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German Expressionism
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.

Meanwhile, oddly enough, the war had a pretty stimulating effect on the film industry. With imports embargoed and the property of foreign companies confiscated, German film companies scrambled to take advantage of the public's ravenous hunger for distraction. In 1914, 47 foreign film companies dominated the market while 25 German firms struggled. By 1918, the number of foreign firms had dwindled to ten; German companies numbered 310. And in December 1917, with the war in its final phases, the big one was founded. The government-run propaganda factory, the Bild und Film Amt (BUFA) met in near secrecy with a few other companies and struck a merger deal that resulted in the Universum-Film Aktiengesellschaft (Ufa).

It was a rather complex set-up, but the gist is this: Though its share of the German film market was never a majority, Ufa would become almost exclusively responsible for our current notions of German film between the wars. We tend to forget that Germans were also going to see comedies and fairy tales and melodramas and so on during this period, but of course, most of those films are forgotten, at least to international audiences today. It wasn't "all Expressionism, all the time." But the movies that did break through then and are remembered now are the Expressionist classics. Why?

Pommer and Caligari

To a great extent, the answer is Erich Pommer. He was an extraordinary producer who pinballed between Berlin and Hollywood, London and Paris in pursuit of his two-fold vision: Film, he believed, could be an international art and Europeans (and particularly, Germans) could help shape it. Secondly, good art could be good business. Before he became the head of production at Ufa in 1923, Pommer was already seeking out the sort of writers and artists we've been talking about to employ as screenwriters, set designers and directors, and while he tried to keep costs reined in, as producers are wont to do, he also allowed his teams as much creative freedom as he could afford, as many producers are not.

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is the exemplary Pommer production. For starters, the story is right up the Expressionist alley. Set on a fairground, over city rooftops and in an insane asylum, the film tells the tale of one highly suspicious Dr. Caligari who hypnotizes Cesare, his ghoulish assistant, and sends him off to kill.

Then there's the look. The characters, with their exaggerated make-up and costumes, seem to be bolting around in some giant Expressionist painting. That's intentional. The sets, by designer Hermann Warm and painters Walter Röhrig and Walter Reimann, are all slashing diagonal lines and stark angles while director Robert Wiene further accents the contrast between light and shadow.

In short, Caligari featured just about all the primary elements we associate with German Expressionist film:

  • Anti-heroic (if not downright evil) characters at the center of the story...
  • which often involves madness, paranoia, obsession and...
  • is told in whole or in part from a subjective point of view.
  • A primarily urban setting (there are exceptions, particularly in the case of Murnau), providing ample opportunity to explore...
  • the criminal underworld...
  • and the complex architectural and compositional possibilities offered, for example, by stairways and their railings, mirrors and reflecting windows, structures jutting every bit as vertically as they do horizontally so that...
  • the director can play with stripes, angles and geometric forms sliced from the stark contrasts between light and shadow.
  • Shadows, in fact, can take on an ominous presence of their own; think of the monster's shadow ascending the stairs in Nosferatu, the shadow preceding the murderer in M or the pursuit and capture of Maria in Metropolis.

What's more, Caligari, released in 1919, was a hit. Not just in Germany, but throughout Europe, and eventually, in the US as well. So soon after the war, when German film had been all but invisible to international audiences all those years, the world's interest was suddenly sparked. Pommer, whose reasoning didn't stray too far from the way movie producers think to this day, decided he would give the world more of what it wanted. After all, with Caligari, Germany had hit upon its own unique national style. International audiences now had certain expectations of a German film. At the very least, he would run production at Ufa along the same model that had produced its first great success: Find the most creative artists around, hire them and create teams that would work on films together again and again, and most of all, give them breathing room.

Pommer would end up working with, for starters, directors Murnau and Lang, plus writers Carl Meyer and Thea von Harbou (these two alone wrote the bulk of the screenplays for the films we identify with German Expressionism), cinematographers Karl Freund (more on him in a moment), Carl Hoffmann (Faust, Dr. Mabuse the Gambler, Die Nibelungen and Fritz Arno Wagner (Spies, Nosferatu) and so on.

He would also try to put together international packages, and here, he wasn't quite as successful, at least in terms of one of his primary goals: to create a star. The Hollywood star system that had already taken shape, much to the chagrin of the studio heads, was ultimately what gave American cinema a leg up on the international market. While it may be hard to imagine now, German critics were often pretty harsh on the homegrown product we now consider top notch, comparing it unfavorably with, for example, the work of Chaplin. (Also, for many leftish critics at the time, only Soviet filmmakers were really taking the new medium anywhere interesting.)

Still, two notes on Pommer's international efforts: First, he encouraged the artistic to and fro already underway between filmmakers in Germany and its neighbor to the north, Denmark. The first motion pictures ever shown in all of Scandinavia were brought up by the German brothers Sklandanowsky, and if you take a look at Danish director Benjamin Christensen's Häxen, you'll recognize some of the thematic and aesthetic overlap with German Expressionism going on in Scandinavia. In 1924, Pommer even produced one of Carl Theodor Dreyer's films, Mikael.

