Wild architecture makes German cinema come alive at LACMA

A show of 1920s German cinema at LACMA is a must-see: for the art and architecture as much as the film

Movies can be great. Art can be great. But put them together in a museum exhibition, and the combination can be not-so-great. In fact, it can be downright tedious: acres of wall space jammed with photos and film posters, all punctuated by dim projection rooms displaying bits of film. Enter the screening areas and you often find yourself groping around in pitch darkness. Leave them, and you're blinded by the glare of museum lighting.

A new exhibition of early 20th-century cinema at the L.A. County Museum of Art (LACMA), however, rethinks that equation. Certainly, "Haunted Screens: German Cinema in the 1920s" features all the standard-issue bits: photography, concept sketches and film clips from some of the most iconic films ever made, from early horror movies like "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari" to the industrial sci-fi of Fritz Lang's "Metropolis."

But it does so in a meticulously designed architectural installation that evokes the feeling of entering the gritty, surreal universe of the German Expressionist movies, complete with sloping walls, jagged forms and geometric cone structures that descend from the ceiling.

"That was really something that we asked ourselves during this whole process," says Britt Salvesen, who heads up LACMA's prints and drawings department, and curated the show. "How do you get away from all of the expected spatial relationships: the dark room, the black curtain, the row of framed objects that seem to stretch into infinity?"

Well, they did it. Designed by Amy Murphy, a professor of architecture at USC, and Michael Maltzan of Michael Maltzan Architecture, the exhibition design is the antithesis of the traditional framed-stuff-on-a-wall model.

A single undulating form, like a series of rolling hills, connects the space — as if a gigantic carpet had been bunched up to create a set of waves. The top of the form is white and holds all of the ephemera: photos, concept drawings and various film-related objects. The under-layer is dark, and it is in these tunnels where clips of the various movies are screened at sharp angles, giving the whole thing a hallucinatory effect.

Arched cut-outs pierce the carpet, allowing viewers to migrate from light to dark and dark to light; moving picture to still ones, and back again.

"We wanted to engage the dramatic juxtapositions you see in these films," says Murphy, a designer who has studied the relationship between cinema and the field of architecture. "The chiaroscuro of the dark and light, as well as the anxiety that is present in the work."

"When you see 'The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari,' you know what that feels like and looks like," says Maltzan, who has done exhibition design in the past. "Instead of replicating those forms in space, we were looking to take the same spirit and the same motivations and reinterpret them in a contemporary way."

In this regard, they've been wildly successful. The installation is cinematic without drawing attention away from the work. Case in point: the stair-like structure that is lined with pieces that explore the psychological ways in which stairs were used in the cinema of the time.

And there's the final curved form, at the rear of the gallery, which features a replica of the robot from "Metropolis," a figure meant to incite the masses, looking down upon us from her elevated perch. The architecture suits her filmic role perfectly.

These types of features also allowed the museum to play with the lighting.

"It liberated us to create more unconventional sharp angles," Salvesen says. "We talked about the types of shadows that could be cast by the architectural forms, which is not the sort of discussion you have with a typical art show. It worked out better than we could have hoped for with the 'Metropolis' statue. Her hands cast this incredible shadow on the structure below her."

To be certain, the show isn't a one-off for LACMA. Over the last couple of years the museum has begun to rethink the experience of exhibitions about cinema, and it's made for some pretty engrossing shows. 

A retrospective on the work of director Stanley Kubrick in 2012 seamlessly wove in works of art in between the film ephemera — including a shiny black sculpture by John McCracken that bore an uncanny resemblance to the monolith from the director's "2001: A Space Odyssey."

And last year's (seriously underrated) exhibition on cinematographer Gabriel Figueroa created viewing chambers centered around themes. One piece of the exhibit contained a whole sequence of clips that focused on the way Figueroa presented death in his movies; another emphasized landscape; yet another dealt exclusively with the surreal qualities of the human eye. Rather than just dabbling in Figueroa's work, the viewer became immersed in it.

In the current show, it is the architecture that makes this period of filmmaking in Germany come to life. 

"Germany was such a petri dish of culture during that period," Murphy says. "It was isolated after World War I. It had closed off its film industry and stopped allowing the importation of foreign film. So these films came about in this very unique time and space in terms of creativity, but also anxiety about Germany's place in the world."

"The collaboration between painters and sculptors and set designers and filmmakers and composers, it just created this cultural and social richness," concurs Maltzan. "I think we both felt that this was something that you had to spend time immersed in so that it would begin to reveal itself. You needed a longer engagement."

With its daring architectural installation, LACMA is certain to encourage viewers to linger, to take another look at a drawing, examine that photo a bit more closely or review that scene from the murderous "M" once again.

In other words: Once you enter, it may be hard to leave this show.

"Haunted Screens: German Cinema of the 1920s" is on view through April 26, 2015, at LACMA, 5905 Wilshire Blvd., Mid-Wilshire, lacma.org.

Find me on Twitter @cmonstah.

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