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German Expressionism

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

German Expressionism consisted of a number of related creative movements in Germany before the First World War that reached a peak in Berlin during the 1920s. These developments in Germany were part of a larger Expressionist movement in north and central European culture in fields such as architecture, dance, painting, sculpture, as well as cinema. This article deals primarily with developments in German Expressionist cinema before and immediately after World War I.

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  • ✪ German Expressionism: Crash Course Film History #7
  • ✪ Expressionist Theater: Crash Course Theater #38
  • ✪ What is Expressionism? Art Movements & Styles
  • ✪ The Legacy of German Expressionism
  • ✪ Degenerate Art - 1993, The Nazis vs. Expressionism

Transcription

The earliest days of film were possibly when cinema was its most global as a medium. There was no synchronous sound, so filmmakers had to tell their stories visually – with tools like framing, shot size, and editing – instead of with spoken dialogue. Because of this, films could be understood across cultures: Someone throws a punch at the camera, and you flinch, whether you speak English or Russian... or Eagle. So far, we’ve been focusing a lot on France and the United States, where many advances in film technology, storytelling, and commerce were born. But the rest of the world wasn’t very far behind. Europe had a vibrant film culture leading right up to 1914, and the outbreak of World War I, which profoundly changed world history - as world wars tend to do - and left an impact on cinema that’s still felt to this day. German film, especially, became stranger and darker, as filmmakers attempted to disorient the audience and immerse us in the heads of their main characters. It’s time to delve into the psychological depths of German Expressionism. [OPENING MUSIC PLAYS] When you think of World War I, you might think of trench warfare, chemical weapons, or a war that began with an assassin’s bullet. But the war’s effect on the burgeoning global film industry – as well as its political and psychological influence on emerging filmmakers – was deep and powerful. In countries like France, Italy, and the U.K., World War I brought feature film production to a near-standstill, because the infrastructure and facilities were destroyed, or because the filmmakers and their equipment were conscripted into the war effort. You see, film was used to bring images of battle and its aftermath to audiences far from the front lines. The two national film industries most affected by World War I were those of Germany and Russia. For now, let’s focus on Germany. We’ll get to Russia next time. Prior to the war, German films fell firmly within our idea of a “cinema of attractions” – they were spectacles designed for entertainment. Like me. As film became a more sophisticated medium, many German filmmakers took a page from the French “film d’art” movement. They began thinking more about the craft of narrative filmmaking, telling more complex stories rooted in specific characters’ experiences. Sounds boring to me. Where are the explosions, am I right? And they called this kind of film Autorenfilm, or “famous author’s film.” In 1913, director Stellan Rye made a film called Der Student von Prag, or The Student from Prague, that finally unshackled German film from theatrical staging – the Proscenium arch approach we talked about before. This freed the camera to enter a scene and join the action, rather than sitting back to observe. By the mid-1910s, the German government realized that its film industry wasn’t at the same level as that of the United States, France, Italy, or England. Combine that with the country’s struggles with pre-war depression and anti-government propaganda, and you had a recipe for trouble. In 1917, the German military supreme command took control of all the major film studios and production companies and consolidated them under one, enormous, state-sponsored entity called UFA. The idea was to centralize all the film talent, equipment, and facilities in the country, and to focus on nationalist films – a pro-German, pro-government cinema that would help them win the war. Imagine if the U.S. military took over and combined Warner Brothers, Paramount, Disney, Universal, Fox, Sony, Canon Films (Breakin' 2:Electric Boogaloo?) – all the major film studios. And then told them what they could and couldn’t make. That’s a lot of resources, and a lot of power. Now, Germany lost the war… badly. And in the aftermath, Imperial rule ended and a national assembly in the city of Weimar gave birth to a new republican government. This era in German history – which we call the