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What is… German Expressionism?

German Expressionism is an artistic movement that came out of Germany in the early 20th century. It was part of a wider expressionist movement throughout Europe but was largely confined to Germany due to the isolation it encountered during World War 1.

During the 1920s many European cultures became excited by what the future held and expressed this through their art, particularly in films. There was an influx of the absurd, with bizarre set design featuring strange geometric angles, with much of the detail, including objects and shadows, painted on. The themes of German Expressionist films tended to explore topics such as insanity, betrayal and others that were considered more intellectual that the films that had been made previously.

The war had a generally stimulating effect on the German film industry. Imports were embargoed and foreign film companies had their property confiscated, leading to a number of German film companies increasing their output and taking advantage of the gap in the film market. To highlight this, in 1914  there were 47 prominent foreign films whilst there were only 25 German films, many of which struggled. However, by 1918 the number of foreign films had dropped to just 10, whilst the number of homegrown films skyrocketed to 310. In 1917, the flagship German film studio, Universum-Film Aktiengesellschaft (UFA), was formed after meetings between the German Government and a few key film companies. This studio went on to make notable titles such as Dr Mabuse (1922), Metropolis (1927) and The Blue Angel (1930).

However, perhaps the most significant film of the time was The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), which has since been hailed as one of the first horror films (along with the other expressionist classic horror Nosferatu) and held up as a quintessential example of German Expressionism. Its setting and themes are typical of the movement: set in a fairground and an insane asylum with chases across rooftops, telling the story of the mysterious Dr. Caligari who hypnotises his assistant to kill. It also has an unmistakable aesthetic, with over-the-top costumes and make-up, and fantastically angular sets with stark distinction between light and shadow. See below some examples of the film’s highly stylised art style.

The influence of German Expressionism was huge, particularly on a number of significant directors. In 1924, Alfred Hitchcock was working for Gainsborough Pictures and was sent to work as an assistant director and art director at the UFA Babelsberg Studio in Berlin. The movement’s effect on him was immediate, which can be seen in his set designs for The Blackguard, the film he was working on at the German studio. Following that, it’s easy to see an expressionistic influence in his work, particularly in his themes (madness, paranoia, etc) and use of light and shadow.

Perhaps the most obvious exponent of German Expressionism working today is Tim Burton. There are expressionist ideas and designs throughout a large proportion of Burton’s work, including Batman Returns, Edward Scissorhands and The Nightmare Before Christmas. Even his more child-orientated films such as Charlie and the Chocolate Factory have expressionist designs in them. Such is Burton’s use of expressionist ideas, that some films, that have nothing to with him, are said to be Burton-esque. Coraline is a prime example of this.

Whilst the German expressionist movement may have been largely localised, it has had a profound effect on the history of cinema around the world. This is only a very brief intro to the subject and entire books have been written on the subject. For those wanting further reading, the books considered essential reading are Lotte Eisner’s The Haunted Screen and Siegfried Kracauer’s From Caligari to Hitler.

Chris Thomson

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