Cinema in Focus: German Expressionism
German Expressionism is perhaps one of the most influential of film movements to come out of the 20th century. Granted, it’s longevity is not its definer, lasting only seven years in the early 1920s, but its visual and psychological cues have been borrowed, harkened to and adored by filmmakers and cinemagoers alike. Some of our most famous genres, such as film noir and horror, would not be around if German Expressionism had not paved the road first. It’s for this movement that some of the world’s most famous filmmakers, like F.W. Murnau and Fritz Lang, have a voice in the vernacular of cinema.
Prior to the movement, World War I was concluding in Europe and the German people were reeling from the guilt and frustration of being one of the lead agitators in the war. Dealing with the deaths of close to 65% of Germany’s 11,000,000 soldiers, the country was then faced with the Treaty of Versailles, which effectively placed the blame and economic burden of the war on the German people. This plunged the country into a staggering period of inflation, as the Mark was deem unfit for international commerce and its people could not sustain themselves, suffering largely from malnutrition and death. All of these circumstances led to the distrust and hate of the Weimar Republic, whose greed and decadence were scarlet letters to the German people, and it was believed that their brashness led the baton into the worst international conflict in history.
The only glimmer of light for the German’s during this time was the cinema. The German film industry continued to be a great source of revenue for the nation, as they were able to produce their films cheaply and other nations were willing to import them often. In 1917, many of the studios would undergo a major consolidation to become UFA – the Universum-Film Aktiengesellschaft – and much of the industry aligned with the overly powerful and successful company.
Though UFA had much of the nation’s filmmakers under its wing, there were still some small studios producing content that was in direct contrast to UFA’s epic spectacles. Headed by Erich Pommer, Decla was one of the more successful studios of the time, working hand-in-hand with stage directors to bring the blossoming Expressionist movement from the theater to the cinema.
Now, prior to all of the mechanics of the cinema-world, Expressionism was making its name on the stage as “an anti-bourgeois aesthetic movement that sought to reject realism and embrace oblique and crudely formed images” (Heyward). It focused on the internal struggles that one may face and made an attempt to outwardly display this anguish. This movement was not only inspired by class-designations but by the effects of the industrial age, which turned people into cogs, working mercilessly within the bodies of giant factories and machines. The de-humanizing effect of this made for many psychological issues, and played a large part in the mass casualties inflicted during the Great War.
On the canvas, Expressionism could be seen in much of the Blaue Reiter movement and most notably in Edward Munch’s “The Scream”. On the stage, Max Reinhardt’s theater productions came to define the movement’s more physical attributes. Designing his sets in dynamic fashion and illuminating them with high-contrast lighting, Reinhardt effectively drew out the visual elements that would come to define Expressionism as a motion-based art form.
Jumping forward to 1920, Decla was utilizing Expressionist stage productions to produce their films, and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari was the first of a line of films released under the movement. Directed by Robert Wiene and starring Werner Krauss and Conrad Veidt, the film follows a young man named Francis who suspects a hypnotist named Dr. Caligari and his somnambulist Cesare of murder. After defeating both men, we learn that Francis has, in fact, imagined the entire conflict. Confined to a mental institution, Francis’ fears have become manifest in his own surroundings and the film ends with the hope that he can one day be cured.
Originally conceived as a scathing indictment of the government at the time, the film was censored by timid producers but still captures the general malaise of the German people, especially in the depiction of Francis’ distrust of Caligari and the puppetry of death that controls Cesare’s movements. No one is to be trusted, and the film portrays this paranoia with terror and finesse. It’s mise-en-scene is also legendary, as its jagged edges, misaligned geography and chiaroscuro lighting painted a world in distress.
The film became a bar of success other films in the movement would have to reach, and with the release of Nosferatu and Metropolis, the German cinema’s reflexive exercise in healing became the panacea that many citizens needed. That’s not to say that the effects of guilt and hardship were cured by any means. With the fall of the Weimar Republic came the rise of a new political party that would lead Germany into another world war and scar the history of the nation with its sadism and lack of respect for human life – the Nazis.
Nevertheless, German Expressionism’s influence had worldwide reach, and through the years, famous filmmakers have ascribed themselves to the teachings of the era. Alfred Hitchcock is notable for his use of space and shadows, so much so that the term “Hitchcockian” could almost be substituted for Expressionism. Tim Burton, another influential filmmaker, has made a career of crafting worlds that are both unique and foreboding in their architecture and style. Edward Scissorhands is a prime example, with the quintessential 1950′s suburb dwarfed by the dark and mystifying castle on the hill.
When a film tackles the psychology of a people with overt stylistic shadings and with the tension of a great horror film, one can anticipate that its filmmakers have studied at the school of German Expressionism. As for now, class is still in session.