In my cinematic wanderings over the years in search of the masterworks of film, I have touched on Italian, French, Russian, Swedish and Japanese classics. But inexplicably I have neglected Germany, having only briefly discussed the work of Leni Riefenstahl.
In a little over 11 years, between World War I and II, a host of technically brilliant and highly imaginative films that were to be the single most important influence on the movies of the Golden Age of Hollywood as well as later directors such as Tim Burton. This period has become known as the German Expressionist era. The name comes from an earlier art movement.
The German Expressionist Art movement involving literature, theater and music as well as painting, had evolved years before the war, but acquired an audience only after the Armistice. Led by Franz Marc, Vassily Kandinsky and Ernst Ludwig Kirchner. It is famous for paintings of powerful emotion and symbolism; often featuring bold and dissonant colors and a departure from nature. The most significant chronicle of this period From Caligari to Hitler was written back in 1947 by the iconic film theorist and critic Siegfried Kracauer.
German Expressionist film makers can be best described as experimental. There was a new emphasis on camera movement novel camera angles and harsh chiaroscuro lighting. The majority of Expressionist films were made during the silent era; they depended heavily on visual story telling; having few titles. They often employed Expressionist painters as set designers so films often films often had a dream-like quality.
Five films stand out as having the most impact on Hollywood over the years. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, The Last Laugh, Metropolis and M.
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920, Robert Weine) is considered by most scholars and critics as the most important example of German Expressionism. This silent horror film is a tale of a somnambulant murderer and insanity; it is famous for its highly stylized set design created by Expressionist painter Hermann Warm, who stated that “Films must be drawings brought to life.”
Nosferatu (1922, F.W. Murnau), was the first of countless adaptations of Bran Stoker’s novel Dracula, and many feel that it still is the greatest vampire film ever made. This silent horror film, appropriately stars Max Schreck (Maximum Terror in German) as the gruesome Count Orlok.
The Last Laugh or Last Man (F.W. Murnau) 1924, is a powerful film, artfully photographed by Karl Freund, about a doorman, played by Emil Jannings. Murnau skillfully contrasts two buildings, a seedy tenement house where Janning’s character lives and a high class hotel where he works.
Metropolis (1927, Fritz Lang) is one of the most influential films ever made. It is also a contrast of two worlds; the grandiose upper city with towering skyscrapers and suspended superhighways and a dark subterranean hell populated by masses of workers tending monstrous machines. Lang’s world is replicated in countless science fiction films culminating in The Jetsons TV series.
M (1931, Fritz Lang) was among the last of the true German Expressionist films, and Lang’s first talkie, and he uses sound to great effect. M stars Peter Lorre as a pathological child murderer in Berlin who whistles a few bars from a tune from Edvard Grieg before he strikes.
Perhaps the three greatest American directors, John Ford, Orson Welles and Alfred Hitchcock have all acknowledged their debt to Fritz Lang and F. W. Murnau. The Film Noir genre, the dark urban crime dramas of the 1940’s and 1950’s are a direct descendant of German Expressionist film. And naturally, the horror film genre would not be the same without Expressionism.