Second, Pommer finally did help create an international star, but by the time he actually pulled it off, it was too late. He hired the Vienna-born but basically Americanized director Josef von Sternberg to direct a vehicle for Emil Jannings - but The Blue Angel, Ufa's first sound film and not really Expressionist at all, quickly became the film that launched Marlene Dietrich's international career. Immediately after its 1929 premiere in Berlin, she and her director were off to Hollywood.

Lang and Ufa

The classic cartoon image of the tyrannical foreign director in Hollywood, the one with the heavy accent and the monocle, the one running around and shouting orders and throwing fits, is based in part on Fritz Lang. Lang had a hard time of it in Hollywood, bouncing from studio to studio, never satisfied that he was truly appreciated. Though he'd make some great, great films there in the 40s and 50s, how could he not be frustrated? Few directors - Griffith, while working on Intolerance, maybe, or Cameron on Titanic - have ever, before or since, ruled so resolutely over a kingdom of resources as vast and as rich as that enjoyed by Lang during his heyday at the Ufa studios.

Like Billy Wilder, Lang was an Austrian drawn by the all but irresistable magnetic force of post-WWI Berlin. But there, the similarities end. Little wonder that Wilder, the younger by 16 years, a rambunctious cub reporter and something of a gigolo, would choose Ernst Lubitsch rather than Lang as an artistic mentor when he eventually began directing himself (and none of his films, of course, are Expressionist, though a handful are noir classics). Thomas Elsaesser, historian of German film:

The "Lubitsch Touch" lay in the way the films combined erotic comedy with the staging of historical showpieces (the French Revolution in Madame Dubarry), the mise-en-scène of crowds (the court of Henry VIII in Ann Boleyn), and the dramatic use of monumental architecture (as in his Egyptian and oriental films). But one could also say that Lubitsch successfully cross-dressed the Jewish schlemihl and let him loose in the grand-scale sets of Max Reinhardt.

And then there's the humor, cynical but in a light sort of way, rarely dark. You can't help but suspect that Lubitsch believed that life, at bottom, is a comedy. Same with Wilder. With Lang, you can't help but suspect the opposite. And actually, Lubitsch only just barely belongs in a primer on German Expressionism, particularly because, very unfortunately, so few of his films are as yet available on DVD. But at the same time, he can hardly be ignored. He was big in Germany, but he left early, in 1922, and he would become even bigger in America.

There's also the Max Reinhardt connection. As director of the Deutsches Theater, Reinhardt was an enormous influence on the films of his day. Countless directors, actors and designers at Ufa had worked with him; so many that it could be argued that he was a major channeler of the Expressionist "look" from painting, through his theater in Berlin, to Babelsberg, just outside the city where Ufa had set up its studio complex. The effect known as chiaroscuro, for example, a beam of light falling from on high down to a subject surrounded in darkness, was used by Reinhardt to add depth of field to his stage, and of course, enhance the mystery and tension of a scene. Of Paul Wegener's magnificent The Golem, Lotte Eisner, that tireless contemporary chronicler of German Expressionist film, wrote:

Wegener uses every one of Reinhardt's lighting effects: the stars glinting against a velvety sky, the fiery glow of an alchemist's furnace, the little oil lamp lighting a corner of a darkened room when Miriam appears, the servant holding a lantern, the row of blazing torches flickering in the night, and, in the synagogue, the light trembling over the prostrate, indistinct forms wrapped in cloaks, with the sacred, haloed seven-branched candelabra emerging from the darkness.

Fritz Lang was an avid theater-goer. He loved a big, sweeping spectacle and was fascinated with the mechanics of creating one. The son of an architect, he'd dabbled in painting before selling his first scenarios for features to two competitors, Erich Pommer and Joe May. They did well and he eventually convinced Pommer to let him direct one, Halbblut, his first feature, probably filmed in January 1919, when the Spartacist uprising was a mere nuisance for the perpetual political naif: "My car was repeatedly stopped on the way to the studio by armed rebels, but it would have taken more than a revolution to stop me directing for the first time."

When Thomas Elsaesser wrote this passage on German cinema before 1920, he could well have been describing Lang's work in the years that followed:

As private detective and master criminal try to outwit each other, their cars and taxi-rides, railway pursuits and telephone calls convey the drive and energy of the new medium. The films cast a fascinated eye on modern technology and urban locations, on the mechanics of crime and detection, while the protagonists revel in disguise and transformation, motivating spectacular stunts, especially in frequent chase scenes.

Take those elements, add hypnosis and an air of conspiracy and paranoia, and you've come very close to Dr. Mabuse the Gambler (1922). Before getting there, though, Lang still had the serial nature of his writing to work out of his system, and he did it with a two-parter, The Spiders (1919/1920). Destiny (1921) sees him gradually filling his spectacle quotient not with the exotic locales of Spiders but with the lure of dark mystery - and special effects.

