German Expressionism (1913 – 1930)

Nosferatu - German Expressionism

The History of German Expressionism (1913 – 1930)

Politics in 1910 Germany was highly tumultuous. World War I dominated the country, and most of its films were geared towards recruiting soldiers for the war effort, and hardly any films were made, simply for the enjoyment of making films. However, 1918 saw the end of the war, with Germany being defeated and slapped in the face with a treaty that they couldn’t ignore.

Now with the restrictions on what goes in and out of the country, the German film market was rapidly declining, and they needed new ideas to revive their dying industry, and who better to do that than the UFA (Universum Film Aktiengesellschaft – AG for short). With the release of Madam DuBarry, the German film markets began to rise. Of course, as the UFA’s influence began to dominate Germany, smaller companies were becoming less and less independent. One of these companies was Erich Pommer’s Decla (which would become Decla-Bioscop in later years). It was this small company that created the early German Expressionist film, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.

The writers of the film, Carl Mayer and Hans Janowitz, wanted a highly stylised film and so with the help of the three designers they brought onto the scene, Hermann Warm, Walter Reimann and Walter Röhrig, they incorporated the artistic style of German Expressionism. It had been an avant-garde movement in the art world, eventually moving on to theatre, literature and architecture, and because Film was becoming a major hit around the world, Mayer, Janowitz and their three “amigos” decided to see if this artistic style could be just as big as the industry itself.

Needless to say, it did, and the film itself became a major hit in the international market, eventually winning over Europe and causing a storm in the USA, despite the heavy tariffs and prejudice against the German film industry. However, the film’s release did not go uncontested. As David Puttnam (1997) claims, “[For Americans] Germany was depicted as a society riddled by class hatred, in which the sexual immorality of its citizens manifested itself in a voyeuristic enjoyment of ‘horror and suffering on the screen’”.

His statement is arguably true. If we look closely at The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, towards the end of the film, Francis, the protagonist, proposes to his fiancé, Jane, but she declines, claiming that she can only marry royalty. It’s a somewhat overt example of this claim and it does run parallel with the protectionist attitude the USA had for its own film industry. However, nothing could stop the movement and eventually, America had to accept the fact that Germany was soon becoming as popular as they were. It is also believed that German Romanticism influenced this Expressionist moment, which itself pulled from the country’s folkloric traditions.

For several years, in the early 1920s, German Expressionism dominated the international market, but as soon as the German economy was stabilised, in 1924, the movement all but disappeared. German saw an influx of foreign films and failed in exporting their own homemade productions, and in 1927, the German Expressionist movement was disappearing as a major player in film markets. What did manage to remain was the influence the movement had on filmmakers all around the world.

The Departure from Germany to America

With the rise of the Nazi regime, it’s no wonder that many Expressionist artists, including those in the film industry, fled to America, and although their styles died as a means to create a film, key elements of the movement lived on. In fact, these elements inspired many other American filmmakers and gave rise to many other genres, which might not have existed without the styles of German Expressionism.

So, although the movement died in 1927, the film style never really did, and even though it has been diluted by many other film movements and styles, it isn’t too hard to find the quirky and eccentric elements of German Expressionism in today’s films. The distorted shapes and use of high contrasts are the most common ways that can help distinguish if a film is inspired by German Expressionism or not.

German Expressionism & Genre Films

This movement proved to be incredibly influential to both the horror and film noir genres. The horror genre wouldn’t have become a major player in the film industry if it weren’t for the influence of German Expressionism.

One of cinema’s most famous directors, Alfred Hitchcock, likely wouldn’t have made his most famous masterpieces, if it weren’t for the German Expressionist movement. Films like Psycho or I Confess were heavily influenced by German Expressionism and it is rather evident in the way the films are lighted. The high contrast and the eerie use of shadow figures all hark to the strange shapes and distorted sets of the old German Expressionist films.

Not only did German Expressionism inspire the classic horror films, but it also inspired other genres like film noir, and would go on to inspire thrillers and other fantasy related films. For example, in the modern day, Tim Burton’s gothic styled films can be considered to be inspired by German Expressionism, since films like Batman Returns and Sleepy Hollow all have some elements of the distorted shapes that defined German Expressionist films.

Key Films

  • The Student of Prague (1913)
  • The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919)
  • The Golem (1920)
  • Nosferatu (1922)
  • Metropolis (1927)

The Influence of German Expressionism on Art & Culture

German Expressionism, with its distinctive visual style and psychological depth, has transcended borders and influenced creative endeavours across the globe. From the silver screen to the canvases of modern artists, its influence has been a catalyst for new forms of artistic expression. Let’s delve into the enigmatic legacy of German Expressionism and uncover its far-reaching impact on creative minds worldwide.

Influence on Cinema

German Expressionism was a reaction against the conventional norms of society. It sought to convey emotions, psychological states, and societal critiques through exaggerated and distorted visuals. Iconic elements like angular shapes, dramatic lighting, and stark contrasts between light and shadow defined this visual language. The influential films The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Nosferatu exemplified this unique style, setting the stage for a revolution in cinematic storytelling.

The impact of German Expressionism on cinema is immeasurable. Its influence can be seen in various genres and eras, with filmmakers adopting its techniques to enhance storytelling. The interplay of light and shadow, known as chiaroscuro lighting, became a hallmark of film noir in the United States during the 1940s and 1950s. The visually stunning and emotionally charged scenes of Expressionist films inspired directors like Alfred Hitchcock, Tim Burton, and Guillermo del Toro. The lasting visual impact is evident in the dystopian aesthetics of Blade Runner and the gothic fantasy of Edward Scissorhands.

Artistic Movements and Architecture

Beyond cinema, the influence of German Expressionism seeped into various artistic realms. Painters and visual artists drew inspiration from its distorted perspectives and emotional intensity. This influence resonated with the Surrealist movement, where dreams and the subconscious were explored in a visually provocative manner. Architecturally, the movement’s emphasis on stark angles and unconventional forms can be seen in iconic structures around the world, from New York’s iconic Chrysler Building to Tel Aviv’s White City.

Literature and Theatre

The impact of German Expressionism extended to literature and theatre, breathing new life into storytelling. The psychological depth and fragmented narratives found in Expressionist plays resonated with playwrights like Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller. In literature, the works of Franz Kafka and Hermann Hesse reflected the movement’s exploration of the human psyche and societal alienation, captivating readers worldwide.

Music and Dance

Even the realms of music and dance felt the influence of German Expressionism. Composers like Arnold Schoenberg embraced dissonance and unconventional harmonies, reflecting the movement’s departure from established norms. In dance, Expressionism inspired choreographers to explore the human form’s emotional and physical capabilities, paving the way for contemporary dance forms that prioritise self-expression.

Legacy in Modern Times

German Expressionism’s legacy remains vibrant in today’s creative landscape. Filmmakers, artists, and creators continue to draw from its visual vocabulary to convey emotions, challenge norms, and explore the human experience. Its impact on pop culture, from album covers to graphic novels, is a testament to its enduring relevance.

The influence of German Expressionism transcends time and borders, reshaping artistic expression across various mediums. Its striking visuals, emotional intensity, and unorthodox approaches to storytelling continue to captivate and inspire creative minds worldwide. From the shadowy streets of film noir to the surreal landscapes of modern art, the enigmatic legacy of German Expressionism remains a testament to the power of artistic innovation to transcend cultures and leave an indelible mark on the world.

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