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German Expressionism

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German Expressionism

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F.W. Murnau's Nosferatu F.W. Murnau's Nosferatu

German Expressionism, also referred to as Expressionism in filmmaking, developed in Germany (especially Berlin) during the 1920s. 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 insert mood and deeper meaning into a movie.

The first Expressionist films, notably The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), The Golem (1915), and Nosferatu (1922) were highly symbolic and deliberately surrealistic portrayals of filmed stories. The dada movement was sweeping across the artistic world in the early 1920s, and the various European cultures of the time had embraced an ethic of change, and a willingness to look to the future by experimenting with bold, new ideas and artistic styles. The first Expressionist films made up for a lack of lavish budgets by using set designs with wildly non-realistic, geometrically absurd sets, along with designs painted on walls and floors to represent lights, shadows, and objects. The plots and stories of the Expressionist films often dealt with madness, insanity, betrayal, and other "intellectual" topics (as opposed to standard action-adventure and romantic films); the German name for this type of storytelling was called kammerspielfilm. Later films often categorized as part of the brief history of German Expressionism include Metropolis (1927) and M (1931), both directed by Fritz Lang.

The extreme non-realism of Expressionism was a brief-lived fad, however, and it faded away (along with Dadaism) after only a few years. However, the themes of Expressionism were integrated into later films of the 1920s and 1930s, resulting in an artistic control over the placement of scenery, light, and shadow to enhance the mood of a film. This dark, moody school of filmmaking was brought to America when the Nazis gained power and a number of German filmmakers emigrated to Hollywood. They found a number of American movie studios willing to embrace them, and several of the German directors and cameramen flourished, producing a repertoire of Hollywood films that had a profound effect on the medium of film as a whole.

Two genres that were especially influenced by Expressionism were the horror film and film noir. Carl Laemmle and Universal Studios had made a name for themselves by producing such famous horror films of the silent era as Lon Chaney's The Phantom of the Opera. German emigrees such as Karl Freund (the cinematographer for Dracula in 1931) set the style and mood of the Universal monster movies of the 1930s with their dark and artistically designed sets, providing the benchmark for later generations of horror films. Meanwhile, such directors as Fritz Lang and Michael Curtiz introduced the Expressionist style to the crime dramas of the 1940s, influencing a further line of filmmakers and taking Expressionism through the years.

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German Expressionist Film Today

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 leading star.

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.

Woody Allen's 1992 film, Shadows and Fog, is a pastiche of expressionism, taking cues from several films, such as the plot of M (1931 film) and the look of Nosferatu.

The film version of Sin City (2005) is also cited as a return to the style although its look owes more to emulating the original graphic novels.

Ties to Other Media

Expressionism as a movement spanned across media to include theater, architecture, music, painting, and sculpture, as well. Architecture, in particular, serves as an iconic way to bring the inner emotions of the individual into the public sphere, and therefore is most closely tied to the concepts of German Expressionism, but film extends the visual strengths of architecture into a more compelling, natural format. Many critics see a direct tie between cinema and architecture of the time, in the sense that the sets and scene artwork of expressionist films often reveal buildings of sharp angles, great heights, and crowded environments, such as the frequently shown Tower of Babel in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis.

German Expressionism is also associated with artists such as Käthe Kollwitz

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Movies, v. 2.0, by MultiMedia

This guide is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia.


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