How Did M.C. Escher Influence Cinema?

M.C. Escher’s groundbreaking experiments with perspective have made him a common reference point for filmmakers.

Jun 14, 2024By Danilo Castro, BA Digital Media & Filmmaking

mc escher influence cinema

 

M.C. Escher spent most of his career being neglected by the artistic community. He spent the 1920s painting Italian landscapes to little fanfare, but a shift to what he called mental imagery led to a critical breakthrough. M.C. Escher became fascinated by mathematical and theoretical premises and decided to visualize them in ways the world had previously never seen.

 

M.C. Escher’s Universal Appeal

Self-Portrait, M.C. Escher, 1929. Source: The Art Institute of Chicago, Illinois

 

It took a long time for the public to get on Escher’s wavelength. He was 70 years old by the time his first exhibition was held, but his legacy has grown exponentially since then. There’s a bit of a catch when it comes to cinematic renderings of Escher’s style, however. While artists like Edward Hopper and Andy Warhol have relatively straightforward styles, and perhaps even ones that lent themselves well to the big screen, Escher’s is based on visual complexity. A good portion of his work is dedicated to the rendering of optical illusions and shapes that are deemed impossible in a three-dimensional space.

 

Escher Paintings as Cinematic Pastiche

Relativity, M.C. Escher, 1953. Source: Fenimore Art Museum, New York

 

The impossibility of Escher’s work has not stopped filmmakers from being influenced by him, but it has led to as many failed attempts as successful ones. Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb (2014) is a prominent example of the former. The third installment in the fantasy franchise sees the main characters stumble into the famous lithograph Relativity (1953). The characters acknowledge the difficulty of navigating the winding staircases and the gravity-defying architecture, but they fail to do anything novel with the setting, and quickly exit.

 

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Escher has become synonymous with the bizarre and the extreme, but his status as a household name makes him an appealing artist to reference, regardless of whether that makes sense within the confines of a film. A scene that is ultimately unoriginal, like the one mentioned in Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb, will attempt to derive creativity points by paying homage to Escher. It winds up falling flat as a result.

 

Impossible Staircases on Film

Convex and Concave, M.C. Escher, 1955. Source: National Gallery of Art, Washington

 

Labyrinth (1986) does a much better job of incorporating Escher’s Relativity and Convex and Concave (1955) into its story. Most of the film takes place in a strange, surreal landscape. The director Jim Henson based his camerawork on Escher’s style. One particular shot features a character diving off one of the staircases, only to have him surface around a corner seconds later.

 

The action occurs so quickly, that the camera is still tilted on its side from the previous shot, effectively creating the effect of the character walking sideways through the frame. Elsewhere, a wide shot of the room shows another character being chased horizontally through the frame, while an infant is posed vertically in the foreground. The film manages to capture the feeling of looking at an Escher piece for minutes on end.

 

Escher and Henson: Unlikely Bonds

Cubic Space Division, M.C. Escher, 1952. Source: The Art Institute of Chicago, Illinois

 

Like Night at the Museum, Labyrinth features the actual Relativity lithograph on the wall, but unlike the former, Labyrinth manages to deliver on the promise of bringing said lithograph to life. Jim Henson was an enormous fan of M.C. Escher, and he took special steps to ensure that his cinematic rendering lived up to the real thing. He instructed cinematographer Alex Thomson to light the staircases evenly so that the shadows they cast didn’t reveal whether the staircases were going up or down. He also had the sets constructed in such a way that they could be moved to fit the needs of the choreography.

 

Henson may be best known as the creator of The Muppets, but the bulk of his career was dedicated to creating surreal films. The experimental short films he released during the 1960s and 1970s were a radical departure from his kid-friendly puppet shows. These shorts showcased a fascination with the depiction of abstract concepts a la Escher’s Cubic Space Division (1952).

 

Upending Conformity Through Art

Ascending and Descending, M.C. Escher, 1960. Source: Indianapolis Museum of Art, Indianapolis

 

Henson’s Time Piece (1966) was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Live Action Short Film, and it depicts a man trying to escape the flow of time in a style very similar to that seen in Escher’s Ascending and Descending (1960). In both pieces, individuals struggle to break the constraints they’ve been placed under, and ultimately fall short. Escher discussed what he felt was the overarching theme of Ascending and Descending in his book The Graphic Work of M.C. Escher (1960). “Two recalcitrant individuals refuse, for the time being, to take any part in this exercise,” he noted. “They have no use for it at all but no doubt sooner or later they will be brought to see the error of their nonconformity.”

