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Can cinema provide coded references to the ‘soul of society’?

German Expressionist Cinema in the 1920’s

Robert Wiene, Stills for The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919). Gelatin silver print, sold at Christie’s New York.

In a 1920’s Germany where the wind of defeat blows freely, beautifully equipped film studios, unrivalled in Europe, are being built. The triumphs of great Italian films assembly were still recent, and the funders suggested such models to directors. The film directing industry made Germany, declining Italy’s successor. There were useful lessons drawn from the great stage director Max Reinhardt's colossal scenes, which revolutionized theatre before the war. His student, Ernst Lubitsch brought on the screen one of his greatest successes: the oriental pantomime Sumurum. At that time, in order to detach themselves from the Italians emphasis, the authors adopt the style of small histories, in which wars and revolution are explained and shown through sex scenes and secrets. Lubitsch, great saviour of the masses, also knew how to adapt the traditional comedy of German operas for the big screen. Expressionism opposes to the movement born from his current success, being seen as a more original and, specifically, national style.

The outcome of the First World War brought in Germany loss of land and people. Insanity, dehumanization, death and decay of the society caused pain to the population. However, spreading from the ashes of war was the German Expressionist Film Movement which embodied the horror and depression Germans faced every day.

The German Expressionism era in film began prior to WW1 and was primarily influenced by Scandinavian films which frequently used mise-en-scene to convey emotions and psychological states. Front in the war, Germany was isolated from the major films and relayed solely on Scandinavian cinema as inspiration and direction. During this time, Germany’s social circumstance became more apparent: films provided, as Siegfried Kracauer would say, “deep layers of mentality”, linked to the decline of society. (Kracauer, 1947)

With the outcome of war, many people were left with depression and debts. Even though it was a negative measure, German filmmakers wanted to express and visualize the insanity that the country was feeling. Dementia was suggested by strong contrasts, irregular and fantastic sceneries and actors’ exaggerated makeup. Expressionist actors were supposed to move with the same nervous efficiency as the sets.

Two years after the end of the war, came one of the most important films of German Expressionism – The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), directed by Robert Wiene, which became the basis for succeeding German expressionist films, with a plot revolving around murder and insanity. Along with this masterpiece, two other classics were the result of the dehumanization of Germany at the time; F. W. Murnau’s Nosferatu in 1922, with the exaggeration of the world’s depression of the past, dealt with the reality of a vampire in a world oblivious to the supernatural.

The story of Nosferatu is similar to that of Dracula and retains the core characters: Jonathan and Mina Harker. In comparison to Dracula, Orlok does not create other vampires, but kills his victims, causing the townspeople to blame the plague which ravages the city. The movement of the rats, the long coffins full of soil, the Carpathians Castle, the three abandoned houses in the city - all these had more resonance than the unnatural duel between the two lovers. The absurdity of such a couple makes the moral of the story, that "love and light scatter ghosts and fear", to sound unconvincing.

Nosferatu, 1922. (© Film Arts Guild, BFI)

In contrast, Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, 1927, was focused on the degradation of the future and how machines can become so advanced that they look and act like humans.

The spiritual crisis of the era, materialism, dehumanization of the bourgeois world in the big cities, exacerbated industrialism - all these give expressionism an apocalyptic consciousness. From here comes the drama of the spiritual impulse, the feeling of chaos, the anticipated emotion of a universal catastrophe.

The German Expressionist era borrowed and expanded many techniques from Scandinavian cinema. The most notable of these is using mise-en-scene to develop and enhance emotion within the films. For example in Nosferatu, instead of Count Orlok walking up the stairs, the audience views the eerie shadow of the beast stalking his prey. This technique of silhouetting and making evil visibly dark and scary became a staple in horror films.

Secondly, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari used an amazing variety of visual and story-telling techniques. According to Florian Duijsens, the film consistently “rejected these parallel wires with exaggerated buildings in irregular shapes which come as a valuable backdrop for the subtitles”. (Duijsens, 2008)

It was also one of the first films to use a frame story with a main narrative set up for the twist ending of the film. Caligari's type becomes universal as Harpagon or Don Juan. It is the first tragic type created exclusively by the cinema; here occurs a hidden character metamorphosis, reaching to become more of a state of mind at the expense of the being, a surprising mix of cruelty and worry, of fantasy and frenzy.

Additionally, Fritz Lang - dubbed the "Master of Darkness" by the British Film Institute, presents in Metropolis a futuristic dystopia inspired by New York in the early 1920’s.

The German Expressionist megalopolis of the title, a cyber-city of Dis, has its towers where the weakened rich stroll; miles below, caverns are stuffed with slum workers, tending the machinery that keeps Metropolis alive. The political strife hanging over the Weimar Republic also infuses this film, with reactionaries on one side and Communists on the other.”

(Richard von Busack, 2009)

Lang described the buildings in the film as being like a vertical curtain, opalescent and very light, filling the back of the stage, hanging from a sinister sky, in order to dazzle, to diffuse, to hypnotize (Lang, 1924).

Since the debut of Metropolis, many science fiction films have borrowed elements of Lang’s society. As Hitler rose to power, the influence of German films decreased and eventually Hitler denounced the style of filming, and only let the propaganda pieces to be created. Nazi film makers, with their reliance on instincts, were masters in the art of mobilizing the twilight regions of the mind Siegfried Kracauer said in the ‘60s. Unfortunately, it led to another reason for the effectiveness of film propaganda. This caused the diaspora of German filmmakers to flee the country in order to continue making films without the oppression of the dictator. Therefore, Hollywood saw the inclusion of F. W. Murnau and Fritz Lang amongst other German directors which played an influencing role in featured film movements.

Hermann Warm used to say that films must be drawings brought to life (Warm, 1919); this phrase is essential to the aesthetic of Dr. Caligari. Everything here is under a vision of the world that disarticulates the perspective, the stage lighting, contours and architectures. In this deformed universe man risks being discordant as a splash. The décor concept forces actors to step up when they find themselves outside the lines and to awaken when their attitudes are in perfect order. Their acting seems like a pantomime, improved by the stage exploration of the avant-garde. Thus, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari can be seen as a filmed theatre play, where the transition is reduced to a sequence of paintings.

Horror and crime dominated expressionism; the expressive use of light became a mark of German cinema. In order for the camera operators to use all resources of art photography, films were ‘imprisoned’ in a giant luxurious prison belonging to the huge Berlin studios, where scenes shot outdoors would be ‘punished’. German expressionism had a strong element of satire, but at the same time, it had a grotesque characteristic of portraying reality.

Siegfried Kracauer demonstrated that films in the expressionism era alluded to the “soul of society”. Such films are both historical and cultural products because they shape the way in which we perceive the world. They address a lot of the larger issues that the 20th century was struggling with, serving as a reflection of those periods, heavily illustrating the fear and inner struggle of humanity.

German expressionism has continued to be a strong influence for modern directors like Tim Burton. He takes inspiration from German expressionist characters, turning them into a modern narrative: The Penguin physical appearance in Batman Returns is modelled after Dr. Caligari, not to mention that they share many of the same thoughts. The same thing happens with Edward in Edward Scissorhands who resembles Cesare, also from The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari; Count Orlok from Nosferatu can be seen as well in Dark Shadows. All these demonstrate that the expressionism era is still applicable in contemporary films.

The German Expressionism movement was the key to many mise-en-scene elements in horror and science fiction movies that are now taken for granted. While the audio and visuals may be updated, the narratives and techniques of German expressionist films are down in history books as being the ones that laid the foundations for everything from film noir to the horror genre, shaping the current age of cinema.

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© 2020 by Pixie Cosmina.