Weimar Period – was marked by hyperinflation, political extremism, violence, and deeply troubled relationships with the countries that had won the war. But Germany was left with a huge infrastructure for film production and distribution that actually grew during the war, while the rest of the economy went into a free fall. Meanwhile, the rest of Europe’s filmmaking capacity had been all but decimated. So by 1920, Germany had the only film industry in the world able to compete with Hollywood. The first post-war films made by UFA were beautiful costume dramas, or “Kostumfilme.” -- Aptly Named. Their aim was to compete with the popular, large-scale historical spectacles made by Italy before the war, to entertain and distract audiences from the devastated economy. A filmmaker named Ernst Lubitsch became the acknowledged master of the Kostumfilme, known for his huge crowd scenes and mastery of artificial lighting. Hopefully known for his costumes, too. I would think. I mean, it's a Kostumfilme. You better have costumes. His first big international hit was Madame DuBarry, also known as Passion, made in 1919. And in just over a decade, he would become the first high-profile German director to emigrate to Hollywood to escape the rise of Nazi rule. Now, with UFA sucking up all the filmmaking oxygen in Germany, there wasn’t much room for independent production companies. And yet a few persisted. One of them, called Decla, knew they couldn’t compete with UFA in terms of scale or resources. They were even hamstrung by the rationing of electricity, which limited the lighting they could use. So the producers knew they had to do something different to get people’s attention – and they did. Their breakout film would reshape the German film style, and eventually influence the look and tone of Hollywood genre movies. It was called The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. This little studio, made a movie that changed the face of cinema! Written by Hans Janowitz and Carl Mayer, this film was thematically based on their experiences as soldiers in World War I and their distrust of authoritarian leadership. It tells the story of a young German man who meets a madman doctor whose somnambulist – a kind of sleepwalking zombie – may also be a serial killer, targeting the young man’s best friend and the woman he loves. The story gains a level of complexity at the end when it’s revealed that... Spoiler... get ready. – our hero is an unreliable narrator. He lives in a mental institution and may have made up the entire plot using his fellow inmates and the director of the asylum as models for his characters. Creepy, right? What made the film stand out in 1920, and even today, is its use of mise-en-scène. Mise-en-scène refers to the arrangement of things that appear in front of the camera. All the physical stuff in a shot: the sets, props, costumes, makeup, actors and their blocking, and the lighting. Pretty much everything. And Caligari’s innovation was to use mise-en-scène expressionistically, rather than realistically. That is, instead of making things like the sets, costumes, and props, as realistic as possible, director Robert Weine and his two production designers deliberately distorted everything within the frame. It’s all designed to look deliberately artificial and throw you off balance – from chairs, desks, and doors that are way too tall, to impossibly peaked roofs, and even shafts of moonlight painted across the set. The pale-faced, dark-eyed makeup of the characters, as well as they way they move – particularly the sleepwalking killer Cesare – is meant to be super creepy. This is the heart of German Expressionism, using an exaggerated, distorted mise-en-scène to reflect the inner psychology of the characters. It’s the world’s first taste of highly subjective filmmaking as well – putting us in the mind of an insane main character and making us experience the world as he does. Given its anti-authoritarian themes, exaggerated mise-en-scène, subjective point of view, and twist ending, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is a powerhouse of a story. It made at least four breakthroughs all at once for the history of film. And although Caligari wasn’t an immediate hit, other filmmakers soon began to pick up its techniques. Even UFA started to borrow its style. And, before long, expressionistic mise-en-scène became a hallmark of German cinema in the Weimar Period. Because UFA was the largest film studio in the world at the time, it attracted young filmmakers and technicians from all over Europe – including a 25-year-old Alfred Hitchcock. Then, as Germany took a hard right toward fascism, many German filmmakers fled for London, New York, or Hollywood, taking the techniques of German Expressionism with them. Watch a film noir from the 1930s or a horror film