The hothouse of unhappy emotion that is Mexican writer-director Juan Bustillo Oro's Dos monjes (Two Monks, 1934) ruminates on the differences between art and reality, and the misleading and potentially disastrous collisions of reality and perception. The film is also a reflection of many cultural markers, some unique to Mexico, others not: echoes of the 1910 Mexican revolution; a brewing Mexican nationalism; moderne Mexican stage aesthetics; the Social Realism art movement; split personality; and the cross-continental influence of Weimar Germany, specifically, Expressionist filmmaking.
Expressionist art, whether on canvas, on stage, or on film, is pointedly selfreferential. It is conscious of its own form, and invites exaggerated viewer attention to the medium. For filmmakers, Expressionist thought and concomitant techniques bring a new—and wholly intentional—artifice.
Film provides a false image of the world. We do not witness screen characters empirically. We are not there with them. Motion pictures—like all photography—put us at a remove from reality. The American documentarian Errol Morris wrote, “We imagine that photographs provide a magic path to the truth … With the advent of photography, images … became more like dreams.”
Expressionist films do not merely tell stories; they manipulate camera movement, point of view, and narrative structure, so that dreamlike and other psychological (frequently, psychosexual) effects are called to the fore, and heightened. And Expressionist film frequently imagines—that is, creates— images suggestive of disturbed or aberrant mental and emotional conditions.
Frequently, as in Robert Wiene's great German psychodrama Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari (The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari; 1920), Expressionist technique is so potent, so stylized, that the viewer is pushed away from the experience, even as he or she is engaged, realizing, I'm watching a movie. This isn't real, but it's compelling because I've been invited to experience that character's thoughts.
A great deal of Expressionist art invokes struggles for identity, and one's place in the world. In this, the movement parallels some of the political and artistic activity going on in Mexico in the twenty years prior to Dos monjes.