For this essay intend to discuss the stylistic and thematic strategies that were used in early expressionist cinema. To demonstrate this I will be looking at the following three German expressionist films. ‘Das cabinet Des Dr. Caligari’, more popularly known as ‘The cabinet of Dr Caligari’ (Robert Wiene 1920) and ‘Nosferatu, Eire symphonie Des grauens’, or ‘Nosferatu, a symphony of horror’ (Friedrich Murnau 1922) also, the later film, ‘metropolis’ (Fritz Lang 1927). In addition to this I will examine how expressionism has influenced more recent European directors.
Early German expressionist cinema is defined by the use of reflective light scenes and often obviously dominant use of shadows. The mise en scene featured distorted buildings and interiors, non-vertical walls and barely a right angle in sight. Theatrical backdrops displayed disordered colour compositions. Acting was anti realist involved screaming and shouting as the expression of extreme mental states and of “inner feeling”. Actor’s movements were choreographed as to complement the jarring ‘mise en scene’. Although lighting was predominantly flat, there was often an effective use of shadows for frightening effect.
‘The cabinet of Dr Caligari’ was a major success when released in 1920. Expressionism had been an important influence in theatre, painting and literature since around 1906 and when expressionism was introduced into films it was the start of a cycle of commercially successful and critically praised German expressionist films, including Fritz Lang’s ‘metropolis’ in 1927.
The expressionism that developed in Germany at the beginning of the 20th century was a reaction against and a rejection of the realism that had come to dominate art at the turn of the century. At this point methods of expressionist theatre were successfully transferred to cinema.
A quote from Frankfurter Zeitung’s book, ‘from Caligari to Hitler’ states, “expressionism here exists not in cinema but in history. Cinema merely records it”.
Also taken ‘from Caligari to Hitler’ is Siegfried kracauer’s view that expressionism is a result of people’s readiness for Hitler as in the films the following are expressed,
Evocation on evil
Forces of darkness
Threat to sanity
And also reimposition of a healthy order through efficiency and symmetry.
His examples of this include the staggering use of geometrical symmetry in the interiors of ‘Algol’ (Werckmeister 1920). Also the architecture of ‘Metropolis’ all seemingly point to the fascist mise en scene of Leni Riefenstahls ‘triumph of the will’ (1935) with its reconstruction of Hitler as a “god like figure and feverish rendering of his mass appeal”.
Another point of kracauer’s which is possibly more justified, is the idea that many artists had guessed that Hitler would bring disruption and death and so the artists left Germany to emigrate to the united states. For example, Fritz lang., Karl Freund and scriptwriter Carl Mayer, Friedrich Murnau, Billy wilder and Otto Preminger were among the artists who made it big in the United States after leaving Germany. It has been suggested that the visual style of film noir was largely due to the arrival of German film making talent in Hollywood in the 1930’s. Billy wilder went on to write the famously well known ‘double indemnity’ and Fritz Lang wrote ‘kameradschaft’.
The cabinet of Dr Caligari tells the story of a mountebank monk (Dr Caligari) and his influence over a somnambulist. It displays all the characteristics of an early German expressionist film. The canvasses and draperies are all jagged and have pointed forms. The pointed shadows were in disharmony with the lighting effects and when the character Alan is murdered it is only shown by the shadows on the wall. All the faces are shadowed with strikingly dark eyes and the doors are triangular shaped. Even the music is ‘expressionist’. Rudolph kurtz said, “Light has breathed soul into the expressionist films”.
However, there is some disagreement about whether only those films that show these characteristics should be classified as expressionist. Or whether others that include characteristics such as mental disintegration could be included in expressionist themes. The following films were made shortly after ‘The cabinet of Dr caligari’ and it has been debated as to whether they are expressionist.
‘The Golem’ (Wegener and boese 1920)
‘Destiny’ (der mude tod and Fritz Lang 1921)
‘Nosferatu the vampire’ (Friedrich Murnau 1922)
‘Dr mabuse the gambler’ (Fritz Lang 1922)
‘Die nebelungen’ (Fritz Lang 1924)
‘Faust’ (Friedrich murnau1926)
Nosferatu is an adaptation of Bram stokers Dracula and emanated from Caligari. It is said to have the most poignant and overwhelming images in German cinema. Murnau was called the greatest film director the Germans have ever known. The views of the small town and castle featured in the film were filmed on location and this was said to be far from the usual practice in German films at this time. This leads to the debate over whether Nosferatu should be classed as expressionist. However, some have praised Murnau for his original use of creating “expressionist stylisation without artifice”. As in Caligari, sharp and jagged angles were used to create a sinister appearance on the set of Nosferatu. The hills were dark and the forests were thick, reflecting the use of German expressionism.
In Caligari the doctor and Cesare were often slant up in a shot and deliberately out of focus. There is one scene in Caligari where the doctor approaches the camera from a distance until his face fills the shot. Murnau used some of wiene’s techniques and created atmosphere of horror by the forward movement of actors towards the camera. The vampire approaches the camera with immense slowness moving from the extreme depth of one shot towards another until he suddenly becomes enormous. Almost every shot in Nosferatu is diagonally composed. For example, the arrival of the carriage carrying hutter near orloks castle or the scenes of orlok carrying the coffin to his new domicile. A diagonal shot helped to create a feeling of distortion and is a well-known trait of expressionism.