from the 1940s, or even a studio melodrama like Douglas Sirk’s All that Heaven Allows from 1955, and you’ll see the deep influence of German Expressionism. Heck, take another look at David Fincher’s Se7en, and tell me those grisly murder scenes and that ending would exist without Caligari. WHAT'S IN THE BOOOOOOX?!?! Now, another German filmmaker from the Weimar Period we should talk about is Fritz Lang. Lang started as an architect, and, boy, does it show in his work. His films depict grand, epic spaces, and he pays incredibly close attention to the details and structure of his narratives. They feel solid, like you could live in them. He borrowed heavily from Caligari’s use of mise-en-scène to amplify his own rich and morally-complex stories. But his films were less intellectual, and more interested in exploring the visceral emotions of characters. Lang’s masterpiece is the sci-fi epic Metropolis, which combined German Expressionist techniques with his interest in special effects. The film is set in a futuristic society, in which the wealthy live in luxury high above the toiling masses. It’s a love story between the son of the ruler of this society, and a poor worker from down below – which, y’know, is par for the course in dystopian stories. Metropolis was a precursor to everything from Blade Runner to The Hunger Games, but it was also a huge financial failure at the time. It took decades before it was hailed as a dark and sinister classic. Now, no discussion of German Expressionism is complete without mentioning the other major director of the time: F.W. Murnau. Murnau was an art historian before he was a filmmaker, and wanted to make a film of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, but couldn’t afford the rights to the book. So he just… fudged it a bit. He changed some of the names, rearranged some locations, and made his own version of the same story in 1922, called Nosferatu. He was heavily inspired by Caligari, but instead of building exaggerated sets, Murnau focused more on lighting, staging, special effects, and makeup to get at the characters’ inner psychology. Murnau would eventually turn his attention to Kammerspielfilm, or the “Intimate Theater” film tradition, which tried to depict the oppressiveness of middle class life in contemporary Germany. He remained as experimental as ever, particularly with camera movement. His 1924 film The Last Laugh, for instance, is a masterclass in what Murnau called the “unchained camera.” From pans and tilts to dolly and crane shots, his camera never stops moving, in an attempt to make us feel what his characters are feeling. Can you move our camera around for the rest of the video, Nick? Nick: No. That... that's fine. That same year, the United States and its European allies implemented the Dawes Plan, to try and help Germany pay for the extensive damage it caused during the war. So the extra aid from the Dawes Plan was good for the German economy overall, but it was a gut punch to the film industry. Among other things, it strangled exports, meaning that German films had a much harder time finding distribution outside of the country. That in turn made it harder for production companies to get loans from the banks, so many independent companies ended up declaring bankruptcy between 1924 and 1925. American film studios saw the chance to take out their greatest rivals, and flooded Germany with Hollywood films. Germany’s days as a leader in global cinema were over. That said, German cinema of the Weimar period has had a profound and long-lasting influence on film history, like few other movements have. From The Silence of the Lambs to Don’t Breathe to anything M. Night Shyamalan has ever put on film, the techniques of German Expressionism are creeping us out to this very day. Today we talked about how the political climate during and after World War I influenced filmmakers across the world and the German film industry. We learned about styles and techniques that emerged from this post-war society, like German Expressionism’s exaggerated mise-en-scène and Murnau’s “unchained camera”. And we looked at how filmmakers like Weine, Lubitsch, and Lang taught the world to use these tools of cinema to bring audiences more directly into the minds of characters. Next time, we’ll witness how the Russian Revolution incited a lot of filmmaking study and innovation too – especially in editing – and delve into the theory of Soviet Montage. Crash Course Film History is produced in association with PBS Digital Studios. You can head over to their channel to check out a playlist of their latest amazing shows, like Coma Niddy, Reactions, and Deep Look. This episode of Crash Course was filmed in the Doctor Cheryl C. Kinney Studio with the help of all these unchained cameras and our amazing graphics team, is Thought Cafe.

