At the beginning of the XX century, there spread in Europe – especially among young people – a strong sense that the world needed to change. That change had been held back far too long. In Germany, Expressionism was part of the mobilisation of young intellectuals who refused everything from the past and were bound to sing the praises of modernity: urban life, the fast times, the machines. These artists theorised at the time that Expressionism was universal, that it had always existed since the ancient time. But if we look at it retrospectively, we can see that it was born in a very specific historical moment and received influences from many different aspects of life which emerged before and after the 1910s. These diverse and sometimes contradicting elements that deposited and merged together created the kaleidoscopic image and feel of the movement.
Expressionist artists were against any form of Romanticism. They refused the very concept of inspiration and turned to a more intellectual idea of arts that was also action, political involvement. Similarly, they rejected the idea of bourgeois, which lifestyle they saw as old and stale. They sought to shock that kind of thinking by bending reality, depicting it in a wildly distorted way for emotional effect.
One of the areas of art where German Expressionism was stronger was the film industry.
In the Weimar Republic, entertainment was in high demand, especially in big cities. Berlin was the place to be for any performer and play writer since its theatrical scene was well ahead of many other cities in Germany and abroad. The popularity of the kabaret exploded, an agile form of theatre that allowed the exploration of new themes and techniques and which didn’t take long to appropriate the new expressionistic ideas.
Berlin viewers, as the theatre people, liked experimentation and soon they started to patronise cinemas and demand new featured films. But Germany had been isolated all through the 1910s, first because of the war, then because of the mistrust all nations seem to carry towards her. She found herself unable to import films, especially from Hollywood. The solution was starting to produce her own, drowning ideas, but also actual professionals (actors, directors, light technicians) from the theatre. The active expressionist involvement and experience of Berlin theatre was then transferred to the cinema.
Not all films produced in Germany in the 1920s were Expressionistic, but most of the more interesting and experimental were.
Expressionistic films would use atmospheric lighting, asymmetrical camera angles and highlight many objects and characters with the use of light contrast. That created that sense of non-objectivity and disconnect that was the prime tool of Expressionism in seeking first an emotional, then an intellectual reaction from its audience.
Coming after a catastrophic military defeat and a failed socialist revolution, the emergence of a national cinema of international fame in Germany was unexpected and exceptional. This industry had to fight many enemies, first of all, the shortness of resources. The chronic lack of money, due to the terrible financial situation of Germany (the massive war reparations she was supposed to pay, the hyperinflation) forced many industries, including cinema, to find new, alternative ways to do things. German cinema was a hotbed of innovations in the 1920s, in special effects, set designs, lighting and many other areas. Filmmakers tried to make do with what they had, and Expressionism, which sought to depict reality by disrupting it, proved to be an essential ingredient in this field.
Faust (1926) by F.W. Murnau
the demon Mephisto (Emil Jannings) makes a bet with an archangel that a good man’s soul can be corrupted. Mephisto sets his sights on the thoughtful old alchemist Faust (Gösta Ekman), who is desperately trying to save his village from a plague. He is able to help the villagers, thanks to Mephisto, but further dealings with the devil lead Faust on a decadent downward spiral. Can he redeem his soul before it’s too late?.(Google synopsis)
Nosferatu (1922) by F.W. Murnau
The mysterious Count Orlok (Max Schreck) summons Thomas Hutter (Gustav von Wangenheim) to his remote Transylvanian castle in the mountains. The eerie Orlok seeks to buy a house near Hutter and his wife, Ellen (Greta Schroeder). After Orlok reveals his vampire nature, Hutter struggles to escape the castle, knowing that Ellen is in grave danger. Meanwhile Orlok’s servant, Knock (Alexander Granach), prepares for his master to arrive at his new home. (Google synopsis)
Krutnik, Frank, In a Lonely Street. Routledge, 1991, London/NYC
Paolo Chiarini and Antonella Gargano, La Berlino dell’Espressionismo. Editori Riuniti, Roma, 2001
Cindy Tsutsumi – 1940s America: film Noir
ArtNet News – Art House: An Introduction to German Expressionist Films
Film Inquiry – The Shadow of German Expressionism in Cinema
Cinecollage – Expressionist Films or Weimar Cinema?