German Expressionism in Film: A History
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Published: Tue, 07 Aug 2018
THE RISE AND FALL OF GERMAN EXPRESSIONISM
German Expressionism refers to a number of related creative movements in Germany before the First World War during the 1920s. These developments in Germany were part of a larger Expressionist movement in north and central European art. German Expressionism as a movement spanned many media, including theatre, architecture, music, painting and sculpture. It is an important but sadly overlooked field in the history of art in the twentieth century. It was very complex, different, off-beat and probably the most depressive and emotion exploiting of all art forms. German Expressionism was not just in movies, but also overall generally in drama, stage, theatre, paintings, dance, and many other artistic movements. Popular themes of these include were madness, betrayal, insanity, and other “intellectual” topics (as opposed to standard action-adventure and romantic films), as they appealed to an intellectual fan base.
RISE AND BRIEF HISTORY
During the period of recovery following World War I, the German film industry was booming. However, because of the hard economic times, filmmakers found it difficult to create movies that could compare with the extravagant features coming from Hollywood. The filmmakers of the German Universum Film AG studio, better known as the UFA developed their own style by using symbolism and mise en scène to add mood and deeper meaning to a movie. The first Expressionist films made up for their low budgets by using set designs with wildly non-realistic, geometrically absurd sets, along with designs painted on walls and floors to represent lights, shadows, and objects. In the beginning the term “Expressionism” was used to show that their interpretation of Art was different from other peoples. But eventually the phrase would eventually start to be given to anyone showing a disturbing point of view or showing some mental illnesses in their work according to critics. Basically anything that was different from other movies started to be called Expressionism.
Eventually by the 1920s, German film industry had become very popular in Europe and encouraged film movements across the world to start experimenting with different ideals and emotional states. In fact, the influence crossed the oceans over into America when Hitler came into power, because all the Expressionist actors, directors, producers, went to America.
So this was a very influential movement as well. But the artists involved in Expressionism never concerned themselves with what the term might mean, which is why it continued to evolve and take upon different new meanings until it effectively became an umbrella term. The main idea was always artistic expression. In fact, many expressionists had voluntarily joined the First World War in the hope that it would inspire them and their art and create social change as well. By the end of the Second World War, there were three main schools in Expressionism.
It is no question that German cinema from 1910 to 1940 was far ahead of American cinema and other cinemas in Europe and worldwide. Along with German expressionist films, it was the number of German immigrants to America as well as to other countries, who helped develop film techniques and provide more intellectual strength to film movements.
Some of the more influential films of the movement was Cabinet of Dr.Caligari (1920). That film set the tone for many of the features of the movement. That included evil characters in the plot who usually had madness and obsessions, with the story told from very subjective angles. And instead of high and mighty buildings and artificial lifestyles, it showed dark and gritty urban underworld and lifestyles of people. Areas were structures with angled archways, staircases, windows, connected together in strange ways to create different atmospheres – with shadows being used often.
Other famous films include Nosferatu (1922) which created the horror genre, and Metropolis (1927) which created the science fiction genre. Also, today most films have unconventional plot lines, heroes, and a lot of other things that one can attribute to the German Expressionist movement.
Horror film and film noir were two genres that were especially influenced by Expressionism. Carl Laemmle and Universal Studios had made a name for themselves by producing such famous horror films of the silent era as Lon Chaney’s The Phantom of the Opera. German filmmakers such as Karl Freund (the cinematographer for Dracula in 1931) set the style and mood of the Universal monster movies of the 1930s with their dark and artistically designed sets, providing a model for later generations of horror films. Directors such as Fritz Lang, Billy Wilder, Otto Preminger, Alfred Hitchcock, and Michael Curtiz introduced the Expressionist style to crime dramas of the 1940s, expanding Expressionism’s influence on modern film making.
It was before the Second World War when the downfall of German Expressionism began. When Hitler came in power, he preferred old Greek and Roman style art which showed racial superiority. Expressionists were deemed anti-German and a threat to German culture and racial superiority, and many fled to America where they continued to further develop their art. By this point, Expressionism had went from personal to social to political themes and was now a very diverse genre that would influence Film Noir and New Hollywood in the future.
After the end of inflation in 1924, Weimar reality stabilized and films sought to be realistic, objective, documentary (in accordance with the cool, sober “New Objectivity” in painting, photography, and literature). Also, the introduction of sound after 1928 forced the films to become more “realistic”. But there are a few exceptions including Murnau’s Faust and Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (both 1926) were the last major Expressionist films, both excessive in their production values.
REASONS FOR DOWNFALL
Though the ideas still stand the test of time due to their universal appeal to people of all generations and times, the extreme non-realism of Expressionism was short-lived, fading away after only a few years. However, the themes of Expressionism were integrated into later films of the 1920s and 1930s, resulting in an artistic control over the placement of scenery, light, etc. to enhance the mood of a film. It could be said that the specific movement of German Expressionism died mostly due to politics. Hitler and his Nazi party deemed the expressionists as immoral, people who had destroyed art and culture. They were considered unpatriotic people, and the fact that most Expressionists were Jews made the matters worse.
The ideas of the Expressionists as a result started to spread out farther and farther to other areas instead of Germany during Hitler’s regime and the tone became more and more political in nature. Some of the potential was not fulfilled because of the limitations of
technology at the time. If you compare Science Fiction and Horror of today to German Expressionism you see both the big influence, but also the limitations of German Expressionists. The ideas were great but were just not ready for mass consumption at the time. But from a purely artistic and creative perspective they are timeless just for the same reasons. With limited things they still managed to stretch limits of human imagination with their works.
Notable filmmakers (Lubitsch, Murnau), actors (Jannings, Veidt, Dietrich), cameramen (Karl Freund), were lured to Hollywood. This type of film making was brought to America when the Nazis gained power and a number of German filmmakers emigrated to Hollywood. These German directors found American movie studios willing to embrace their ideas, and several German directors and cameramen flourished there, producing a repertoire of Hollywood films, which had a big impact on film as a whole.
British Alfred Hitchcock was influenced by the Expressionist movement, using their techniques and direct homages in several of his films as well as acknowledging the influence in interviews. Hitchcock’s film making in turn influenced far more film makers and shows the Expressionists overall reach in terms of film influence.
Tim Burton’s dark characteristics in his films are also influenced by German Expressionism. Stylistic elements from German Expressionist films are very common regardless, being seen in everything from Batman movies to films like Shutter Island.
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