Contents

History

Mary Wigman, pioneer of Expressionist dance (left)
Mary Wigman, pioneer of Expressionist dance (left)

1910s–1930s

Still from the 1920 film The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari
Still from the 1920 film The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari

Among the first Expressionist films, The Student of Prague[1] (1913), The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), From Morn to Midnight (1920), The Golem: How He Came into the World[1] (1920), Destiny (1922), Nosferatu[1] (1922), Phantom (1922), Schatten (1923), and The Last Laugh (1924) were highly symbolic and stylized.

The German Expressionist movement was initially confined to Germany due to the isolation the country experienced during World War I. In 1916, the government had banned foreign films. The demand from theaters to generate films led to an increase in domestic film production from 24 films in 1914 to 130 films in 1918. With inflation also on the rise, Germans were attending films more freely because they knew that their money's value was constantly diminishing.[2]

Besides the films' popularity within Germany, by 1922 the international audience had begun to appreciate German cinema, in part due to a decreasing anti-German sentiment following the end of World War I. By the time the 1916 ban on imports was lifted, Germany had become a part of the international film industry.[2]

Various European cultures of the 1920s embraced an ethic of change and a willingness to look to the future by experimenting with bold, new ideas and artistic styles. The first Expressionist films made up for a lack of lavish budgets by using set designs with wildly non-realistic, geometrically absurd angles, along with designs painted on walls and floors to represent lights, shadows, and objects. The plots and stories of the Expressionist films often dealt with madness, insanity, betrayal and other "intellectual" topics triggered by the experiences of World War I (as opposed to standard action-adventure and romantic films). Later films often categorized as part of the brief history of German Expressionism include Metropolis (1927) and M (1931), both directed by Fritz Lang. This trend was a direct reaction against realism. Its practitioners used extreme distortions in expression to show an inner emotional reality rather than what was on the surface.[3]

The extreme anti-realism of Expressionism was short-lived, fading away after only a few years. However, the themes of Expressionism were integrated into later films of the 1920s and 1930s, resulting in an artistic control over the placement of scenery, light, etc. to enhance the mood of a film. This dark, moody school of film making was brought to the United States when the Nazis gained power and a number of German filmmakers emigrated to Hollywood. These German directors found U.S. movie studios willing to embrace them, and several German directors and cameramen flourished there, producing a repertoire of Hollywood films that had a profound effect on film as a whole.[4] Nazi film theorist Fritz Hippler, though, was a supporter of expressionism. Two further films produced in Nazi Germany using the expressionist style were “Das Stahltier” (The Animal of Steel) in 1935 by Willy Zielke and “Michelangelo. Das Leben eines Titanen” (Michelangelo. The Life of a Titan) in 1940 by Curt Oertel.[5]

Two genres that were especially influenced by Expressionism are horror film and film noir. Carl Laemmle and Universal Studios had made a name for themselves by producing such famous horror films of the silent era as Lon Chaney's The Phantom of the Opera. German filmmakers such as Karl Freund (the cinematographer for Dracula in 1931) set the style and mood of the Universal monster movies of the 1930s with their dark and artistically designed sets, providing a model for later generations of horror films. Directors such as Fritz Lang, Billy Wilder, Otto Preminger, Alfred Hitchcock, Orson Welles, Carol Reed and Michael Curtiz introduced the Expressionist style to crime dramas of the 1940s, expanding Expressionism's influence on modern filmmaking.

Influence and legacy

The German silent cinema was arguably far ahead of Hollywood during the same period.[6] The cinema outside Germany benefited both from the emigration of German film makers and from German expressionist developments in style and technique that were apparent on the screen. The new look and techniques impressed other contemporary film makers, artists and cinematographers, and they began to incorporate the new style into their work.

In 1924, Alfred Hitchcock was sent by Gainsborough Pictures to work as an assistant director and art director at the UFA Babelsberg Studios in Berlin on the film The Blackguard.[7] The immediate effect of the working environment in Germany can be seen in his expressionistic set designs for that film. Hitchcock later said, "I...acquired a strong German influence by working at the UFA studios [in] Berlin".[6]

German Expressionism would continue to influence Hitchcock throughout his career. In his third film, The Lodger, Hitchcock introduced expressionist set designs, lighting techniques, and trick camera work to the British public against the wishes of his studio. His visual experimentation included the use of an image of a man walking across a glass floor shot from below, a concept representing someone pacing upstairs.[6] This influence continued through the highly successful movie Psycho in 1960, wherein Norman Bates' blurred image, seen through a shower curtain, is reminiscent of Nosferatu shown through his shadow. Hitchcock's film-making in turn influenced many other film makers, and so has been one of the vehicles that propelled the continued use of German expressionist techniques, albeit less frequently.