 

The prioritization of nonconformity makes sense, given the artist’s knack for taking mathematical principles and pushing them to their extreme. The problem with so many of the films that reference Escher is that they do so within the rigid structure of a narrative, which removes the interpretive qualities of his work.

 

Escher’s Impact on Blockbusters

Waterfall, M.C. Escher, 1961. Source: The Art Institute of Chicago, Illinois

 

A Nightmare on Elm Street 5: The Dream Child (1989) has a sequence in which supernatural killer Freddy Krueger traps his victim in a nightmare space reminiscent of Escher’s Waterfall (1961). The screenplay for The Dream Child, which was penned by John Skipp and Craig Spector, makes explicit reference to Escher’s style. The writers describe the nightmare space as an “Escheresque, expressionistic landscape” and an “insane, logic-defying world where water runs uphill and stairs and doors stand at impossible angles to one another.” It’s a memorable sequence in an otherwise forgettable film, but Escher’s visual flair is once again flattened to serve the superficial appeal of a boogeyman story.

 

A similar fate has befallen the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which has dominated popular culture in the 21st century. The franchise has previously dabbled in kaleidoscopic or surreal imagery, but it was the release of Doctor Strange (2016) that marked the first legitimate attempt to tell a superhero story within an Escherian setting. The visual effects artists who worked on the film used Escher as a benchmark when it came to adding surreal flourishes to seemingly realistic architecture.

 

Artistic Intent vs. Execution

Print Gallery, M.C. Escher, 1956. Source: Banff International Research Station

 

The chase scene that opens Doctor Strange features elaborate, impossible building patterns reminiscent of Escher’s Another World (1947) and Print Gallery (1956). The rest of the film is rendered in a similarly impressive fashion, making use of quintessentially Escherian concepts like polyhedral compounds and small stellated dodecahedrons.

 

The same can be said of other MCU films like Avengers: Infinity War (2018) and Doctor Strange In the Multiverse of Madness (2022). They are technical feats, and they pay tribute to Escher without the obviousness of Night at the Museum. Where they ultimately fall short is intent. The MCU is a blockbuster spectacle meant to appeal to kids and parents alike, while Escher’s lithographs are studies of paranoia and isolation. They might be aesthetically similar, but they are also fundamentally different in tone.

 

Shifting Perspectives

Three Worlds, M.C. Escher, 1955. Source: The Art Institute of Chicago, Illinois

 

Escher’s life was characterized by struggle. He fled Italy after the rise of fascism in 1935 and often felt estranged from his wife and children due to the lengthy amounts of time he would spend on his work. He was also hampered by health problems during the final years of his life. There’s a sense of escape in Escher’s lithographs and paintings, of leaving struggle behind for the fantastical, but reality always made its way into the expressions of his characters and the ominous presentation of his designs.

 

The only film that has dared to approach Escher’s work on these terms is Fish & Cat (2013). An avant-garde combination of the mystery and slasher genres, Fish & Cat is unique in that it is presented as a nonlinear, uncut 135-minute shot. It’s a harrowing viewing experience, which director Shahram Mokri was inspired to make after studying Escher’s work and becoming fascinated by the latter’s ability to shift perspective within the same visual, as evidenced by the lithograph prints Reptiles (1943) and Three Worlds (1955).

 

“You can see a change in perspective in the same visual,” he told The Hindu. “In my film, I wanted to give a change in perspective of time in one single shot. So the idea for the film came from his paintings.” It’s a daring concept, but one that Mokri ultimately pulls off due to his clever camera placement and shot construction.

 

The M.C. Escher Conundrum

Three Spheres II, M.C. Escher, 1946. Source: The Art Institute of Chicago, Illinois

 

Fish & Cat doesn’t wear its Escher influence on its sleeve, like so many of its cinematic peers, and winds up being all the better for it. Not a perfect translation of the artist, but the closest the medium has gotten. M.C. Escher will continue to be a source of inspiration for generations of filmmakers, but his singular ability to conceive of impossible structures and communicate them to the untrained human eye is not easily replicable.

 

He said as much during the opening moments of the documentary M.C. Escher: Journey to Infinity (2021). When asked which filmmaker would do a good job of bringing his vision to the screen, he said: “I fear that there is only one person in the world who could make a really good movie about my prints: myself.” There have been many valiant attempts, but the films we have thus far lead us to believe Escher may have been right.

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By Danilo CastroBA Digital Media & FilmmakingDanilo Castro is an entertainment writer and film critic living in San Diego. He graduated from the Art Institute with a BA in Digital Media and Filmmaking, and is managing editor of Noir City Magazine.