An Introduction to German Expressionism – Un Certain Regard
This week we’re going to stay within the (very) early European cinema, this time digging into the cinema of Germany, and more precisely the movement of German Expressionism. As we all know, the country had a rough time picking itself up again after World War I, and the economic recession did not help the general state and psyche – if I may say so – of the country to improve. That is something that was really to be seen in arts, and especially in films.
The horrors of the war, the huge human losses and material ones led to the movement of Expressionism; as the money and means were lacking, German directors had to blossom into new means of expression, and for the most part chose to do so by presenting the world and what they saw in a subjective and not objective way, with a heavy emphasize on the mood, ideas, and inner torments of the human being. The emotional therefore always came before the tangible, physical representation of things and conveying a feeling of angst, meaning anxiety, word which takes its roots from the German and some Scandinavian languages. German Expressionist cinema started as early as around 1913, before the First World War, but had its peak in the 1920s and abruptly ended in 1933 when Hitler became Chancellor of Germany – as the Nazi regime apparently were not too keen on that kind of cinema… The films during and after the war therefore resulted in a series of very dark, for some even horrific movies which later inspired new genres such as the horror film and the film noir.
Let us then have a look at four absolute classics of German Expressionism (and good news, as they are old the vast majority of them are in the public domain so you can watch them for free and absolutely legally on the internet !) :
Metropolis (Fritz Lang, 1927): Metropolis is by far one of the most famous Expressionist films. It is a silent, black and white film, and one of the first experimenters of the science-fiction genre. It is a social satire set in the future – in the city of metropolis, 2026 – and tells the struggles of workers and lower classes, living in the “lower” part of city and that are crushed down by the elite being composed of intellectual, wealthy families that live in the upper part of the city, in luxury and idleness. The 3 “acts” of the film highlight the drive to reunite and bring harmony between the social classes, so that they can respect each other while putting an end to such inequalities; plus, a love story brightens up the feature, adding a bit more humanity to this quite dark horizon.
Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari (The Cabinet of Dr Caligari, Robert Wiene, 1920): This is the kind of film that sends shivers down your spine. Again a silent and black & white movie, The Cabinet of Dr Caligari tells the story of a hypnotist using a sleepwalker assistant in order to commit murders on his behalf. The visual aspect of this work is again very striking and contrasts deeply with other genres in cinema, using very dark images, very sharp opposed to oblique lines, and moving landscapes among others. It is actually a brilliant metaphor of society and politics at the time; the doctor is the government, abusing people, and the somnambulist Cesare represents the innocent men compelled to murder, such as the soldiers in the war. This sort of distrust and disdain of authority therefore makes it one of the must-see films from this movement.
Nosferatu (F.W. Murnau, 1922): Nosferatu is actually one of the very first adaptations of the novel Dracula, by the Irish writer Bram Stocker, except that it is an unauthorized one. The studio producing the film did not get the rights to adapt the novel on screen, hence the different title – literally meaning vampire – and the Count Dracula who becomes Count Orlok. Despire Stocker’s wife and descendants suing Murnau and the film, the latter managed to survive thanks to a few copies being saved. The plot is relatively similar to the novel, with a young clerk visiting a count in Transylvania to sell him an estate and later discovers his true nature; despite his age, Nosferatu continues to frighten its viewers and is still designated nowadays as a masterpiece of horror film and expressionist cinema.
Der Student von Prag (The Prague Student, Hanns Heinz Ewers & Stellan Rye, 1913): Still in black & white, silent and from the horror genre, The Prague Student is often seen as the very first German Expressionist film ever produced, and also the first independent film. It is set in 1820 Prague, and tells the adventures of a wild student and his misfortunes as well as heartaches in the city; plus, the only fact that this is the movie that starts the movement of Expressionism in Germany makes it worth watching.