The Birth of German Cinematic Expressionism Mickaela

The Birth of German Cinematic Expressionism


Mickaela Farrell – 10296509

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World War I ravaged Europe’s up and coming film industry and so in the 1920’s, the United States towered above all else in the post-war film production. However, the American film industry was more interested in the amount, producing near 800 films a year in the 1920’s, and profitability, the majority of these films dramas, adventures or comedies; that were incredibly popular with movie-goers, yet, not exploring the extent at what the medium could be taken to. Unlike the Expressionist filmmakers of Germany.


The, considered, rise of the German Expressionist film was given life from the political uproar of the Weimar Era, the interwar period roughly between 1919 and 1933 when the Weimar Republic occurred. Germany under Weimar rule was socially and politically unstable, added the economic shortage, caused a deep-seated impact on Germany’s post-war culture. (Hake,2008) states, “The signing of the constitution in 1919 ushered in a period of dramatic social, political, and cultural changes …”. Consequently, German Cinema took a very different path, mainly because of necessity, to Hollywood.


The expressionist style in film was influenced by expressionist art, that originated in Germany, which grew as an Avant-Garde style before the first world war, in the first decade of the century. Two notable painters being: Ernst Ludwig Kircher (Self Portrait as a Solider, 1915), one of the founders of Die Brücke (The Bridge), a key group in finding Expressionist style (one that which, insisted on a formal programme) and Franz Marc, his painting Der Blaue Reiter, (the Blue Rider), 1919, one of the most recognized paintings of the expressionist art movement, who was a founding member of a group with the same name. (That did not follow a strict programme.)


The program of Expressionism is evident in the name itself: it is a highly psychological kind of art that seeks not to record what is happening on the outside …but to express what is happening on the inside, the psyche of an individual human being.

  (Brockmann, 2010)


The above statement can be applied to all forms of expressionism, particularly in film, although it is easier to flaunt than to define expressionist films as mere elements of following may be present and a film still considered expressionist. Certain elements, nonetheless, can be seen throughout expressionist films, such as the use of chiaroscuro, (an Italian word that indicates intense contrasts between light and shadows), otherworldly characters and sets with jagged imagery, at times reflecting the trauma of a soul, that were made mainly of plaster, paper and wood, a world of confusion and darkness, and over the top, exaggerated acting. One must look at the very first film that displayed expressionist tendencies to see how the style began to evolve.


That film is Der Student von Prag, (The Student of Prague, 1913), directed by Stellan Rye. The plot is a derivative of one of Edgar Allen Poe’s stories, William Wilson, (1839), and tells the story of a poor student, Bauldin, (Paul Wegener), who has his eye on a countess, (Lyda Salmonova), and is promised by an old sorcerer, (John Gottowt), all the money he wants in exchange for anything in the student’s room. The sorcerer choosing Bauldin’s reflection in the mirror.


The film also, represents a changing point in the campaign over cinema culture in Germany, wishing it to be seen as its own stand-alone platform of art. Like the character Bauldin, who tries to rise up to the middle class by marrying a countess and gaining lots of money, the film came at a time when cinema in Germany was trying to do the same, rising above its station in life, along with the beginnings of expressionism in film.


It is easy to see why, (Elsaesser, 2000), states that Der Student von Prag is “generally considered a key early example of German Expressionism.” It can be seen in the supernatural and is ever apparent when Bauldin loses his soul in the bargain. His doppelgänger, (the idea of which stimulated interest in psychoanalysis), haunts him throughout the film as a malevolent being, a symbol of his own torment and a forerunning symbol of his own demise.


However, the use of expressionist style is not just noticeable here. Chiaroscuro, a commonality in expressionist film, is also evident, there to build atmosphere and emphasize the difference between stage and screen, as Wegener intended, and is very prominent in the scene where he and the countess are walking on the balcony.


The film explores such themes as greed, obsession, betrayal, and death, that had a deep impact on Weimar (and Expressionist) cinema. (Freed, 2015) states that the previously aforementioned themes, “exposed the hidden tormented soul behind the sober, conformist, respectable German bourgeois in the false dawn before the nightmare of The Great War and became the catalyst for the growth of German Expressionist film after the war.”


