The Influence of German Expressionism

lastAll artists, be they painters or musicians, have likely been influenced by the work of another. Rarely does one create without purpose; and in the historical realm of filmmaking, the imagery painted across the screen is often indicative of that purpose. There have been a few significant movements in film, each relative to certain sociological changes that not only shook the foundation of normalcy, but changed the way in which people viewed the world. Perhaps the most dominant of those movements rose from the smoldering ashes of World War I, in a style now famously known as German Expressionism.

Following The Great War, Germany’s reputation had been virtually destroyed. The war itself had introduced death in staggering numbers, placing the barbarism of humanity on a geographical stage. The chaotic results of war were the perfect soapbox for an artistic revolution; and though the concept of Expressionism technically existed before the war, it could not be projected into the mainstream until a new breed of filmmaker emerged. This new artist was slightly cynical but greatly interested in voicing an opinion. As Hudson points out, “WWI made life in Germany much, much worse. When Germany was defeated and thrown into economic, political and social chaos, those artists and writers knew precisely where to lay the blame.” Like all cinematic landmarks, German Expressionism has been highlighted, represented, and even fully explained by its most poignant examples. Because World War I had ravaged nations and disrupted so many lives, it also spawned a fascination with the dark and unsettling, the scathing underworld simmering beneath the surface. Once this darkness was translated into film, it became an avenue through which the deepest fears could be approached and examined.

The most commonly accepted benchmark of German Expressionism is 1919’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Director Robert Wiene used stark lighting effects to create an ominous mood; but in addition to the real lighting (which was also used as a means of overcompensation for lackluster sets), Caligari was embellished with strips of painted light, purposely exaggerated as an outward reflection of the contrast between good and evil. The plot is very evocative of the time and involves city rooftops and an insane asylum. The protagonist, Dr. Caligari, hypnotizes his assistant and orders him to kill. One can assume, with some level of accuracy, that the idea of being hypnotized and sent off to kill is wartime symbolism.

Caligari was not alone when it came to using suggestive light patterns. In fact, German Expressionism was largely comprised of metaphors ranging from sharp contrasts to unbalanced sets. F.W. Murnau’s silent 1922 classic Nosferatu (Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens) employed a similar method, purposely overstating the facial expressions and movements of the main characters for effect. It spoke volumes on the warped perceptions of life that had begun to infiltrate the minds of German filmmakers. Martel notes that Nosferatu “paralleled the distortion of object and feature that had become such a familiar trademark of expressionist art” (85). The film was notoriously attacked by Florence Stoker, the widow of Bram Stoker, who claimed her late husband’s masterpiece Dracula had been plagiarized and used as the basis for Nosferatu’s central character, Count Orlok. Nevertheless, Orlok, as a parasitic bat-like monster, was a bit of a leap from Stoker’s Dracula, who was written as an eternal, white-haired, old man. Murnau’s adaptation of Stoker’s novel was not a direct rip-off, but Florence Stoker’s claims sent the production company, Prana Film “to the bankruptcy courts” (Hutchings 19). Prana’s debut film had become its swan song, but the initial stir created by the film was proof positive that Expressionist films were transcending Germany and impacting the world on a larger scale.

While 1920’s The Golem and 1924’s The Last Laugh are also considered prime examples of German Expressionism, Metropolis, a 1927 epic directed by Fritz Lang, still resonates with audiences today. A magnum opus of science-fiction, Metropolis tells the story of a world divided by two very distinct classes, the rich management and the ordinary underground workers (one could interpret this as a government versus its people). Aside from the blatant pessimism, the true appeal of Metropolis came through in its futuristic skyscrapers and robotic armies. It remains a work of genius that even the advent of CGI has failed to equal.

In subsequent decades, German Expressionism was credited with influencing the big-budget movies being churned out in Hollywood. First on the list were the Universal monster franchises like Dracula and Frankenstein, both of which implemented shadowy figures and intimidating backdrops as props. Though 1931’s Dracula set the standard for how the character would be portrayed thereafter (complete with widow’s peak and cape), it is most certainly the spirit of Murnau echoing in the walls of the old castle.

Perhaps the most prominent film movement to pull from German Expressionism is Film Noir. Usually attributed to the 1940s, Film Noir was a series of stylish, cynical films that served to illustrate the subservience of human beings to their individual fates. Like the German filmmakers, noir directors purposely shot their films through grinding teeth, voicing discontent in the wake of yet another World War. Characters in these films were either criminal-minded or victims who were randomly selected by the universe to endure the worst that life has to offer. There was no in-between, it was kill or be killed.

When considering the mentality behind German Expressionism, the filmmakers and the circumstances under which most of their art came to be, it becomes evident that a silent film can speak like no other. The sub-genres that sprouted up in the years following the end of German Expressionism took the concept of film as a statement and continued to pull it across the screen. The artistry of German cinema paved the way for the most significant examples of American filmmaking both before and after World War II. For all its criticism during wartime, Germany is an undeniable part of the cultural diversity that defines us as people.

Hudson, David. “German Expressionism.” GreenCine, n.d. Web, 05 Apr. 2011.
Hutchings, Peter. Dracula. London: I.B. Tauris, 2003. 19. Web. 05 Apr. 2011.
Martel, Gordon. Modern Germany Reconsidered, 1870-1945. London: New York Taylor & Francis Routledge, 1992. Web. 05 Apr. 2011.