Author's Note: As you all may be aware of Screened.com is dead. Screened launch roughly one year after I had become a moderator on Giant Bomb, which continues to humble me. Anyways during the earlier stages of my modship I could afford spending some time actually editing various wiki pages on both Giant Bomb and Screened. Rather than see a lot of that work just disappear I'm re-posting it here for old times sake and for my own benefit. I was but a teenage when I first published many of these text submissions and have combed over them a bit to buff out the rough edges here and there.
An era of early German cinema (roughly 1910 to 1922), which shows the first implementation of a recognizable national cinema. The movement came about largely as a transition from WWI into the interwar years, however it also contains elements form the long term German cultural mindset, especially the literary fascination
Expressionism is the movement in the fine arts that emphasized the expression of one’s inner self and their angst rather than solely being realistic and fanboyish about the world and life. Expressionism was a reaction to impressionism which projected stark and absolute realities. Expressionists sought to reverse this trend in the arts and wished to portray allegorical worlds which were in themselves metaphors for what people were experiencing at the time. Originally a movement in painting and sculpture Expressionism quickly spread to the fledgling movie industry in Europe. A vast majority of film expressionists came from the nation of Germany, hence why the term “German Expressionism” is commonly used to describe this movement in film. However there were numerous Expressionist filmmakers not from Germany.
German Expressionism, painters
Painters are widely considered to have started the movement now known as German Expressionism. Their influences were: Vincent van Gogh, Edvard Munch, and even El Greco. Expressionist painters lead with their emotions, producing subjective interpretations of the world around them. Expressionist painters often created dynamic compositions in vivid or dark colors complimented with broad brush strokes. Kandinsky who was part of a group of painters known as: Der Blaue Reiter said that producing aesthetically pleasing impressions was not as important to him as it was to create powerful emotional reactions. In the world of film many place the start of German Expressionism at the beginning of the 20th century, although the ending for the movement is harder to define. Karl Schmidt-Rottluff who was a very influential member of this movement worked until his death in 1976, whereas Marc Chagall died in 1985. Most consider artists such as Lucien Freud and Hubert Roestenburg part of German Expressionism; with Hubert Roestenburg old but still working and Lucian Michael Freudhaving recently passed away in 2011.
Style and History
When German Expressionism started Germany had just recovered from the consequences and devestations of World War I. Just like their fellow Germans, many German film directors felt disillusioned with reality and the world around them. As a reaction to this these directors created films that with surreal landscapes that were oftentimes warped and distorted. German expressionist directors then toke their disillusionment one step further by having heavy and stark shadows, depressed/dark stories, and corruptible as well as untrustable characters. As many Germans had felt betrayed by their government at the conclusion of World War I many German Expressionist directors projected authority figures as villains to convey the sense that no one could be trusted in the world they were living in. For example, in the movie The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari the main antagonist was a doctor. Further coupled with their mise en scene direction Expressionist directors wanted viewers to look beyond the characters on the screen and examine the world the characters were interacting in.
There were other common motifs with this movement of filmmaking. Movies such as Metropolis conveyed a growing sense of skepticism towards industrialism and the roles that society had placed on its citizens. Other movies projected a sense of persecution that certain ethnic minorities were feeling and witnessing as Germany was trying to recover and rebuild after the Great War. In the movie The Golem: How He Came into the World, a Jewish community feels so persecuted and discriminated against that they create a golem to protect them. This film highlights the growing amount of religious persecution and intolerance many minorities people were facing at the time, especially in Germany. While most German Expressionist films depicted mature and real issues they oftentimes contained fantasy components that allowed the director to over stylize their stories to add greater drama. It was this fantasy component that also freed the director creatively thus giving them free realm to set their story in any time as well as any place.
