Alfred Hitchcock, Bram Stoker, Das Cabinet Des Dr. Caligari, David Bordwell, Double Indemnity, Dracula, Edward Scissorhands, eine Symphonie des Grauens, F.W. Murnau, Figures & Fun, Film, Film Art: An Introduction, Film essay, Film History: An Introduction, Film-Noir, Fritz Lang, German Cinema, German Expressionism, German Expressionist Cinema, German Expressionist Cinema: The World Of Light And Shadow, Germany, Horror, Ian Roberts, John Grant, Kristin Thompson, M, Metropolis, Movies, Murnau, Noir Movies: Facts, Nosferatu, Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror, Robert Weine, Science Fiction, Sunrise, Sunrise: A Song Of Two Humans, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber Of Fleet Street, The Cabinet Of Dr Caligari, The Third Man, Tim Burton, Vampires
Prior to the events of World War I the German film industry was relatively small and were mostly presenting features made in America and France (Bordwell and Thompson, 2008). However, after the nation’s defeat in 1918, people had a dysfunctional approach towards the world around them. German film directors expressed their disillusioned states of mind in an artistic form known as German Expressionism. This movement continued in the country from 1919 until the uprising of Hitler and the Nazi Party in the 1930s. However, German Expressionism had not entirely drawn to a close. This essay will discuss examples of expressionist directors who became a source of inspiration and how German Expressionism spread across the world. In addition, this essay will analyse its various techniques, how they connect to later cinematic developments and the influence German Expressionism has on filmmakers today.
German Expressionism was criticized as a ‘degenerate art’ by the Nazi Party (Thorn, 2003). As a result of this and their progressive rise to power, many expressionist directors were driven to immigrate to the USA. Despite this, many of these individuals took their German Expressionism roots along with them, which they expressed within American Hollywood. For example, F.W. Murnau had previously made expressionist films in Germany, such as Nosferatu (Murnau 1922) and The Last Laugh (Murnau 1924). However, after his immigration into the United States in 1924, Murnau directed his debut American-made feature Sunrise (Murnau 1927), which contained roots of German Expressionism and had used in the past. Thus, Sunrise not only became a critical success but also jointly earned the first Academy Award for Best Picture. With this achievement, the influence of German Expressionism in America spread even further.
Another substantial figure in German Expressionist cinema who immigrated to the United States was Austrian-born director Fritz Lang. Like Murnau, Lang already had a successful reputation as an expressionist filmmaker following Metropolis (Lang 1927) and M (Lang 1931), but after arriving in the United States in 1934, he began his career in Hollywood. Although Lang directed some American films that were not related to German Expressionism, he used themes in crime-dramas that spread the influence even further. In addition, whilst German Expressionism was still going on in the mid-1920s, other American films incorporated expressionism elements, such as The Phantom Of The Opera (Julian 1925). In addition, German cinematographer and director Karl Freund designed dark sets for use in American classic horror films, particularly in Dracula (Browning 1931). Therefore, many of these artists had already spread German Expressionism across the United States before Adolf Hitler rose to power.
Arguably the most crucial filmmaker influenced by German Expressionism was Alfred Hitchcock. He worked on a film in Germany known as The Blackguard (Cutts 1925). Whilst there, he became fascinated by The Last Laugh as well as Destiny (Lang 1921). After Murnau but before Lang immigrated to the United States, Hitchcock had already used their valuable techniques of German Expressionism as an inspiration for him to direct a silent film called The Lodger (Hitchcock 1927). In this film, he had employed the use of shadow and light. He progressively used this in his black and white films, such as I Confess (Hitchcock 1953), The Wrong Man (Hitchcock 1957) and Psycho (Hitchcock 1960). Yet in terms of performance and theme representation, he used this in his coloured features The Birds (Hitchcock 1963) and Marnie (Hitchcock 1964). Considering this and the impact he gradually had on horror/thriller genre, Alfred Hitchcock could arguably be an equally influential figure from German Expressionism as Murnau and Lang.
Early American Horror had already begun through German Expressionism but another influential development was film-noir, a style of ‘black films’ which occurred throughout the 1940s and 1950s. It was introduced through similar methods as German Expressionism. Film-noir had already started during World War II but it was not until after it concluded and the Cold War began that it became a wider inspiration. According to French critics, the style and themes within many American crime and detective films during the war were ‘dark’, downbeat and black (Dirks, 2012). Nevertheless, these pessimistic emotions at the time influenced filmmakers to take advantage and present them on the screen.