In Caligari lens masks of different shapes were used to help create the setting. In Nosferatu, again, the shadows are of importance. Bare white trees are set against a black background created by Murnau by use of negative film. In the sailing vessel when all the sailors are dead the empty hammock of a dead sailor continues to gently sway and we also see the reflection of a swinging suspended lamp in the deserted captain’s cabin. Expressionist wanted to deal with themes through an emotional reality rather than just making a literal translation of the text. This comes across in both Caligari and Nosferatu through the exaggerated performances and over the top acting. This was also a common feature of silent films, as the emotional responses need to reach the audience.
Fritz Lang’s ‘metropolis’ was made after the expressionist movement ended but was still largely influenced by the expressionist style. The dark and heavily shadowed buildings are typical traits of early German expressionism aswel as the way in which the ‘light and fog mingle to produce an atmosphere of weightlessness’. Also, a scene in the catatomb where a ‘crowd of dark faces is contrasted with the white crosses in the background’ and another where Freder witnesses an accident and he frozen into an ‘expressionist diagonal’ represent early expressionism. However, its storyline was unlike the usual expressionist ‘tyrant’ as in the films Caligari and Nosferatu. Dr Caligari was a glorified authoritarian figure who was raving mad. He hypnotized his somnambulist into killing people and Nosferatu drank peoples blood until they died and was eventually killed himself by Nina’s love. Instead of focusing on ‘dreamlike projections of an agitated soul’, metropolis instead revolved around authoritive behaviour and ‘rebellion’ against it. Lang’s scriptwriter, Thea Von Harbou used her creative imagination in ‘Metropolis’ and the result was a film, which “crossed the borders of consciousness without being questioned”
There are three main characters, Joh Frederson, the father who is more concerned with the ‘smooth running of the city than the individuals caught up in it’. Freder Frederson who rebels against his upper class father and joins the workers in the lower city. And Maria who is part of the reason Freder rebelled and also the one who saves the factories from destruction at the end. Cinescapes reviewers called metropolis “the blade runner of its day”. It has been an influence on more recent science fiction films such as blade runner as the scenes of the buildings and towers in ‘metropolis’ were as magnificent in 1927 as they are now. The film consists of ‘wheels within wheels, throbbing pistons and skyscrapers and their transparent fountains of light’. Apparently Lang got his inspiration for these scenes from an earlier trip to America. Europe had not yet seen skyscrapers of this enormous size.
Metropolis is a science fiction film, which takes place in 2026, and is a story of hierarchy, power and the two classes struggling to work together in unity. Aswel as containing elements of early German expressionism it also has moments of expressionist surreal, for example Freders dreams.
“The film works as a criticism of the manipulative capitalist system which both oppresses the people and transforms them into a monstrous destructive power”(Pam cook)
After the Second World War although expressionism was dying out there were still a number of films released that could be identified with expressionism. For example, ‘The Maltese Falcon’ (Huston 1941) and ‘kiss me deadly’ (Aldrich 1955) were both complemented by low-key lighting and unusual and disconcerting camera angles. David lean was one of the major directors to come out of the post-war years and was responsible for numerous popular films through to the 1960’s. These include ‘brief encounter’ (1945), ‘great expectations’ (1946) ‘Oliver twist’ (1948) ‘Hobson’s choice’ (1953) Lawrence of Arabia (1962) and Doctor Zhivago (1965). Brief encounter contained elements of expressionist style with its use of canted camera angles and images reflected in windows. Carol reed also became well known in the late 1940’s through films such as ‘the odd man out’ (1947) and ‘the third man’ (1949), both of which also contained elements of expressionism. Powell and Pressburger used expressionist techniques in their films ‘black narcissus’ (1947) and ‘the red shoes’ (1949)
German expressionism was incorporated into a Hollywood style of lighting in the 1950’s and 60’s. This became known as ‘Film noir’, meaning ‘black film’. It is notoriously dark, seedy and displays ‘nightmarish qualities’. Those characteristics similar to German expressionism. The sets are usually dimly lit and musty. The characters reflect the dark mood of the setting and their face is half shadowed and their eyes are in darkness. Film noir was mainly used in detective and thriller genres and was characterised by a world of threat and danger. Also, one where the characters motivations were hidden from one another, and by implication from the viewer. Lighting effects usually appear to be ‘motivated’ in that they come from sources such as table lamps in the shot.
Following this was ‘tech noir’. This was found in more recent Hollywood films such as ‘blade runner’ (1982/1992) and involved self-conscious use of expressionist sets. Also the technique used for lighting in the ‘Batman’ films tells us that the indirect influence of German expressionism has been vast.
In conclusion, German expressionist cinema was popular during 1919 to 1933 and during this time some successful films have been released. After world war one German films built a reputation of exposing the ‘fantastic, the mysterious, the macabre and strangling terror of the dark’.
“Expressionist as a national movement died out around 1924, though expressionist tendencies can be found in later German films” (Pam cook)
Films such as, ‘Metropolis’ (1927), ‘M’ (1931) and ‘Kameradschaft’ (1931) were influenced by the expressionist movement after it had faded. It is not only European films, which have been influenced by German expressionism. But also Hollywood cinema where it has taken the form of ‘film noir’ and is still affecting films made today, such as ‘pulp fiction’.