The next notable film that displays expressionist tendencies is Unheimliche Geschichten, (Eerie Tales, 1919) directed by Richard Oswald, and predates the well-known Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari (1920) by only a few months. Yet it is noticeable the direction where German Cinema is progressing to. An early example of Anthology Horror, various stories told within one outlining story, in this film, there are five separate stories: The Apparition, The Hand, The Black Cat, The Suicide Club and The Spectre. The main characters in the film are versions of Death, (Conrad Veidt), the Devil, (Reinhold Schünzel), and a Harlot, (Anita Berber), all dark, macabre characters, the characters being portraits within a bookshop which come to life and step out of their portraits when everyone goes home, who read tales and then portray those characters, and are played outrageously. The film brings the audience into the unrealistic world with darkness and uncertainty, mirror the time in which it was made. (Both characteristics of Expressionist Cinema.


(Fassimos, 2017), believes, “that Eerie Tales was not only part of the German Expressionist art-movement, but was a bold cinematic statement that set the standards for future Expressionist directors, as well as the horror genre in general…” The point is valid as the expressionist well-known cinematographer Carl Hoffmann, who worked later with Faust, cut his teeth on this film using experimental camera work accompanied with the extravagant expressionism acting resulted in a, “…naturalistic, calculated and carefully constructed vehicle through which Oswald and co. could represent the new Expressionist art-movement.” This statement announcing Expressionism in film has officially arrived with the film even being made again, as a true expressionist film, in 1932 by the same director and starring Paul Wegener.


This finally leads us to the first definitive expressionist film Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari, directed by Robert Wiene. The film follows an unhinged Dr. Caligari, (Werner Krauss), and his loyal sleepwalking friend Cesare, (Conard Veidt) and the connection between them and numerous murders in the mountain village of Holstenwall.



Often described as the quintessential expressionist film, Caligari has become famous for its painted backdrops, skewed angles, dark shadows, and claustrophobic interiors… the film combines elements of German romanticism and Gothic literature, including the device of the unreliable narrator, with the staging and acting conventions of expressionist theatre and early film melodrama.

(Hake, 2008)


The main difference that can be seen in Dr. Caligari, compared to the other two films are the sets. Instead of being on a location they are made of paper, wood, and paint. The buildings crooked, with lopsided windows and gravity-defying lights. (The sets were created by Expressionist artists, Hermann Warm, Walter Röhrig and Walter Reinmann). The sets bringing Expressionism to a whole other level within film.


Chiaroscuro is also used in Dr. Caligari, and to a greater extent than it was in the short clips where it was present in Der Student von Prag, as instead of using natural light to achieve the effect, it was instead, done by unnatural shadows being painted on the sets some appearing to engulf the characters, making them appear small, weak, and no longer in control. Even in the set, as the landscape changes and becomes more distorted it expresses the character of Dr. Caligari’s tormented psyche, in the same way, that the doppelgänger to for Bauldin’s character.


The world of the film is uncertain and dark, exploring themes like those in Der Student von Prag, the characters having to eventually face their own dilemmas and insecurities. Yet again, we see the sinister, mysterious characters, here Dr. Caligari, similar to Scapinelli and the Devil, Death, and Harlot. It brings up thoughts of uncertainty, just like the uncertain times Germany was going through. The film is also full of expressionist acting, that is present in all three films, and a framing story around another one, the same format as present in Unheimliche Geschichten. The impact of these two films ever apparent in Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari.


(Robinson,2005) states, “The era of German Expressionist cinema began with Caligari.” There is, of course, a valid point to such a statement, as the well-known era of German Expressionism emerged with and after the film’s release.  One simply cannot deny however that, at the very least, there were prior films with expressionist tendencies, such as the aforementioned films. Their style, ideas and contemplations scattered through-out the cinematic expressionist era and perhaps, in time, other films with such tendencies will be discovered, that have been lost, either partially or totally, which may, see the light of day due to the work of restorers and they too will be appreciated for their contribution to German Expressionist Cinema.


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