What is German Expressionism in Film?

After the events of World War 1, Germany became estranged from the rest of the world. Foreign films were prohibited by a vengeful government angry at the rest of the planet. A new cinema movement rose to what is now globally known as German expressionism as a result of that isolation. 

A culture of independence spread across the nation, as Germany looked to make its own products across various industries. This included how filmmakers made movies in Germany.

German expressionism rejected the contemporary ideals of cinema, daring to cross lines dramatically and throw realism out the window. It was drastically different from Western conventions.  

The artistic movement was a reflection of the state of the country in the early 20th century. As the 1916 ban on foreign films kicked in, domestic films flooded the market. By the 1920s, local content had taken over the industry. There were 24 films produced in 1914 and 130 local movies made in 1918 alone. 

Most of these took a rather dark tone to reflect the mood and devastation of the war. Nightmarish imagery became a common aspect, resulting from the people’s uneasiness in the aftermath of WW1. 

In some corners of the interwebs, German expressionism is often branded as “helldunkel.” That loosely translates to hell dark. It speaks to the extent of how dark German expressionist films were that they were likened to the fiery pit synonymous with suffering. 

The popularity of this unique style of cinema was however not restricted to Germany. After the war ended and the rest of the world began to open up once more to the country, the movies were appreciated across international divides. German expressionism cinema did not last though, fading from existence a handful of years after it was born. 

Its perception as a degenerate form of art, political barriers, and also a gradual disinterest in its dark topics contributed to its death. However, the movement did leave a mark on the industry and beyond, influencing even Hollywood movies of the present age with its unique take on lighting strategies, emotive set designs, and other aspects. It has particularly provided a framework to which many modern horrors have looked up for guidance. 

Elements of German Expressionism  

Dark or brutal themes 

Most of the German expressionist films felt like twisted horror movies that reached right into the realms of disturbing nightmares for a plot. They often explored themes of insanity and innate evil, mostly depicting the ugly side of humanity or the paranormal. These stemmed from the cruelty of the war which shaped a dark line of creativity that would haunt cinemas in Germany and beyond. 

A defeated nation plagued by anger and economic devastation found an outlet in a highly expressive form of film that knew no kindness. It instead dealt mostly with matters related to death and cruelty. Many cinema buffs say that German expressionism is one of the motivating forces for the American horror industry and film noir, which kicked into life somewhere about the same time as the movement.

The Cabinet of Dr Caligari

Some of the German Expressionist pioneers were retired soldiers with a first-hand account of the war. They brought the horrors of what they saw on the set. The Cabinet of Dr Caligari, for instance, which pioneered the movement was written by WWI soldiers. 

Both distrustful of the government and those that stood in places of authority, the film takes a swipe at the hierarchy with its themes of mind control, senseless murders, and delusions of insanity. It is devoid of the slightest inclination of joy. 

The storyline sinks deeper and deeper into an ocean of turmoil and melancholy that doesn’t let up. Murder after murder, the film draws from dark themes and explores dictatorial leadership and its brutality. German expressionist films would follow in those footsteps. 

Wild sets with unconventional lines and shapes 

German expressionist sets dared to be different. It’s like the directors read about the conventions of Hollywood filmmaking, then did everything in opposition to those norms. The sets were often chaotic and went against ordinary shapes that highlighted order in the world as if to depict the state of affairs at the time, which were far from calm or normal. 

It made use of mise en cine to make a point.

Titled windows and walls replaced square/rectangular ones, possibly hinting at how the war how turned the country’s normalcy upside down. Everything we know to be straight was represented in slanted fashion. Even grass seemed more threatening as well with their spiky edges, which gave off the impression of sharp blades. Trees had branches that were twisted menacingly to look like tentacles, while rooms were radically distorted.

This anti-realism concept was one of the trademarks of the movement. Crazy diagonals were intentionally made to make audiences uncomfortable by getting them to view the world often from a point of insane or conflicted characters. 

German expressionist films made heavy use of visual metaphors.

Most of these strange designs were achieved by painting in lieu of traditionally constructed sets. The walls were also often painted with strange figures to add to the bizarre and out worldly feel of the mise en scene. 

Set designs were born out of deranged fixations and unconscious fears, replicating mental delusions. Characters sometimes felt too big or small in their dwarfed or exaggerated surroundings. In a nutshell, German expressionism basically went against the realism of not only film but real life as well. 

Deep, long shadows and gothic makeup and costumes 

Most German expressionist films were made to fit the horror narrative. Hence, dramatic shadows were popularly implored to get that compellingly, ominous feel. Character actions, evil deeds especially, were captured by the reflection of shadows on the wall. 

For example, if a character was sneaking up a bedroom to murder an unsuspecting victim in her bed, the action would play in the reflections of their shadows. 

These tactics were used to forebode that a character was about to do something sinister or to just lay the stage for that creepy mood that taunts the psyche. The shadow work was meticulously choreographed to depict unusual figures or to evoke hallucination, disharmony, and mystery. 

Chiaroscuro lighting techniques, where light and darkness are used in visually contrasting fashion, gave these films that lifeless and threatening tone. Strategic light placements and sometimes painting achieved these contrasts.

