While Hollywood was the hotbed of filmmaking, especially in the 1920s and 1930s (when there was the absolute major output of featured film in the history of the American film industry), on the other side of the ocean, Berlin and Germany established themselves as the centre of experimental cinema.
Although the German cinema started at the very end of the 1800s, it really exploded after WWI. Because it was especially prominent between 1920 (when The Cabinet of Dr Caligaris was released) and the rise of the Nazis to power (1933), which is also the span of the Weimar Republic, this is also known as Weimar Cinema.
The Weimar Republic was a mind-blowing – if ill-fated – social and political experiment. It manifested unprecedented freedom of expression for many minorities and for women, it dominated in the arts and the sciences, but it was also plagued by political and economic instability. Among these were the huge war reparations Germany was supposed to pay (which in 1923 led to the hyperinflation) and the rise of a particularly strong totalitarian party destined to take in its hand the fate of the nation… and not just.
The artistic vitality was particularly evident in the film industry, which, if on the one hand, expressed a romantic, even fantastic vain, on the other, explored the essence of modern life. This more modern vein of German cinema explored the growth of cities, postwar social differences, the rise of the European fascism, technological progress and the shift in sexual roles. Avant-garde at its highest.
But it also had to cope with the lack of funds. Unable to afford Hollywood’s huge sets, lavish customs and expensive props, German filmmakers had to find alternative ways to convey atmosphere, mood and emotions. They found their language in Expressionism, which born before the war, saw its highest moment in the interwar years and it was a way to suggest what couldn’t (or wouldn’t) be openly said.
Weimar cinema sought to address contemporary issues. Its themes were a lot darker than Hollywood’s: crime, immorality, social decay and the destructive power of money and technology. WWI had left the German people physically and psychologically wounded and the country in a dire economic situation. Born in the aftermath of the war, these films depicted a decadent nightlife, a previously unseen eroticism and unfettered sexuality – particularly in women, whose sense of freedom was nonetheless undercut by a vein of hopelessness just below the surface. Unrequited and thwarted love, uncontrollable criminal activity and the clash between the classes and the generations were foremost film material. The idea of the urban environment simultaneously threatening and enticing; the figure of the immature man-child fatally incapable of taking control; the emasculated male, the fallen woman were all fair games.
The language of the Expressionist style, characterised by deeply shadowed lighting, distorted perspectives and intentionally artificial sets, was perfect for this message. It wasn’t a direct relay of reality, rather it was a filter, a way to express on screen the messy feelings of a vital but problematic time. Sex morality, depression, veterans ghoulishly mangled by war, the loss of innocence and the complete rejection of the past were the issues the German people dealt with in the postwar period. Films like M explore ethics in a very complex, layered way. Films like Metropolis expose the injustice embedded in a society that accepts that not all people are equal. It was only a matter of time before this kind of cinema attracted the wrong kind of attention from the Nazi government.
Many directors and writers who first made their groundbreaking films in Germany were forced to flee when the Nazi Party rose to power. A great number of them poured to Hollywood, where they could find a job they knew how to do.
And soon, Hollywood realised these German cinematographers who had come from the other side of the world possessed the language to express the rising anxiety American society was experiencing.
The Cabinet of Dr Caligaris (1921) by Robert Wiene
At a carnival in Germany, Francis (Friedrich Feher) and his friend Alan (Rudolf Lettinger) encounter the crazed Dr. Caligari (Werner Krauss). The men see Caligari showing off his somnambulist, Cesare (Conrad Veidt), a hypnotized man who the doctor claims can see into the future. Shockingly, Cesare then predicts Alan’s death, and by morning his chilling prophecy has come true — making Cesare the prime suspect. However, is Cesare guilty, or is the doctor controlling him?
Metropolis (1927) by Fritz Lang
This influential German science-fiction film presents a highly stylized futuristic city where a beautiful and cultured utopia exists above a bleak underworld populated by mistreated workers. When the privileged youth Freder (Gustav Fröhlich) discovers the grim scene under the city, he becomes intent on helping the workers. He befriends the rebellious teacher Maria (Brigitte Helm), but this puts him at odds with his authoritative father (Google synospis)
M (1931) by Fritz Lang
Hans Beckert (Peter Lorre), a serial killer who preys on children, becomes the focus of a massive Berlin police manhunt. Beckert’s heinous crimes are so repellant and disruptive to city life that he is even targeted by others in the seedy underworld network. With both cops and criminals in pursuit, the murderer soon realizes that people are on his trail, sending him into a tense, panicked attempt to escape justice. But when he is finally put to trial, his defence poses unexpected ethic questions. (Google synopsis)
The Modernism Lab at Yale University – German Cinema Between 1920 and 1930
Alpha History – Weimar Cinema
Harvard Film Archive – Decadent Shadows: the Cinema of Weimar Germany
Lacma Unfraimed – Haunted Screens: German Cinema in the 1920s
Mubi – German Expressionism: the world of light and shadow