Werner Herzog's 1979 film Nosferatu: Phantom der Nacht was a tribute to F. W. Murnau's 1922 film. The film uses expressionist techniques of highly symbolic acting and symbolic events to tell its story.[8] The 1998 film Dark City used stark contrast, rigid movements, and fantastic elements.[9][10]

Stylistic elements taken from German Expressionism are common today in films that need not reference contemporary realism, such as science fiction films (for example, Ridley Scott's 1982 film Blade Runner, which was itself influenced by Metropolis).[11] Woody Allen's 1991 film Shadows and Fog is an homage to German Expressionist filmmakers Fritz Lang, Georg Wilhelm Pabst and F. W. Murnau.[12]

Ambitious adaptations of the style are depicted throughout the contemporary filmography of director Tim Burton. His 1992 film Batman Returns is often cited as a modern attempt to capture the essence of German expressionism. The angular building designs and severe-looking city squares of Gotham City evoke the loom and menace present in Lang's Metropolis. Burton's expressionistic influences are most apparent in the fairy-tale suburban landscape of Edward Scissorhands. The appearance of the titular Edward Scissorhands (not accidentally) reflects Caligari's somnambulist servant. Burton casts unease in his candy-colored suburb, and the tension is visually unmasked through Edward and his Gothic castle, a last holdout from the past at the end of a suburban street. Burton subverts the Caligari nightmare with an inspired narrative, casting Edward, the outsider, as the hero, and the villagers as the villains.[citation needed] Similarly, Dr. Caligari was the inspiration for the grotesque, bird-like appearance of the Penguin in Burton's 1992 film Batman Returns.[citation needed] The familiar look of Caligari's main character can also be seen in the movie The Crow. With the tight, black outfit, white make-up and darkened eyes, Brandon Lee's character is a close relative to both Cesare, and to Burton's film Edward Scissorhands.[citation needed] Burton was also reportedly influenced by silent films and German Expressionism for his film adaptation of the musical Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, describing the musical as a "silent film with music".[citation needed]

Cinema and architecture

Many critics see a direct tie between cinema and architecture of the time, stating that the sets and scene artwork of Expressionist films often reveal buildings of sharp angles, great heights, and crowded environments, such as the frequently shown Tower of Babel in Fritz Lang's Metropolis.[13]

Strong elements of monumentalism and modernism appear throughout the canon of German Expressionism. An excellent example of this is Metropolis, as evidenced by the enormous power plant and glimpses of the massive yet pristine "upper" city.

German Expressionist painters rejected the naturalistic depiction of objective reality, often portraying distorted figures, buildings, and landscapes in a disorienting manner that disregarded the conventions of perspective and proportion. This approach, combined with jagged, stylized shapes and harsh, unnatural colors, were used to convey subjective emotions.

A number of artists and craftsmen working in the Berlin theater brought the Expressionist visual style to the design of stage sets. This, in turn, had an eventual influence on films dealing with fantasy and horror.

The prime example is Robert Wiene's dream-like film The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) which is universally recognized as an early classic of Expressionist cinema. Hermann Warm, the film's art director, worked with painters and stage designers Walter Reimann and Walter Röhrig to create fantastic, nightmarish sets with twisted structures and landscapes with sharp-pointed forms and oblique, curving lines. Some of these designs were constructions, others were painted directly onto canvases.

German Expressionist films produced in the Weimar Republic immediately following the First World War not only encapsulate the sociopolitical contexts in which they were created, but also rework the intrinsically modern problems of self-reflexivity, spectacle and identity.

Following the esteemed critiques of Siegfried Kracauer and Lotte Eisner, these films are now viewed as a kind of collective consciousness, so inherently tied are they to their social milieu. Briefly mentioned by J. P. Telotte in his analysis of German film, “German Expressionism: A Cinematic/ Cultural Problem”, expressionism focuses on the “power of spectacles”[14] and offers audiences “a kind of metonymic image of their own situation”.[14]

This film movement paralleled Expressionist painting and theater in rejecting realism. The creators in the Weimar Period sought to convey inner, subjective experience through external, objective means. Their films were characterized by highly stylized sets and acting; they used a new visual style which embodied high contrast and simple editing. The films were shot in studios where they could employ deliberately exaggerated and dramatic lighting and camera angles to emphasize some particular affect – fear, horror, pain. Aspects of Expressionist techniques were later adapted by such directors as Alfred Hitchcock and Orson Welles and were incorporated into many American gangster and horror films.

