It is an irony not lost on the man who is arguably Canada’s most ironic filmmaker.
Guy Maddin has no German ancestors, despite an undeniable streak of German Expressionism that runs right through his body of work. “My parents are Icelandic and Scottish,” Maddin notes, “but somewhere, deep in the darkest corpuscles of my blood, there must be something German.”
As part of the Goethe Institute’s 50th anniversary celebrations, Montreal’s Goethe invited the Winnipeg-based filmmaker program a selection of German expressionist films. The result is “Carte Blanche to Guy Maddin,” an eclectic selection of German films that reflect the intensity and genius of much of that national cinema.
“I encountered German Expressionist movies, and the idea of Expressionism – work in which a character's inner, mental landscape is expressed in the outer landscape surrounding him or her – as a film dork in my 20s,” Maddin recalls. “It opened a door for me. Suddenly, so many movies, paintings, plays and books previously inaccessible to me welcomed me. The early German silents seemed to work in ways similar to the best fairy tales, though with an external hipness that helped me see just how modern, cruel and eternally true these fairy tales are.”
Maddin’s selection runs the gamut, from the celebrated to the obscure. One notable entry feels like a German travelogue: “I love Walking: From Munich to Berlin  It’s the ultimate micromontage diary film of a journey. Filmmaker Oskar Fischinger strolls from one city to another and shoots off blink-length retinal records of the experience. I feel like I could better remember my whole life, and keep it with me always, if only I had all along made these nano-portraits of what’s passed me by.”
Maddin also chose Secrets of a Soul (1926), in which we see early signs of cinema’s infatuation with Sigmund Freud. “The film stars Werner Kraus, the remarkably naturalistic former Dr. Caligari, as a man tortured by the conviction he’s a psychotic murderer. This is a mystery solved entirely on the shrink’s couch – but what a couch! – and we get to see tons of top-drawer Expressionist dream sequences.”
And Maddin’s personal favourite comes from one of Germany’s most famous auteurs, Ernst Lubitsch. “Most of all I love Design for Living  the long-underpraised masterpiece directed by perhaps the greatest director of them all, Ernst Lubitsch. This just came out on Criterion, with an essay by my fully disclosed wife Kim Morgan, explaining why this elegant and brawny love-triangle romantic comedy stands apart from and maybe even above the rest of Ernst's work. See it on the big screen, then own the DVD. You will thank me.”
Notably, Maddin decided not to program any Nazi-era films. “I skipped the Third Reich films. They depress me, no matter how apolitical many of them are. Somehow, just knowing no Jews or homosexuals worked on these unmischievous films makes them completely uninteresting to me.”
While researching this series, Maddin says a key revelation was just how interconnected the German Expressionism of the national cinema is to the literary culture. “After falling for Expressionism and the German tale, I started to spread my avid interest into closely related works. That’s when I found the writers Robert Walser, Thomas Mann, Ludwig Tieck, Ilse Aichinger, Thomas Bernhard and even Goethe himself, and that’s when I found the filmmakers in this program. Again and again these artists had a way of phrasing the most strange and imposing ideas in ways that seemed welcoming, delicious and ever-mysterious. I'm an Icelandic-Canadian, so there just might be something in the grim stencil through which we Scandinavians view humanity that aligns enough with the ancient Germanic one. Whatever, I ain’t alone.”
It is the German artists’ tendency to recognize ambiguity and resist simple closure that maintains Maddin’s sense of intrigue. “I like fairy tales because they've been written and vetted by millions of oral storytellers over a period of centuries – they’re approved by the people, yet somehow remain elusive and mysterious to this day. Who wants to solve life’s riddles with art? The world we live in isn’t a crossword puzzle we solve. Why should art? And besides, art should be worth revisiting. Who fills in all the boxes of a crossword then frames it?”
Carte Blanche to Guy Maddin screens until March 16 at Montreal’s Goethe Institute.
Special to The Globe and Mail