Lang was forever dreaming up special effects, tinkering with models, working overtime with his cinematographer to come up with never-before-seen shots. He was the right man in the right place at the right time. The industry he entered may not have made much of an artistic dent before WWI, but its technology was state-of-the-art. Hollywood was built by distributors and producers who bought and sold their way to "an empire of their own," as Neal Gabler has put it in his history of those early days, but in Germany, the industry was built at first by manufacturers of cameras, lenses and projectors. Even German movie-goers before the war seemed interested in film not as an art or a business, but as a technological marvel.

Lang shared their infatuation and, two years after the urban nightmare of Mabuse, he gave them an epic spectacle which, he told interviewers, was intended to lift their spirits after years of economic and political turmoil: Die Nibelungen, in two parts, based on the Norse sagas Wagner had turned to for his Ring. The films were the first to generate press coverage for Lang in the US while the reviews at home were mixed. Ominously, Hitler and Goebbels were fans. But others were disturbed that the monumental architecture of the first part, Siegfried, in which even the outdoor scenes have a balanced geometric structure, dissolves into assymetrical chaos in the second part, Kriemhild's Revenge. Some objected that Lang had made their heroes "ugly," and here is as good a place as any to bring up the Expressionist acting style.

Remember Lynton? "All human action is expressive; a gesture is an intentionally expressive action." The acting in German Expressionist films comes close to dance at times, and it ain't ballet. More along the lines of Martha Graham or even Merce Cunningham. It's not a matter of over-compensating for the lack of spoken dialogue in the silent era or trying to project a gesture or facial expression through the hazy grain of early black and white film stock. It is, instead, in direct correlation to the violent brushstrokes of Expressionist painting or the staccato utterances of Expressionist poetry, an outward interpretation of the extreme inner emotions felt in extreme situations - fear, anger, and occasionally, though rarely in the films at hand, joy.

The Nibelungen films did well, and for Lang, it was only natural to launch into the biggest and, adjusted for inflation, most expensive production in German film history. Poor Pommer. The producer gave Lang a budget of 1.9 million marks, but by the time Lang had spent 5 million, Pommer - and Ufa, which would have to be restructured as a result - was in too deep to back out. Lang was at the peak of his powers and loving it, ruling over a virtual city of 800 actors and 30,000 extras, filming over 310 days and 60 nights, running the actors through their paces, ever the perfectionist, calling for dozens, sometimes dozens of dozens of takes for a single shot.

When it was released and Luis Buñuel caught it in Madrid, he wrote, "Not one film, but two, stuck together at the belly, that's Metropolis... a trivial, overblown story, cumbersome and burdened with stale Romanticism. But if we look instead to the compositional and visual rather than the narrative side of the film, Metropolis exceeds all expectations and enchants as the most wonderful book of images one can in any way imagine." Years later, Pauline Kael would be more succinct: "It's a wonderful, stupefying folly."


For more on the making of Metropolis and its amazing restoration, see "What is the Perfect Light?" For now, let's just note that Lang's penchant for the spectacle and the technology entailed in achieving it made him, like no other director mentioned here, a tremendous influence on yet another genre besides noir and horror: science fiction. To create suspense building up to the launch of the rocket in Woman in the Moon, for example, Lang came up with an idea that has him widely credited for inventing the countdown. And for all the blather at the end of Metropolis about a happy reunion of the head, heart and hand, the film is an extraordinarily dystopian vision of the future. Lang is clearly both awed and terrified by the city he's built, just as he is simultaneously attracted to and repulsed by that evil genius, Dr. Mabuse.

Lang's wings were clipped considerably after Metropolis failed to even begin to make back the money invested in it. But limited resources didn't curtail his inventiveness or his love for gadgetry and fresh effects, all on full view in Spies. In fact, scaling down did wonders for what many consider his greatest film, M. Lang himself would later refer to both M and Metropolis as the films he was most proud of, and it's interesting to consider what they share and what they don't. Both deal with cities in crisis divided into levels above and below ground. But in M, there's a closer parallel between the police and the criminal underworld who share a single goal, the isolation and capture of the social aberration, Franz Becker (Peter Lorre), the child-killer. M is also Lang's first sound film, which makes the uses of silence and the withholding of dialogue (particularly when the gang corners Becker with coded whistles) all the more chilling.

Lang then returned to familiar ground, but The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (1933) would raise a few issues for Goebbels, who called the director in for a chat. There's considerable controversy over what happened in there behind closed doors, but the upshot is that Lang high-tailed it out of Germany and joined his fellow expatriates in Hollywood (though many had mixed feelings about his arrival so late in the game). Some of Lang's American films did just fine at the box office, others didn't, but artistically, Lang always feared he'd never again measure up to the work he did at Ufa. And the studios he left behind were now, for all practical purposes, tools in Goebbels's hands.

Continue to Part Two and our recommendations...

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