Some of the major filmmakers of this time were F. W. Murnau, Erich Pommer, and Fritz Lang. The movement ended after the currency stabilized, making it cheaper to buy movies abroad. The UFA financially collapsed and German studios began to deal with Italian studios which led to their influence in style of horror and films noir. The American influence on the film industry would also lead some film makers to continue their career in the US. The UFA's last film was Der blaue Engel (1930), considered a masterpiece of German Expressionism.

Interpretation

Two works about the era are Lotte Eisner's The Haunted Screen and Sigfried Kracauer's From Caligari to Hitler.[15] Kracauer examines German cinema from the Silent/Golden Era and eventually concludes that German films made prior to Hitler's takeover and the rise of the Third Reich all hint at the inevitability of Nazi Germany. For Eisner, German Expressionist cinema is a visual manifestation of Romantic ideals. She closely examines staging, cinematography, acting, scenarios, and other cinematic elements in films by Pabst, Lubitsch, Lang (her obvious favorite), Riefenstahl, Harbou, and Murnau. More recent German Expressionist scholars examine historical elements of German Expressionism, such as inflation/economics, UFA, Erich Pommer, Nordisk, and Hollywood.[16]

See also

References

  1. ^ a b c Roger Manvell. Henrik Galeen - Films as writer:, Other films:. Film Reference. Retrieved 2009-04-23.
  2. ^ a b Thompson, Kristin. Bordwell, David. Film History: An Introduction, Third Edition. McGraw Hill. 2010, p.87
  3. ^ Thompson, Kristin. Bordwell, David. Film History: An Introduction, Third Edition. McGraw Hill. 2010, p.91
  4. ^ Dickos, Andrew (2002). Street with No Name: A History of the Classic Film Noir. Lexington: University of Kentucky Press. ISBN 0-8131-2243-0, pp. 9-34.
  5. ^ Michaela Rethmeier: Die Funktion und Bedeutung Fritz Hipplers für das Filmschaffen im „Dritten Reich“. Page 67 (dissertation, University of Münster, 2006)
  6. ^ a b c "Paul Merton Looks at Alfred Hitchcock", BBC Television 2009, Broadcast- 28th Feb 2009
  7. ^ "Paul Merton Looks at Alfred Hitchcock", BBC Television 2009, Broadcast- 28th Feb 2009 and Wikipedia Alfred Hitchcock page
  8. ^ Nosferatu: The Vampyre. Rotten Tomatoes. Archived from the original on 2009-02-07. Retrieved 2009-04-23. Stark, symbolic cinematography and intensely stylized performances
  9. ^ Don Kornits (1999-06-02). "Alex Proyas - Director, Dark City". eFilmCritic. Retrieved 2007-07-06.
  10. ^ Rob Blackwelder (1998-02-13). "Vision of Strangers Dance in His Head". SPLICEDwire. Retrieved 2007-07-06.
  11. ^ "Blade Runner vs. Metropolis". 2015-04-13. Retrieved 2016-10-03.
  12. ^ Steffen, James. "Shadows and Fog". Turner Classic Movies: Film Article. Retrieved 2017-02-07.
  13. ^ "An Introduction to German Expressionist Films - artnet News". artnet News. 2013-12-26. Retrieved 2017-01-20.
  14. ^ a b Telotte, J.P. “German Expressionism: A Cinematic/ Cultural Problem” in Traditions in World Cinema. (ed. Badley, et al.), 2006, p.21
  15. ^ Kracauer, Siegfried. “Ca bla bkah ligari.” From Caligari to Hitler. Princeton: Princeton U P, [1947] 2004. 61–76.
  16. ^ Eisner, Lotte (2008). The Haunted Screen: Expressionism in the German Cinema and the Influence of Max Reinhardt (1st ed.). University of California Press. ISBN 0520257901.

External links

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