Mainly two film genres that were most notably influenced by ‘German Expressionism’ are horror film and film noir.
In this article, I will explain ‘German Expressionism’ and apprise some notable film names that were made influenced by this movement. Let’s go through.
What is German Expressionism
Before knowing about the main topic, you have to know first about German Expressionism.
German expressionism was an early twentieth-century German art movement that emphasized the artist’s inner feelings or ideas over replicating reality. It was formed by several creative movements in Germany before World War I. This art movement reaches culmination in Berlin in 1920. Developments in Germany were part of a larger Expressionist movement in the north and central European culture in fields of architecture, dance, painting, sculpture, as well as cinema. This art movement then transformed into the film movement in 1920.
The movement radically challenged conventional film making at that time. In expressionism, the inner essence of a person or object is squeezed out and made visible. German expressionist filmmakers used visual distortion and hyper-expressive performances to portray the internal turmoil, fear, and aspirations of that era. German expressionism reflects the internal contradictions of 1920. Instead of cinematic realism, expressionist films showcase dramatic, revolutionary interpretations of the human condition.
Full illumination effects, low key light, chiaroscuro lighting, high contrast, Dutch angle, frequent flashbacks, the application of shadows, and the construction of the ghostly film set are the characteristics of horror or noir films which are inspired by the German Expressionist movement. In these films, the camera angle is selected in such a way so that a terrifying and haunting atmosphere can be created.
The industrial movement in the eighteenth century led to the formation of capitalist bourgeois society in Europe and America. As a result, workers, common people, and the lower classes in society continue to be ruled, exploited and tortured. Images of their exploitation began to emerge in painting, fine arts, architecture, and drama.
Expressionism in art developed as a very anti-naturalistic art movement as artists tried to express the anger of the individual in their paintings. Edward Munch and Vincent Van Gogh were among those who led the movement in 1850.
Artists used bright colors, still life, and landscapes to express the inner feelings of the people in their artworks. Some of its effects are also felt in the film. This is why many filmmakers think that there was a faint stream of German expressionism in cinema before the First World War.
Expressionism directly started to practicing in films from 1910. During the silent era of film, expressionism was used in dark-themed stories. Expressionism was first used in German films in 1917. However, it was first used successfully in Robert Wiene’s film ‘The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari’ in 1920.
World War I was just over. Post-war Germany people’s common companions were hunger and poverty. In the fragile socio-economic condition of Germany things like violence, sex, fear, wailing, despair started swallowing the whole society. At the same time, the emergence and development of Hitler’s fascism also had an impact. The picture of that insecurity, sexuality, instability, madness, the nightmare comes up in the film ‘The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari’.
Expressionist filmmakers were dedicated at that time. Sometimes to create a terrifying and haunting atmosphere the cameraman tied the camera to his body and went down the stairs — it feels like the camera is walking. The subjective use of the camera began. German film director Murnau first started using trolley shots from mid-long to close up without any cut. The use of track shots, flashbacks, dissolves, and slow-motion also be noticed in this type of film. As films were silent at that time use of sound was not important, rather an emphasis on pictorial presentation was important.
In the expressionist films acting of the characters was also important. In these films, makers have to create an inner world of people. In this building, characters have to be more active to express that inner world. It is not easy to develop if the actor is not active.
Expressionism began to stagnate in 1924. As a result of this recession in the European markets, producers started to shrink. The producers, on the other hand, understand that America is safer for them than Germany in making this film. As a result, most of the creators of expressionism migrated to America. There they started making a new type of thriller film, called ‘Film Noir’. Until 1931, however, elements of expressionism were found in the films of several directors, including Alfred Hitchcock and Orson Wells.
Some Notable Films Influenced by German Expressionism
- The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1921), Directed by Robert Wiene.
- Nosferatu (1922), Directed by F. W. Murnau.
- The Last Laugh (1924), Directed by F. W. Murnau.
- Faust (1926), Directed by F. W. Murnau.
- Metropolis (1927), Directed by Fritz Lang.
- Dr. Mabuse the Gambler (1927), Directed by Fritz Lang.
- Pandora’s Box (1929), Directed by G. W. Pabst.
- Frankenstein (1931), Directed by James Whale.
- The Third Man (1949), Directed by Carol Reed.
- Vertigo (1958), Directed by Alfred Hitchcock.
Few film movements have traveled as far as German Expressionism. Behind the making of today’s horror/ thriller film, there is an identical contribution of German Expressionism. The language of storytelling and filmmaking techniques of these genres’ films are much influenced by this memorable film movement.