Gothic makeup also became synonymous with German expressionism. The antagonists especially, wore pale makeup to conceal the emotion on their faces with dark eyeliners making them appear more threatening. They kind of looked like mimes, notable for the absence of primary colors, and basically other vivid shades, in their costumes. 

The dull shades matched the dark themes and set design of these movies, inciting a mental state of extreme emotional stress on audiences. The absence of color also served to create a heavy atmosphere, rife with hopelessness and pessimism. 

A slower pace and bizarre cinematography 

German expressionist films also moved at a much slower pace than typical films, with directors fond of campy narration. In other words, scenes typically played out a lot longer than necessary. You could feel certain chapters drag out to the point of discomfort. 

This campy style meant a slower pace of the storyline, hence the plot was often minimalist and exaggerated. That could be down to the fact that these films were mostly produced independently. With a limited budget to work, directors would stretch scenes to make a movie long enough to meet the expectations of audiences. But campy doesn’t always mean bad. For these films, the stalling built suspense and made the emotional payoff more satisfactory. It also gave the highly expressive sets, which typically had a lot going on, more screen time for better appreciation by viewers.

Like the sets, the cinematography was also far from the standards of normalcy. The rules of cinema were stretched and often broken to match the visual uniqueness of German expressionist sets. 

Camera shots included camera tilts were nigh insane to bring more of the strange lines and shapes into the frame, and also to add to the character’s delusions or state of mind. High angles and unexpected camera positions enhanced the depth of the set and messed with audience psychology.  

Notable directors of German Expressionism 

Robert Wiene 

Born in Silesia, Germany in 1873, Robert Wiene was a prolific German writer and director of the early 20th century. His work in film began in 1913 after graduation from the University of Vienna. Influenced by a father who was a stage actor, his interest in the big screen began at an early age. 

Wiene was fascinated by matters of identity crisis, madness, and crime, and so most of his films revolve around these subjects. He was also passionate about showing the differences between Eastern and Western cultures. Hence his unconventional directing and filmmaking tactics, which were in stark contrast to the norms of filmmaking in the West. Robert Wiene was a maverick and mostly thrived- and enjoyed- dark themes.

He is most notably remembered for his work in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, one of the early expressionist films that provided a blueprint for the genre. 

He brought in a trio of expressionist artists to depict the deteriorating mental state of the narrator, who uses hypnosis to commit murders. Robert’s creativity deeply influenced the local cinema, setting the stage for German expressionism. 

He was among the first to adopt wild set designs where contrasts of light and darkness were shown by paint, at a time when power was significantly rationalized in postwar Germany. Being the focus of Nazi persecution, Wiene sought asylum in France where he lived until his death in 1938. Many also remember him as well for 1924’s expressionist horror The Hands of Orlac.  

Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau 

With an academic background in literature, art history, and philosophy, F.W. Murnau is another huge name from German expressionist cinema. He’s particularly famous for his style of cinematography where he gave audiences a dissection of human emotion through subjective camera placements. 

Murnau honed his directing skills under the tutelage of Max Reinhardt, a talented Austrian-born director of German theater. He worked for him as an assistant and even took on roles on the stage, with the pair’s most significant collaboration being 1911’s silent success, The Miracle. 

Murnau was also part of WWI, where he served in the German airforce. After retirement from the army, he also spent some time in Switzerland where he worked for the German embassy, producing short propaganda movies. 

F.W. Murnau eventually grew into his own, earning a reputation as a prominent director of his time. In terms of German expressionism, he is especially famous for his work in 1922’s vampire horror Nosferatu. 

Cinematographer Fritz Arno was brought on to implement the director’s comprehensive vision for the movie. Murnau bases this dark Dracula adaptation on macabre cinematography, in line with expressionist films of the day.

 Images of black skies against white trees pave way for the strange and bizarre. A cadaverous actor excels in the role and plays a huge part in its success. Director Murnau would go on to make many more films during a sterling career, but Nosferatu was his last contribution to German sci-fi. He relocated to Hollywood, California where he lived until his death in 1931, aged 42. 

Paul Leni 

Paul Leni was born to a Jewish family in Stuttgart on July 8, 1885. Cutting his teeth with avant-garde art during his teenage years, Paul Leni was always a fan of cinema and the unorthodox. He started his career in humble fashion, graduating from the Academy of Fine Arts in Berlin to lower-end roles in the film industry. 

From stints as a theatrical set designer to costume design work and advisory positions, Leni eventually made it to the helm of film production, settling into the director’s seat when World War I was kicking into first gear. His experience in set, props, and costume work, aided by a background in unconventional art, gave rise to a unique style of directing that found a home in expressionist cinema.

His first contribution to German expressionism came in the way of Waxworks, 1924. The movie is about a poet who relives tales, often revolving around tragedy/death, through pieces he works on for a wax museum owner. It was an innovative film that crisscrossed genres at will, thanks to the numerous opportunities provided by the plot. Waxworks is very surreal and expressive and was also quite controversial. Like many German expressionist directors of his time, Paul Leni heeded the call of Hollywood, following greener pastures to the world’s largest film industry. 

At Universal Studios, he worked as a director, finding success with titles such as The Cat and the Canary. His German expressionist perspective influenced many of the studio’s future horror productions, including the “haunted house” franchise. Paul Leni died at 44 of blood poisoning from an untended tooth infection.

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