From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
German Expressionism (also referred to as Expressionism in filmmaking) developed in Germany, especially 1920s Berlin. The Expressionism movement started earlier in about 1905 with the Die Brücke (The Bridge) group, but arose in the filming industry afterward. During the period of recovery following World War I, the German film industry was booming, but because of the hard economic times filmmakers found it difficult to create movies that could compare with the lush, extravagant features coming from Hollywood. The filmmakers of the German UFA studio developed their own style by using symbolism and mise en scène to add mood and deeper meaning to a movie.
Kammerspielfilm (roughly translated from German as Chamber Feature Film) is the name given to films that incorporated the use of German Expressionist principles.
The makers of German Expressionist cinema had little resources to tell their stories. The lack of availability of lavish sound stages and high budget led them to use creative substitutes. The filmmakers created dark atmospheres with the clever use of lighting and shadows. Films like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) featured the use of almost painting-like backdrops and props. These unrealistic looking settings enabled the filmmakers to tell stories that were both fantastic and unrealistic. Dealing mainly with the genres of psychological and gothic horror, the stories centered around grotesque topics and almost fairy tale-like characters. Though mostly original in their stories, films like Nosferatu (1922) were directly influenced by well known published works of horror (in this case: Bram Stoker's Dracula).
The elements of German Expressionist cinema influenced filmmakers throughout the following decades in their efforts to tell dark and grotesque tales. Films like Fritz Lang's M (1931) were made towards the end of the German Expressionist movement, where the quality of sets and storytelling took on a more realistic and polished look. The use of high-contrast lighting and shadows remained and was a major influence in the American film noir Movement of the 1940s. The genres of horror and psychological thrillers prevail today as the most captivating type of cinema and filmmakers from around the world have taken these genres into various cross-genres and sub-genres.
Recent films influenced by German Expressionism
Werner Herzog's 1979 film Nosferatu: Phantom der Nacht was a tribute F.W. Murnau's Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens. The film uses Expressionist techniques of highly symbolic acting and symbolic events to tell its story. Notably it links the vampire myth with the black death through the use of black rats.
Ambitious adaptations of the style are depicted throughout the contemporary filmography of director Tim Burton. His 1992 film Batman Returns is often cited as a modern attempt to capture the essence of German Expressionism. The angular building designs and severe-looking city squares of Gotham City evoke the loom and menace present in Lang’s Metropolis. One may even notice the link between the evil character of Max Shreck portrayed by Christopher Walken, and Nosferatu's star, Max Schreck.
Burton's influences are most obvious through his fairy tale suburban landscape in Edward Scissorhands . The appearance of the titular Edward Scissorhands none too accidentally reflects the look of Caligari's somnambulist servant. Burton casts a kind of unease in his candy-colored suburb, where the tension is visually unmasked through Edward and his gothic castle perched above the houses. Burton subverts the Caligari nightmare with his own narrative branding, casting the garish “somnambulist” as the hero, and the villagers as the villains.
The familiar look of Caligari's main character can also be seen in the movie The Crow. With the tight, black outfit, white makeup, and darkened eyes, Brandon Lee's character is obviously a close relative to Burton's film Edward Scissorhands.
Burton was also reportedly influenced by silent films and German Expressionism for his film adaptation of the musical Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, he himself described the musical on stage as a "silent film with music."
- The Haunted Screen (1952) by Lotte Eisner
- 1920s Berlin
- Expressionist architecture
- German Expressionism in painting
- German film history
- List of films featuring Berlin