Compared to American Hollywood, each aspect of German Expressionism served a different and more unorthodox representation of classic cinema. The intentions of German Expressionist films were to create a series of negative moods through mise-en-scène, cinematography and camera techniques. Also, plots would contain a collection of oppressive themes, such as vampires, murder and madmen. For instance, in The Cabinet Of Dr. Caligari (Weiner 1920), the oblique camera angles and unusual framing created disorientated sceneries, which suggested entrapment and a fear of being watched. Director Robert Weiner used an effective selection of shadows and silhouettes. Many of these were deliberately painted in geometrical forms to give that eccentric effect. Furthermore, the iconic staircase scene in Nosferatu provided an essence of menace and mystery. The decision to use Count Orlok’s shadow with the highly stylized lighting was to express anxiety, uncertainty and disorientation.
The harsh lighting along with the rich, black shadows and silhouettes became important factors within film-noir. Featured shadows reinforced darkness in the plot, similar to past German Expressionist films. For instance, in The Night Of The Hunter (Laughton 1955) Reverend Harry Powell’s close-up shadow appeared next to young John. Along with highly stylized lighting, Powell’s shade suggests his dangerous presence in the scene or possibly his even darker alter-ego. Therefore, the audiences are engaged in a tight and psychologically uncomfortable mindset.
Another element within the German Expressionist movement was bizarre settings. They were not based on real-life backgrounds and they were meant to appear distorted. The idea behind this was that Expressionist directors would structure scenes that represented their own disjointed mood following World War I within an atmosphere similar to a dream. In The Cabinet Of Dr. Caligari, the majority of warped settings were filmed indoors with unusual painted and stylized designs which were incorporated within the film. The uncommon backgrounds stumbled away from reality which provided an uncomfortable and menacing effect implying disorientation.
In years to come, other types of German Expressionist settings were introduced that influenced later cinematic developments. Count Orlok’s castle in Nosferatu was staged within real-life territory but still created the same menacing, uncomfortable atmosphere. This kind of setting appeared in American horror films, such as Psycho and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (Hooper 1974). On the other hand, Metropolis provided another idea of a dysfunctional background. The film was set in an unrealistic city but was not intentionally casting a frightening reflection. This resulted in another type of peculiar setting which greatly influenced comic book adaptations and science-fiction, particularly in Blade Runner (Scott 1982) and Batman Returns (Burton 1992).
Sometimes horror films in the post-war and modern eras involved stylized settings from German Expressionism. However, backgrounds in film-noir were a little different. For instance, in The Third Man (Reed 1949) the scenery is still staged in a threatening, hostile environment but it was set and filmed within the real-life city of Vienna. Many scenes were shot at night in exterior spaces, such as damp, wet streets and alleys. The use of tilted camera angles within the film created a claustrophobic touch which emphasized a nocturnal underworld. Therefore, the background styles within film-noir expressed an oppressive outlook on the world following World War II.
With the audience seeing a hostile, warped setting through German Expressionism and its later cinematic developments, another substantial method was the character types. Many of them in German Expressionist films had a form of physical and psychological distortion. For instance, the make-up on Cesare in The Cabinet Of Dr. Caligari was deliberately overdone, which indicates that he was an eccentric character. However, Count Orlok in Nosferatu provided a more physically distorted approach. His sinister behaviour and body language were portrayed in an eerie, slow manner, which created suspense. His physical features, particularly his bold, daring eyes as well as his sharp teeth and deformed ‘claws’ formed a depth of fright which influenced future vampire-related characters.
Likewise, most characters in film-noir had some kind of oppressive issues. Male protagonists were often referred as conflicted ‘anti-heroes’ (Gunnin, 2006) solving a serious crime but in an obsessive, cynical manner. For instance, Holly Martins in The Third Man was a writer who unofficially turned detective in hope to unravel the story of Harry Lime’s death. Along the way, audiences were driven into his state of mind and could relate to him because similar events that occurred in the film generally happen in modern society. On the other hand, women were represented as independent, desirable and sometimes dangerous which highlighted that they were a dominant force upon male characters. Examples of this character type were Phyllis Dietrichson in Double Indemnity (Wilder 1944) and Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard (Wilder 1950).
In modern cinema, Tim Burton is the one film director whose films contain elements of German Expressionism. Evidently from the unrealistic settings in Beetlejuice (Burton 1988), eerie gothic acting in Edward Scissorhands (Burton 1990), affective shades in Ed Wood (Burton 1994) and overdone make-up in Sweeney Todd (Burton 2007), German Expressionism still lives. Its high impact leaves the audience to question where cinema itself would be today if World War I had not occurred at all. Nevertheless, it may have been a supposedly short-lived era in its original country, but it became the opening link of a chain that has expanded into a legacy of filmmaking and resulted in one of the most important cinematic movements ever.