Words: Kate Pinchuck
A Brief History of Film – German Expressionism
The German expressionist movement spanned all art forms, most significantly reaching a climax in the 1920s in Germany, as a reaction to the aftermath of the First World War. Germany, who got a pretty shit deal out of the war, had to pay massive reparations and fell into an economic depression. This socio-political situation was incredibly influential on the art movement, as well as various philosophies of the time, notably those of Sigmund Freud and Frederich Nietzsche. In terms of visual art, the main players were people like Kirschner, Kandinsky and Munch.
Film in Germany had been under fairly strict restrictions during the war, and the film industry boomed with this artistic revolution. Many of the films dealt with human psychology and a fascination with the subconscious, dreams and madness is evident throughout. Visually, the films are easily defined through extravagantly anti-realist sets, often with unusual jagged geometric shapes, and an emphasis on experimentation with light and shadow. The aim of these films was not to present a realistic portrayal of life, but to expose the inner workings of the human mind, represented with these bizarre, dream-like sets and the exaggerated make-up and costumes.
One of the most influential and significant films of the time was Robert Wiene’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920). Often cited as the first horror film, the theatrical set drew attention to its own form, with jagged and abstract shapes, and obviously painted backdrops. The film was one of the first to explore the concept of a frame story and is also hailed as introducing the ‘twist ending’ into cinema. The narrative follows two young men, Francis and Alan, who are competing for the love of a woman, Jane. They visit a carnival near their town, where they watch the performance of a Dr Caligari, a somnambulist (a term usually employed to refer to a sleepwalker, but in this instance refers to someone who can control a suggestible sleepwalker to do their bidding in a trance-like state), and Cesare, his sleep-walker whom Caligari has hypnotic control over. Cesare supposedly has the ability to predict the future and know all secrets. When Alan asks about his death date, Cesare claims it will be that morning at dawn. This prophecy is fulfilled, and a string of murders ensue. Meticulously crafted, it is fascinating to see where the horror genre originated, especially since there is a particular focus on psychological disorders. Definitely worth watching, even if just for the incredible set and manipulation of light.
Another classic from the movement is the 1922 Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror directed by F.W. Murnau. This was the first adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula on film. However, since Murnau was not granted rights to the novel, names were changed. “Vampire” became “nosferatu” and “Count Dracula” changed to “Count Orlok”. Regardless, the studio was still sued by Stoker’s copyright holders and all versions of the film were ordered to be destroyed. Fortunately, one print was saved, allowing us to appreciate Murnau’s incredible adaptation. Although sections are very dated, with the vignettes of happy blonde Germans being somewhat hilarious now, the film itself can still be appreciated as an early masterpiece of cinema. Murnau’s filmmaking style is incredibly precise and pedantic to the point that he used a metronome to control the rhythm of the acting. This delicate rhythm has given us one of the most famous scenes in film, of Count Orlok’s shadow as he slowly ascends the staircase to Thomas’s room, a brilliant exercise in suspense in cinema. The story generally follows that of the novel, with certain deviations. Nosferatu is essential watching to understand this era of film, as it illustrates many of the defining features of German expressionism, stylistically and in terms of content.
If this is floating your boat, other films to check out are:
- F.W. Murnau – The Last Laugh (1924) and Faust (1926)
- Fritz Lang – Metropolis (1927) and M (1931)