German Expressionism 101
In case you haven’t noticed, Classic Movie Hub is having a giveaway contest this month. Thanks to our long-standing partnership with Kino Lorber, we are giving away eight horror-esque movies every Sunday throughout October. Three of those of titles, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Nosferatu, and Metropolis, come from the groundbreaking and highly innovative German Expressionist movement. So, what better time than now to write about one of the most influential film movements of the silent era and beyond: German Expressionism.
10 points if you can name the film this still is from!
In order to understand German Expressionism, you have to understand the historical context that birthed it. Like pretty much every other artistic movement since the inception of art itself, German Expressionism was a reaction to the harsh realities of its time. The movement emerged off the coattails of World War One – a war that had a profound effect on the German psyche.
After WWI much of Europe was left a ruinous heap of rabble and disenfranchisement. With many of its power Empires now lost to the dustbins of history, the future of many European countries were bleak unknowns and a source of constant collective anxiety. This was especially true for Germany. You see, after the Treaty of Versailles was signed in 1919, the Allied Powers pretty much forced Germany to “accept the responsibility of Germany and her allies for causing all the loss and damage.” This meant German people faced the entire economic brunt of the war – to the tune of $31.4 billion dollars AKA $442 billion in 2017 dollars…yikes!
The conditions laid forth by the treaty, coupled with the fact that Germany went headfirst into such a feckless and destructive war to begin with, caused the German people to grow increasing resentful of its leaders. They thrust their people into a war that caused nothing but devastation only to later be met with the prospect of absolute financial destitution. The future was bleak and collective malaise of despondency fell upon the nation.
And here is where we enter the world of German Expressionism. The painting above is The Wounded Solider by Otto Dix. After serving in WWI, Dix returned home a broken, haunted man who suffered from intense PTSD. When it came to expressing the horrors of the trenches, Dix wanted his audience to react strongly to his work, feeling the mental pain and spiritual disillusionment brought upon by war. Rather than focus on painterly abilities to create an aesthetically pleasing composition and show the physical realism of war, Dix instead focused on the more abstract psychological experience of those who were part of it.
He painted a distorted figure with jagged edges, contrasted lighting and unnatural proportions that were ghoulish and horrifying in nature. Just look at the painting. Really look at it. The sunken eyes and too-wide mouth make him appear almost as a skull. His limbs and digits twist in unnatural ways and the earth around him is nothing but a black abyss of unknown shapes and textures. Heck, without the helmet on, it would be hard to even distinguish that we was a solider – for all we would know he could be an unnamed ghoul falling into madness as he descends deeper into hell.
I may have gotten a little carried away with that description, so enjoy this palette jazzy cleanser! (Otto Dix, Grossstadt, 1927/28)
Yes, Beautiful aesthetic realism was out and the haunting heavy stokes of expressionism was in. This movement would permeate into all aspects of German art of the time, including film, which we will discuss in Part 2 of this German Expressionist adventure.
Minoo Allen for Classic Movie Hub