German Expressionism

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By David Hudson

We crossed long, high-vaulted corridors; the wavering light borne by Franz threw a strange brilliance in the thickness of the gloom. The vague forms of the colored capitals, pillars and arches seemed suspended here and there in the air. Our shadows moved forward at our side like grim giants and on the walls the fantastic images over which they slipped trembled and flickered...

ETA Hoffmann, Das Majorat

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari

Usually, we wrap up these primers at the end with suggestions for further reading, but this time around, I'd like to recommend - not insist, mind you, but highly recommend - that you check out our article "Where the Horror Came From" before you take in this one. It's there that the stage is set, the social milieu is sketched and the political and psychological undercurrents of German Expressionism are drawn out. And, though "Horror" isn't terribly long, you'll find more there on The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Nosferatu and some of the themes running through Fritz Lang's work. So. Please consider that article and this primer, overlapping as little possible, as complementary reads.

The Background

That said, let's lay out a few need-to-know essentials about that enormously influential slice of cinema history known - in retrospect, it should be noted - as German Expressionism. Film noir may or may not have happened without the explorations into juxtaposing light and shadow made by the filmmakers working in Weimar Germany (the period between the two world wars when a fledgling democracy was struggling to take hold, its constitutional assembly cowering in Weimar, a smallish city some 150 miles southwest of the capital, Berlin), but it's hard to imagine the films noir, or for that matter, many of the horror and crime pictures of the 30s and 40s looking the way they do without German Expressionism preceding them. Even if for no other reason than that so many of the great German directors, cinematographers and set designers of the 1920s were chased out of the country and over to Hollywood by the rise of Hitler.

But to step back a moment, a bit of background. As an artistic movement, Expressionism was already well underway by the outbreak of World War I but the German film industry was not. Art historian Norbert Lynton zeroes in on the core idea:

All human action is expressive; a gesture is an intentionally expressive action. All art is expressive - of its author and of the situation in which he works - but some art is intended to move us through visual gestures that transmit, and perhaps give release to, emotions and emotionally charged messages. Such art is expressionist.

You might keep in mind this repetitive emphasis on what are clearly the key words here - "expressive," "emotion." Back when they were just becoming guiding principles, and for some, calls to action in art and literature in around, say, 1905 or 1910, these still somewhat clumsy and inarticulate notions hadn't yet jelled into a single, well-defined movement. "Expressionist" was still a term, for example, applied to certain artists who'd lived and worked in the Middle Ages (and not without good reason, too).

But ever since the unification of the German states into a single political entity - an empire! - in 1871, the period known as Wilhelminism (named for the successive Kaisers) had become all too suffocating for what sociologist and art critic Wolfgang Rothe calls "the generation of 1910." Rothe pokes into the mindset of these artists and writers:

Young people were angered and repelled by the all too contradictory aspects of feudal aristocracy, economic expansionism and unquestioning belief in scientific progress, regression into ultra-nationalism and a deluded sense of global mission, inner consolidation of the young Reich with its aspirations to world power, the sanctification of the status quo entailed in "education and property," and hectic industrialization's disruptive impact on established social structures.

Quite a few bones to pick, but what has all that got to do with movies? Hold on, we're getting there. The point for the moment is that if there were rumblings of revolution throughout Germany in the early years of the 20th century, both political and artistic, those rumblings would crescendo into a tumultuous roar when WWI made life in Germany much, much worse. When Germany was defeated and thrown into economic, political and social chaos, those artists and writers knew precisely where to lay the blame. Bourgeois values, cold logic and unattainable beauty were tossed out the window; their art would be as raw, violent and dark as the world they lived in, driven by furious emotion toward a set of aesthetic characteristics that would later roughly define what we talk about when we talk about "Expressionism."

At the risk of overly generalizing, it's fair to say that on the whole, painters abandoned realism and countryside landscapes for nightmare depictions of impoverished lives in ravished cities, their bold strokes of dark lines bending and creaking under the strain. Writers clipped their sentences to the barest essence, their voices almost always pounding away full blast, and in all the arts, there was a near-obsession with death and decay and an apocalyptic sense that civilization had come to the end of its rope.

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