Over 8.5 million dead, more than 21 million wounded. Worse, the world had never seen death and injury delivered with such viciousness. Poison gas, terror from the skies, men trapped in muddy trenches, blasting away at each other, often for weeks on end with neither side gaining an inch of territory. When the "Great War," the "war to end all wars," the "first modern war," finally came to an end in November 1918, a deeply shocked and horrified world promised itself it'd never let this happen again. People set out to put their lives back together again; people living everywhere but in Germany, that is.
At the end of World War I, Germany was surrounded by a military blockade. The Allies wanted to ensure that Germany would accept the terms of the peace they had yet to design. It was a blockade enforced with a vengeance. French hatred for the people who'd started the war in the first place was made explicit in Prime Minister Clemenceau's remark that there were still 20 million Germans too many. So, too, was their fear when Clemenceau added that while other nations have a taste for life, Germans have a taste for death.
In the months between Armistice Day and the signing of the Treaty of Versailles in June 1919, an estimated 700,000 Germans died of hunger. "The German people," Count Harry Kessler, the eloquent chronicler of post-WWI Berlin, wrote in his journals, "starving and dying by the hundred thousand, were reeling deliriously between blank despair, frenzied revelry and revolution. Berlin had become a nightmare, a carnival of jazz bands and machine guns."
Drawing by George Grosz.
Hardly an exaggeration. Thousands were gunned down in the streets during the Spartakus uprising from the left, and then, the Kapp Putsch from the right. The Weimar Republic was teetering even before it got off the ground.
But Kessler wasn't going overboard with the "frenzied revelry" and the jazz, either. The 1920s would turn out to be Berlin's short-lived golden age, a decade awash in decadence and cabarets, sex at its most cynical, cocaine and hash. But also in a great outburst of creativity. It was during these years, and heaven knows they were far too few, that Berlin truly became the crossroads between east and west it has since strived and failed to become again ever since. From the north came Greta Garbo, from the east, Vladimir Nabokov, from the west, Christopher Isherwood, and from the ruins of the Austro-Hungarian empire, Arnold Schoenberg and a host of as yet unknown artists who didn't know yet that they wanted to be film directors.
There was Brecht and Weill, the Bauhaus and, as of December 18, 1917, Universum-Film AG, better known simply as Ufa, whose studios would thrive in Babelsberg, at the southwestern corner of Berlin. And too soon, of course, there would be that infamous art lover, Joseph Goebbels, come to pave the way for his Führer. "No place in the world was so creative and decadent," wrote Harrison Salisbury, "so despairing and exhilarating."
All across Europe, a flurry of isms sprang up in the awful wake of World War I. The world has ceased to make sense, proclaimed the Dadaists from Zurich. Oh, it makes sense, alright, answered the Surrealists in Paris, having stumbled across Freud's still relatively fresh Interpretation of Dreams -- a weird, almost demonic sort of nonsensical sense. Germany's Expressionists concurred in their way, that is, with a twist. Alone, facts and objects are zilch, they argued. The artist has to get at their essence or, as Kasimir Edschmid wrote in On Expressionism in Literature, their "most expressive expression."
In poetry and the novel, this meant staccato yelps and aborted utterances, and you can pretty well imagine how composers went about making music as well. In painting and sculpture, it meant a straight line was not a straight line if its perceived "essence" was not straight. Buildings and the human figure creaked and bent under the strain of the perception of artists who'd made it back to the chaotic city from the putrid trenches. On the stage, it meant isolating an object or figure in light and having everything else fall back into deep darkness.
Synagogue, Max Beckmann, 1919.
The master of this theater was Max Reinhardt who, from 1907 to 1919, absolutely dominated Berlin theater. To gather an idea of how influential he was on the budding art of film in Germany, just glance over the list of young filmmakers who acted in his productions: Conrad Veidt, Paul Wegener, Emil Jannings, for starters, and most notably, Ernst Lubitsch and F. W. Murnau.
From Reinhardt, they learned, above all, how to light. "Chiaroscuro," Lotte Eisner calls the style in her appropriately titled book, The Haunted Screen, "pools of light falling from a high window into a dark interior." Eisner's book, first published in France in 1952, is one of two that held sway over all assessment of German Expressionist film for decades. We'll get to the second a bit further on. As for the look, Eisner also gives credit to an influx of filmmakers from the north, particularly Denmark.
As for the content, though, all that gloom and doom, Eisner is quite confident in drawing a line right back to the Sturm und Drang of the German Romantics of the previous century. Maybe a bit too confident, but it's hard to deny the resonance in a quote she plucks from Johann Peter Eckermann's Conversations With Goethe:
The Germans are an odd people, all the same! What with their profound thoughts and the ideas they are forever pursuing and introducing all over the place, they really do make life too hard for themselves. Oh, have the courage to yield to your impressions... and do not always think that everything that is not some idea or abstract thought must be vain.
That urge toward abstraction is evident enough in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Nosferatu. But Eisner overstates her case when she ignores the horror of these visions, how far more drenched they are in darkness and fatalism than the works of those first-round German Romantics. Living in exile, Eisner seems to have forgotten, willfully or not, that the very real immediate surroundings of the German Expressionist filmmakers were shot through with misery.
"I drew drunkards; puking men; men with clenched fists cursing at the moon," wrote the artist George Grosz in his memoirs. Grosz had enthusiastically enlisted to fight in 1914; by 1917, he was in a mental institution. When released, he wandered "dark, gloomy" Berlin, drawing: "I drew a man, face filled with fright, washing blood from his hands... I drew a cross-section of a tenement house: through one window could be seen a man attacking his wife; through another, two people making love; from a third hung a suicide with body covered by swarming flies. I drew soldiers without noses; war cripples with crustacean-like steel arms... I also wrote poetry..."
The horror was reality, but it was also a fascination. Hundreds of films, year in and year out, were being made in this environment and the line between art and exploitation was thin indeed. Russian writer Ilya Ehrenburg noted, "I observed more than once with what rapture pale, skinny adolescents watched the screen when rats gnawed a man to death or a venomous snake bit a lovely girl."
Let's turn to the films themselves, focusing on the horror flicks that, over the decades, have come to be considered classics, the ones we can get our hands on...