German Expressionism

German Expressionism

German Expressionism is the term used to refer to a number of related creative movements which emerged in Germany before the first world war which reached a peak in Berlin, during the 1920s. Developments in Germany were part of a larger Expressionist movement in north and central European art and culture.

Developments in many media

Expressionism as a movement spanned across many media to include theater, architecture, music, painting and sculpture. Architecture, in particular, serves as an iconic way to bring the inner emotions of the individual into the public sphere, and therefore is most closely tied to the concepts of German Expressionism.Or|date=September 2007

The German Expressionist movement in painting started from about 1905 with Die Brücke (The Bridge) group in Berlin, and Der Blaue Reiter (The Blue Rider) in Munich from around 1911.

Drama too was part of the Expressionist movement in Germany, with playwrights like Georg Kaiser and Ernst Toller coming under the influence of Frank Wedekind in expanding the range of what could be depicted on stage.

German Expressionist film making (also referred to as "Expressionism in filmmaking") is probably the best known part of the movement. During the period of recovery following World War I, the German film industry was booming, but because of the hard economic times filmmakers found it difficult to create movies that could compare with the lush, extravagant features coming from Hollywood. The filmmakers of the German UFA studio developed their own style by using symbolism and mise en scène to add mood and deeper meaning to a movie.


The first Expressionist films, "" (1920), "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari" (1920), "Destiny" (1921), "Nosferatu" (1922), "Phantom" (1922), "Schatten" (1923), and "The Last Laugh" (1924), were highly symbolic and deliberately surrealistic portrayals of filmed stories.

Expressionist actor Fritz Kortner played in Viennese films and Berlin films. The dada movement was sweeping across the artistic world in the early 1920s, and the various European cultures of the time had 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 sets, 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 (as opposed to standard action-adventure and romantic films); the German name for this type of storytelling was called "Kammerspielfilm" ("chamber film" in English). Later films often categorized as part of the brief history of German Expressionism include "Metropolis" (1927) and "M" (1931), both directed by Fritz Lang.The extreme non-realism of Expressionism was short-lived, and it faded away (along with Dadaism) 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, and shadow to enhance the mood of a film. This dark, moody school of filmmaking was brought to America when the Nazis gained power and a number of German filmmakers emigrated to Hollywood. They found a number of American 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 the medium of film as a whole.Fact|date=February 2007

Two genres that were especially influenced by Expressionism were the "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 emigrees 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, and Michael Curtiz introduced the Expressionist style to crime dramas of the 1940s, influencing a further line of film makers and taking Expressionism through the years.

Recent films influenced by German Expressionism

Werner Herzog's 1979 film "Nosferatu the Vampyre" was a tribute F.W. Murnau's "Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens". The film uses Expressionist techniques of highly symbolic acting and symbolic events to tell its story. [See Rotten Tomatoes article [] ] Notably it links the vampire myth with the black death through the use of black rats.

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". One may even notice the link between the evil character of Max Shreck portrayed by Christopher Walken, and Nosferatu's star, Max Schreck.

Burton's influences are most obvious through his fairy tale suburban landscape in "Edward Scissorhands" . The appearance of the titular Edward Scissorhands none too accidentally reflects the look of "Caligari's" somnambulist servant. Burton casts a kind of unease in his candy-colored suburb, where the tension is visually unmasked through Edward and his gothic castle perched above the houses. Burton subverts the Caligari nightmare with his own narrative branding, casting the garish “somnambulist” as the hero, and the villagers as the villains.

The familiar look of Caligari's main character can also be seen in the movie "The Crow". With the tight, black outfit, white makeup, and darkened eyes, Brandon Lee's character is obviously a close relative to Burton's film "Edward Scissorhands".

Burton was also reportedly influenced by silent films and German Expressionism for his film adaptation of the musical "", he himself described the musical on stage as a "silent film with music."

Other examples

* F. W. Murnau's 1927 Hollywood film ""
* Woody Allen's 1992 film, "Shadows and Fog", is a pastiche of expressionism, taking cues from several films, such as the plot of "M" (1931) and the look of "Nosferatu".
* The 1967 version of the James Bond film "Casino Royale" had an extended sequence set in an 'expressionist' mansion. Being a spoof, it parodied the practicalites of attempting to climb crooked stairs whilst insane.
* The film version of "Sin City" (2005) is also cited as a return to the style. []
* The Red Hot Chili Peppers's video for their song "Otherside" (2000) has elements of the German Expressionist style. It can also be seen in the video "Predictable" from Good Charlotte and Rob Zombie's music video for "Living Dead Girl".
* The rock videos within the movie "Queen of the Damned" by the fictional band "The Vampire Lestat" also share the same German expressionist scenery as "Otherside" and "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari".
* The 2000 "Metz" mixed drink "Judderman" advertisement was expressly filmed in the style of 1920s German cinematic expressionism.
* The film "Dr. Caligari" (1989) Stephen Sayadian. Modern day neo German Expressionism mixed with classic surrealism.
* Thom Yorke has referred to the influence of German Expressionism in the creation of the artwork for his solo work "The Eraser". (

There is also the use of German expressionism in the work of David Lynch, most notably Eraserhead and Lost Highway, both films seemingly bent on insanity created by a lack of being able to cope with adult themes such as fatherhood and infidelity.

Cinema and architecture

Many critics see a direct tie between cinema and architecture of the time, in the sense 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".Fact|date=February 2007

ee also

* 1920s Berlin
* Chiaroscuro
* Expressionism
* Expressionist architecture
* German Expressionism in painting
* German film history
* Kammerspiel
* List of films featuring Berlin


External links

* [ GreenCine primer on German Expressionism]
* [ Online Films]

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