The End of the Movement and Getting into the USA
Unfortunately, the “Golden Age” of German Expressionism was a short (from ~1920-1933). The reason for this is simple. By the 1930s a certain German dictator had gained complete control of the German government and discredited German Expressionism as a degenerate art and established propaganda as the dominant style of film making in Germany. However this did not mark the end of the road for many Expressionists. As a result of their persecution many expressionist directors left their home nation and found themselves immigrating to a land of glitz and glamor—Hollywood, California. While German silent and sound cinema was arguably far ahead of cinema in Hollywood in terms of cinematography and different in tone and mood, German directors found American movie studios willing to embrace them and find their movie projects. The results of this would shape the backbone of American cinema forever.
Influence on Early American Horror
Hollywood at first saw expressionist directors from Germany as best suited to direct horror movies. That horror genre at the time was just starting to gain popularity in the United States when the first wave of German Expressionists arrived. However, studios like Universal benefitted greatly when it decided to support and publish numerous projects run by German expatriates. Examples of this include Dracula (1931) and The Mummy (1932), by Karl Freund, and The Black Cat (1934), directed by Edgar G. Ulmer, which are now all considered horror film classics. However the number of movies under the direct control of German movie makers was not the full extent of their influence on American horror films. Earlier during the 1920s, when the German movie industry became the forefront of movie making, many American directors visited and learned film making from German institutions and universities.
During German Expressionism's height the German film studio Universum Film AG (UFA), was one of the most significant champions of the movement and the art of film making in the country. There were myriads of foreign staff and directors who worked at and visited the UFA. One of the most important people to have visited UFA would eventually become one of the most important directors of Hollywood— Alfred Hitchcock. Hitchcock was sent to work on the German film The Blackguard. As a result similarities between Hitchock's earlier films and German Expressionism are quite clear. The direction seen in some of Hitcock’s films like Psycho or The Lodger all feature super saturated shadows and zoomed in camera angles which he learned about while studying at the UFA. Hitchcock himself was very open about the importance of German expressionism on his style of film making even going so far as to say that:
"I have acquired a strong German influence by working at the UFA studios [at] Berlin."
However, Hitchcock is only one example of many, but he stands as one of the most notable examples of a Western director learning from German Expressionism and applying it with Western film making techniques.
Creating the Foundation for Film Noir
Film Noir is oftentimes credited as having made Hollywood—Hollywood, and with good reason. Film Noir has proven to be one of the most important movements in American film history having shaped modern film directing forever. Film Noir established the everlasting imprint of American directors such as Orson Welles, who would go on to inspire numerous filmmakers to come. However, this all would not have happened if weren’t for the helping hand of German Expressionism. As it has already been noted German Expressionists came to Hollywood to find greater opportunities in the film industry, and they did. Josef von Sternberg, an Austrian exile would go onto make films such as Shanghai Express (1932) and The Devil Is a Woman (1935). These two pulpy erotic films would help establish the motif of the femme fatale for American directors. Sternberg also proved to be one of the most influential filmmakers for the aforementioned Orson Welles, especially for his magnum opus Citizen Kane which features numerous film techniques and motifs very similar to Sternberg’s earlier works. Techniques such as low camera angles and strategic lighting had all been well known techniques utilized by Sternberg and later adopted by Wells. The character Charles Foster Kane also shares many similarities to the archetypical German Expressionist protagonist. Kane starts out as an "every man," who feels in some way disillusioned by the world around him just like many of the protagonists in German Expressionist works.
Influence on Modern Day Film
Directors today still point to German Expressionism as the source of their inspiration. The two most well-known examples are Tim Burton, Ridley Scott, and Paul Verhoeven. Tim Burton would go onto emulate the German Expressionist vision for many of his early works and continues to create Expressionist world in some of his later films like Sweeney Todd. The most clear cut example would be Burton's film Edward Scissorhands, who is actually a take on the character, Caesar, from The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Ridley Scott would emulate German Expressionism in his epic science fiction movie, Blade Runner. In it we see many of the same themes highlighted in the movie Metropolis and many set pieces that emulate earlier Expressionist works. Paul Verhoeven cited Metropolis as the most important film to him while filming RoboCop, wanting the design of the titular character to be a male version the robot Maria.