Tim Burton’s films have often been noted as modern day forms of German expressionism (the creative movement in Germany before World War l). It is through such things as sets, themes, makeup and costuming, lighting and shadows, acting techniques, and character that we can see Burton has been widely influenced by films of the era. The notable director’s films Edward Scissorhands (1990b Nightmare Before Christmas (1993), Batman (1989) and Batman Returns (1992), all draw parallels to expressionist films of the era and the characteristics these films feature.
Burton’s expressionist style films are predominantly similar to that of Robert Welne’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), F. W. Murnau’s Nosferatu (1922), and Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927). German expressionism was first seen in famous artworks such as The Scream by Edvard Munch (1893). and continued to spread Into other areas such as architecture, theatre and finally, film. During this era, the public went to cinemas in order to detach themselves from the harsh realities of everyday life, thus German expressionist films began to burgeon.
These types of films with their stylistic, urrealist themes were distinct and unique, putting Germany on the map as one of the first international film successes. Set design Is a predominant feature of German expressionist films, making them easily distinguishable from other films during the period. Tim Burton’s film sets are heavily influenced by this style as seen in Edward Scissor Hands, where the expressionist theme of alienation Is visually explored through the Juxtaposition of the candy coloured suburb and Edward’s gothic castle.
The animated sets of Nightmare Before Christmas show twisted, curling hills near the cemetery, tilted buildings and illars in the town centre and other distorted architectural features, in keeping with the expressionist themes. These relates specifically to scenes from The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, such as the room with Cesare’s coffin, where the painted walls appear to be leaning and the room is filled with odd shapes and angles as seen in the window. Burton’s Batman movies show signs of expressionism In Gotham’s cityscape, as it links almost identically to that of Metropolis.
Street scenes show squared, block like buildings, with some geometrically odd shapes, however, the facade of the bulldlngs n Gotham city show Intricate, eccentric detail, similar to the interiors of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. In both of the films Batman Returns and Metropolis, the tops of the central buildings show spikes and circled layers, accentuating the Influential set designs. Art Director, Tom Duffeld even stated, “The interiors of the Shreck building did have a Metropolis Influence. ” Similar shots were even used in both films, as If Burton modeled his sets off those of Metropolis.
The writer of the Batman comic books, Alan Moore, likened Gotham City to the sets of The Cabinet of Dr. Callgarl. tors Themes of the German expressionist period were commonly ones of madness, insanity, betrayal and intellectual topics; differing from the more simplistic action and romance themes often seen in films of that time. Burton and expressionist filmmakers shared this common ground. This can be seen in the Batman movies through the recurring motif of mirrors. These show the characters dark sides as they have an inability to confront their fractured psyches.
Internal duality is a common concept in many expressionist films such as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Nosferatu. Surrealism is a common thread between the two also, as Burton’s films explore an unnatural, fantastical, and horror based theme. This is much like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, a horror classic with mythical themes and Nosferatu, a famous vampire classic, both with unnatural undertones. The character of Edward Scissorhands is seen as an outcast due to his unnatural appearance, much like Nosferatu, who is an isolated character from normal society.
Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas has similar expressionist themes, as the protagonist shows signs of madness, and is seen as an anti-hero throughout the beginning of the story. This fantasy horror film demonstrates yet again the impact German expressionism has on Tim Burton through his filmmaking career. Makeup and costuming was commonly over the top and extremely dramatic in German expressionist films. This is a sector of filmmaking that profoundly influenced Tim Burton.
The character of Edward Scissorhands is seen with heavy, dark eye makeup, pale skin and messy stark black hair (accentuating the contrast between light and dark), a common expressionist technique. He is also placed in gothic style costuming, contradicting that of the brightly dressed townspeople, emphasising the heme of alienation. His character is often likened to that of Cesare in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, as they both have heavy makeup and dark clothing, and are both manipulated in some way. In Burton’s Batman, we can see a resemblance between Robert Weine’s Dr. Caligari and the Penguin.
Both characters are dark, homicidal and mentally unstable in nature. Visually, each was depicted with a round physique and evil grin, often seen dressed in costumes such as top hats and long coats. The Penguin’s makeup is extremely expressionist in style, with dark circles around the yes, a pale face and a darkened mouth area, also emphasising the contrast of light and dark. The most notable feature of German expressionist films is lighting and shadows. Filmmakers of the era often manipulated light and painted shadows to add certain effects in order to invoke certain emotional responses from audiences.
In The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, we see an entire murder scene take place through the shadows of the characters. Tim Burton was somewhat impacted by this specific form of lighting as he utilised chiaroscuro lighting throughout many of his films. The most obvious example of this is in the Batman movies. We see large and obvious shadows in scenes with The Penguin and the Batman symbol seen projected into the sky. Shadows are also utilised to cover Batman’s face, adding to the mystery behind the character, much like the shadows used to cover Nosferatu.
The famous staircase shadow scene in Nosferatu also most likely influenced this, where all we see is Nosferatu’s shadow and the shadow of a staircase. A high contrast between light and dark is created in these films through this use of lighting and shadows, as seen in certain scenes where only certain areas of Batman can be seen in low-key lighting. Chronology is a major theme that is toyed with in German expressionist films, as directors include many flashbacks and dream sequences, and the films often feature a disordered chronology.
This form of expressionism impacted Tim Burton’s films in a major way, as many of his films highlight a disarranged plot structure. In his films like Edward Scissorhands, we see flashbacks to Edward’s past, as with the Batman movies, where the audience is given insight into the characters emotional state through Bruce Wayne’s childhood flashbacks. We also see flashbacks through villains ike Catwoman, which inform the audience why such characters became evil. Such techniques can be seen in Nosferatu and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, where audiences gain an understanding of the anti-heroic protagonists motives.
With the birth of German expressionist films came the invention of new, different acting techniques and styles that are still utilised by filmmakers like Tim Burton today. Expressionist films often featured actors practicing over the top, harsh and amplified movements that appeared stiff and Jerky. This gave off a robotic effect, amplified the inner turmoil of the characters and accentuated their obvious ifferences, alienating them from ‘normal’ people. This is heavily utilised in films like Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, where the mechanical characters use robotic movements.
Burton utilises these harsh character movements throughout his films, such as Batman, where The Penguin is often seen moving in odd ways, adding effect to his character’s inner workings and thoughts. His animated film Nightmare Before Christmas is a perfect example of the influence that German expressionist films had on Burton in terms of character movement, as we see the characters moving with stereotypical Jerky and stiff movements. The actual characters and their thoughts and motives are displayed in a different way to normal cinema in German expressionist films.
We see anti-heroic protagonists who are outcasts and often manipulated by their environment or other characters. This is especially evident in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, where Cesare is seen being manipulated by Dr. Caligari, similar to Edward in Burton’s Edward Scissorhands. Edward is not only manipulated by the Creator, but is also seen as an outcast in his town due to his deformed appearances, making him a complicated, yet extremely relatable character to audiences. This character profile is certainly in keeping with expressionist style, demonstrating the influence such films had on Burton’s style.
Though short-lived, German expressionism has had a major influence on many filmmakers of the modern era, particularly Tim Burton, whose films portray a modern version of classic German expressionism. It is through the typical German expressionist film techniques and features mentioned that we can see the true extent this highly eccentric, incredibly innovative and extensively influential film genre had on Tim Burton’s films. Through flamboyantly successful films such as those f Tim Burton, the German expressionist style lives on throughout the decades… making it an undeniable success.