. Once he got to CalArts to study, his access to films would have expand­ed beyond what was on tele­vi­sion.

But it’s inter­est­ing that in most inter­views, Bur­ton quick­ly diverts the dis­cus­sion if and rarely when asked about Ger­man Expres­sion­ism, but indulges when asked about what he watched as a child.

Once work­ing in the film indus­try, no doubt those Bur­ton brought on for his art direc­tors and cos­tume design­ers came with their own knowl­edge of his­to­ry, while music videos in the ear­ly ‘80s were also awash with Expres­sion­ist influ­ence mixed with mod­ernist design. Not to say that Bur­ton isn’t a sin­gu­lar vision­ary with a stack of influ­ences, but one who had grown up lone­ly, he soon found him­self among many who shared his par­tic­u­lar tastes, the film pro­duc­tion as a sec­ond fam­i­ly.

via Slate

Relat­ed con­tent:

Six Ear­ly Short Films By Tim Bur­ton

Watch 10 Clas­sic Ger­man Expres­sion­ist Films: From Fritz Lang’s M to The Cab­i­net of Dr. Cali­gari

Vin­cent: Tim Burton’s Ear­ly Ani­mat­ed Film

Tim Burton’s The World of Stain­boy: Watch the Com­plete Ani­mat­ed Series

Ted Mills is a free­lance writer on the arts who cur­rent­ly hosts the FunkZone Pod­cast. You can also fol­low him on Twit­ter at @tedmills, read his oth­er arts writ­ing at and/or watch his films here.

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