Silents are Golden: Just What the Heck Was German Expressionism?

Silents are Golden: Just What the Heck Was German Expressionism?

Many of you have likely seen The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, or at least have seen a few famous stills. The dramatic sets, the stylized costumes, the deliberately artificial look…it’s clearly the quintessential example of the famed German Expressionism genre. But have you ever wondered: what exactly was German Expressionism? How did it start, and why did it evolve the way it did? And why is it still so influential to this day?

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) Set StillSet Still from The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920).

To find our answers, we have to do a bit of digging through art history, WWI history, theater history, and of course, history from early 20th century Germany.

Now, throughout the 19th century, the world had grown increasingly industrialized. By the time the 20th century came along, factory work was commonplace and communication and transportation were speeding up at an amazing rate. With this faster pace of life came an interest in all things fresh, new, and experimental, and it wasn’t long before the art world took notice.

Les Demoiselles D’Avignon by Picasso.In a rather noticeable way. (Les Demoiselles D’Avignon by Picasso.)

Many cutting-edge painters, sculptors, architects, novelists, and playwrights began experimenting with modernism and avant-garde, creating a number of movements you’re familiar with from art history books: Cubism, Surrealism, Fauvism, Futurism, and so on. These movements were inspired by psychology and emotion instead of the traditional, realistic styles of art (which, ahem, explains a lot of modern artists’ work). This was perhaps part of the growings pains of the era, as artists and intellectuals gingerly tried to wrap their minds around the strange, industrialized new way of life.

Many of these art movements began in Europe, Germany being one of the countries on the forefront. A tiny group of architecture students, called Die Brücke (The Bridge), is credited with creating “Expressionism” in 1905. They were interested in modernism, traditional German woodcuts, and tribal art from Africa and Oceania, and decided to combine these eclectic interests into their own, uniquely emotional style: German Expressionism.

Street, Berlin by Brücke artist Ernst Ludwig KirchnerStreet, Berlin by Brücke artist Ernst Ludwig Kirchner.

Other German artists took notice and started experimenting with similar looks. Around the same time, German theater (which was a huge influence on both Europe and the U.S.) was also experimenting with daring new set designs and types of storytelling. In time, the dramatic Expressionist art that was in circulation was being reflected in the theater, too, especially in the productions of theater giant Max Reinhardt. Reinhardt would use nothing less than the very latest in set design and encouraged the use of dramatic lighting (such as using spotlights to illuminate a face onstage, leaving everything else in darkness). Expressionism fit his visions very well.

And with all this Expressionism seeping its way into so many forms of art, it makes sense that it would show up in the newest artform–the cinema. The earliest example was probably the horror film The Student of Prague (1913), often considered the first German art film. The psychological undertones of the story, about a student who gives a sorcerer his reflection in a mirror in exchange for unlimited wealth, fascinated many at the time and paved the way for more stylized cinematic tales with dark themes like The Golem (1915) and Homunculus (1916) (all directed by Paul Wegener).

The Student of Prague (1913) German Expressionism in FilmThe Student of Prague (1913).

In 1914 World War I began, which had an incalculable effect on the shaping of modern history. During the war Germany decided to stop the import of foreign films and closely control its own media, essentially isolating itself for those four long years. The German film industry, having to make up for the lack of films from the U.S. and other top filmmaking countries, had to make do all by itself. And thus, from 1914 to 1918 the specific form of German Expressionism (not merely “Expressionism,” which is a vaguer term) began to evolve.

Set designers and directors essentially took a step back, sized up everything Expressionism stood for – emotion and psychology, stylization instead of realism, symbolism – and decided, “this is all well and good, but is it extreme enough?”

A scene from the 1919 play Transfiguration by Ernst Toller.A scene from the 1919 play Transfiguration by Ernst Toller.

They began paring sets down to the most basic, stylized elements they could. Where once unusual angles would do to create a moody atmosphere, designers began to warp the walls, doors, and furniture of their sets. The overall look became more and more stark and two-dimensional. Finally, the last vestiges of realism were abandoned altogether–shadows and light were painted right onto the scenery in broad, obvious brushstrokes. The sets served to reflect the psychological states of the characters in a way viewer wouldn’t be allowed to forget. (And the paint and flat cardboard props just happened to save a lot of money, too.)

The most famous (and perfect) example of this unhinged German Expressionism is, you guessed it, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920). Telling the tale of the somnambulist Cesare who’s used as a sideshow attraction by the nefarious Dr. Caligari, its bizarre, distorted sets have become iconic to generations of viewers. Similarly, stylized films followed, such as a Genuine (1920) and Raskolnikov (1923), although they couldn’t quite match Caligari’s genius.

Genuine (1920) Set Design German ExpressionismThe very odd Genuine.

Films that were less stylistically “out there” but still delved into dark, dramatic themes included Nosferatu (1922), Phantom (1922) and The Last Laugh (1924).

Nosferatu (1922) Still German ExpressionismNosferatu

The most extreme example of German Expressionism by far is Von morgens bis mitternachts, or From Morn to Midnight (1920). Concerning a bank clerk who abandons his family to pursue a reckless life in the city, the film was based on a play produced by the Expressionist-loving Karlheinz Martin. Like the play, it took stylization to its absolute limit. The sets are all matte black, with details in the form of white painted lines and dabs. The dry, wobbly brushstrokes are as noticeable as humanly possible. Even the actors’ clothes and faces are streaked with paint. Not too surprisingly, the grand experiment that was From Morn to Midnight wasn’t repeated.

From Morn to Midnight (1920) Set Design German ExpressionismUnique Set Design in From Morn to Midnight (1920).

True German Expressionism, with its wild two-dimensional sets, only lasted a few years, although a more toned-down version continued in films like Metropolis (1927) and Sunrise (1928). But everyone who loves movies has, in a way, loved German Expressionism. It would be a big influence on film noir and, of course, would have an incalculable effect on the horror movie genre itself.

–Lea Stans for Classic Movie Hub

You can read all of Lea’s Silents are Golden articles here.

Lea Stans is a born-and-raised Minnesotan with a degree in English and an obsessive interest in the silent film era (which she largely blames on Buster Keaton). In addition to blogging about her passion at her site Silent-ology, she is a columnist for the Silent Film Quarterly and has also written for The Keaton Chronicle.

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