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German Expressionism in Film
Transcript of German Expressionism in Film
In the decade following World War I, several films were released that were so visually distinct they brought film into a new era. This style which was primarily known for its dramatic use of mise en scène was ultimately called German Expressionism, which eludes to the Expressionist movement in other realms of art that began before World War I in Germany (The Frame in Two Dimensions: mise en scène in German Expressionism). German Expressionist films are qualified by the use of harsh dark shadows (that were often painted on the sets), diagonal lines, and sets that looked unrealistic. Hermann Warm a set designer from one of the first Expressionist films, Caligari, claimed that "films must be drawings brought to life" (The Frame in Two Dimensions: mise en scène in German Expressionism). This is the basis of Expressionism, that films should express emotion rather than realism (Kolar). With this idea, directors made films appear so distorted they felt like they were from a different universe (Ebiri). It was when the films became different from everyday life that they were considered art.
German Expressionist films were very haunting, portraying terrifying psychological states and troubled dreams rather than the scary stories that Hollywood was producing at that time. The horrific plots and Expressionist sets evoked the emotions of the human soul in search of itself (Cook).
Directors of Expressionist films focused heavily on the mise-en-scène and the composition that the audience would see. Unlike Hollywood, these German films had less emphasis on the story and editing (Kolar). Diagonal lines are very iconic to German Expressionist films, and give the film the more artistic perspective that directors were aiming for.
The set design of German Expressionist films are very iconic. Following the idea that a film becomes art when the film image differs from reality, the sets appeared distorted and made the audience feel like they were watching something taking place in another world (Kolar). This dynamic is part of German Expressionism because it is unrealistic, at which point the film can be considered art. Since German Expressionist directors believed that film is an art and should not portray reality, a set that was visually captivating and different from what the audience was used to seeing was crucial.
Unrealistic Set Example Continued
Another Example of Unrealistic Sets
This example from Fritz Lang's Metropolis (1927), has a very elaborate scene that seems to be an over the top factory, something that an audience would not have seen before. In general, the plot of Metropolis is supposed to take place in the future, so having a set that appears out of this world, was important in creating an effect where the audience would feel like they were looking into the future.
Diagonal Line Example
Another Diagonal Line Example
The picture on the right is from a scene in Pandora’s Box a German film directed by G.W. Pabst in 1929. The frame is composed of many diagonal lines, from the wooden staircase, to the shadows projected from it, to the beam and shadow that appear to almost go through the man standing. Everything that is in the frame is a harsh line, there are virtually no smooth curves.
This image from The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is full of diagonal lines. First, there is the white star like image on the ground that it appears that Caligari is standing on. That incorporates many diagonal lines going across the frame. Also, the lamp and the wall that it is attached to in the righthand corner almost create a distorted effect in which the frame seems less rectangular and more triangular, another tactic of German Expressionism. The edges of the buildings of the set also create diagonal lines that go across the frame. All of these lines attribute to creating the overall mise-en-scène of The Cabinet of Dr.Caligari.
Examples of Harsh Shadows Portraying Disturbed Mental States
The picture on the left is captured from Fritz Lang's German film, M. In the film, someone is murdering children in Berlin. Yet to be caught, a flyer warning of the wanted murderer is posted as seen in the picture. As school is let out on day a young girl, Elsie Beckmann, starts walking home bouncing her ball along the way. Viewers then see the shot of this picture. As Elsie bounces her ball against the poster, the audience sees the shadow of a man, who is assumed to be and is the murderer approach.
The shadow which outlines the murderer also portrays his disturbed mental state. Killing young innocent children, the murderer clearly has psychological issues. These issues are so dark, they become represented by the shadow. The black figure tells the audience his character has a sense of evil.
Nosferatu directed by F. W. Murnau is the unauthorized German adaptation of Bram Stoker's Dracula. Shot in 1921, Murnau used Expressionist styles to create the film. In the picture to the right, Nosferatu (Count Orlok), the vampire, is climbing up the stairs to suck the blood of his prey. In the whole scene the audience never actually sees Count Orlok, only his shadow is present. The shadow, much like the shadow on the poster in M, represents the psychological issues a person would have to have to suck the blood of and kill others.
Examples of Harsh Shadows Portraying Disturbed Mental States Continued
It has been debated by film scholars whether the style of harsh shadows in Expressionist films was used to portray German culture or as way to deal with financial constraints (The Frame in Two Dimensions: mise en scène in German Expressionism). The darkness seen in Expressionist films appears so intense that it makes viewers feel like they are in an unnatural sunless world different from their own, at which point directors would claim the film has become art. These dark shadows and scenes also evoke the viewers emotions, another purpose of Expressionism. Viewers feel the twisted terror that is rooted within the plots. Typically the terror in Expressionist films are not like that of horror films from Hollywood, but instead they are often about troubled psychological states in which human morality is questioned (Cook). Through chiaroscuro lighting which made heavy contrasts between dark and light, German Expressionist films created stimmung, or mood, which expressed the disturbed mental and emotional states of characters that were incorporated into the films (Cook).
The Cabinet of Dr.Caligari (1919)
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919)
The Big Combo (1955)
More known to Americans is the film Dracula, directed by Tod Browning in 1931. The picture on the right depicts an image similar to the one above from Nosferatu. Behind Dracula, we see his dark black shadow which represents the same evil of Nosferatu.
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)
Pandora's Box (1929)
The Cabinet of Dr.Caligari (1920)
The Cabinet of Dr.Caligari (1920)
Here is an example of an Expressionist set. This example comes from Robert Wiene's The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920). The set appears in this frame to look almost like an abstract painting rather than a physical place. With no sense of spacial representation, The audience would not recognize this set as a place from the world they live in.
Other components of German Expressionism
Heavy, dramatic make-up that looked like it was caked on the actors was very typical in Expressionist films. The example on the right is from The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920). Cesare, who was kept in a cabinet and could supposedly answer any question about the future, was zombie-like and the make-up the character wore represented this state. Dark circles under the eyes hint that he had not slept for a long time, which could elude to the mental issues that were often underlying themes in German Expressionist Films.
The Cabinet of Dr.Caligari (1920)
In accordance with the heavy make-up, characters also often wore clothing that was very dramatic and theatrical. This again serves for the purpose that Expressionist films were not supposed to reflect realism.
German Expressionist Films inspired American Directors
German Expressionist films were not limited to German directors, they also inspired directors of multiple American films. The list of German Expressionist inspired American films includes,
Dracula (the 1931 Bela Lugosi version)
The Third Man (1949)
Silence of the Lambs (1991)
Sources other than handouts used:
Kolar. "German Expressionism: The World of Light and Shadow." MUBI. N.p., n.d. Web. 28 Oct. 2013. <http://mubi.com/lists/german-expressionism-the-world-of-light-and-shadow>.
Swanson, Chris. "8 Essential German Expressionism Films You Must See." WhatCulture. N.p., 13 Oct. 2011. Web. 04 Nov. 2013. <http://whatculture.com/film/8-essential-german-expressionism-films-you-must-see.php>.