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.
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 tedmills.com and/or watch his films here.