This is an essay I wrote for my A-level film studies class. the original title was
"Caligari started a stylistic movement which became Germany's internationally respected National Cinema, successfully differentiated from and competing with America."
but this obviously had to be changed for this write-up as it is just way too long.
It got a 'B', by the way.
This essay concerns itself with German Expressionist cinema, it's themes and ideas, and how it simultaneously distinguished itself as separate from Hollywood as well a competing directly with it. I will be analysing the themes and styles of three Expressionist movies of the time (The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Nosferatu and Metropolis) and comparing them with the then current output of Hollywood outlining how they are both primitive and revolutionary in comparison.
Expressionism, an artistic movement starting in Germany and spreading through the rest of Europe like wild fire in the early 1900's, can be defined as "...the opposition to Impressionism" in that, while the Impressionist creates what He/She sees, the expressionist creates what He/She feels about the subject. In the 'Thames and Hudson Dictionary of Art Terms' it is defined as:
"Art in which the forms arise, not directly from observed reality but from the subjective reactions to reality...in which conventional ideas of realism and proportion seem to have been over-ridden by the artist's emotion, with resultant distortions of shape and colour"
German Expressionist cinema was seen as Germany’s national cinema. A cinema that stood up in the face of Hollywood stylistically and thematically. These day’s, national cinema is somewhat lacking in the world, with Independent cinema practically assimilated into the Hollywood mainstream. the closest parallel probably being the recent popularity of the Dogme 95 mode of film making, founded by a group of film-makers in Copenhagen in the spring of 1995. It hopes to bring on a revolution in Cinema by stripping away the cosmetics of film and creating movies of a much purer form. One of the most popular example of Dogme 95 has been ‘The Idiots’ by Lars Von Trier while has caused quite a ripple in movie-world winning awards all over the place.
Unfortunately, Britain’s involvement with any kind of radical cinema has been practically nil, with film-makers over here choosing rather to peddle to Hollywood’s tastes.
The German Expressionist movement started its life in the static realms of Painting and Sculpture and quickly moved into other disciplines such as theatre, Novels and Film. It is, of course, this last discipline with which we are particularly concerned with but before we can jump headfirst into Expressionist Cinema's themes and style we must first examine the social climate in which it was created.
At the end of World War 1, after the German government surrendered to the allies, the German people were in a state of disillusionment. After months of the government telling them that they were sure to win to have their politicians surrender was the last thing they expected. This left them shocked and angry. The country’s economy was in pieces and the currency was in a state of hyper-inflation, fetching 4 billion deutchmarks to the dollar. Out of this hodge-podge grew The Expressionist movement. They scathingly criticized both their society and their government. This was reflected in the art they created, the novels they wrote and they films they made.
Of course, the Hollywood production line was already up and running at this time, driven by the works of D. W. Griffith and the like. The Films They made were hyper-real productions focusing on character development and set designs, served up on a bed of a solid screenplay. They use narrative and story-telling techniques that drew you in and made you care for or despise the character on the screen. They were created out of the desire to entertain and as such didn’t explicitly set out to convey ideas . Expressionist movies, on the other hand, clearly had agenda’s hidden within the story and narrative. This is not to say that the films that came out of the movement were completely revolutionary – They borrowed heavily from Hollywood in their narrative and story telling techniques, often not pulling them off with as much flair and panache that Hollywood would have managed. For example, in ‘The Cabinet of Dr Caligari’, while there are attempts to create a sense of sympathy between the viewer and the characters these aren’t nearly as effective as those seen within Griffith’s works. The camera moves very little and there are no close-ups at all, only simple Iris fade-outs. These fail to involve the audience much at all and while we do care what happens to the characters it is more a mild detachment than any kind of serious emotional involvement.
For example, in the chase scene between Cesaré and the angry mob, the lack of cross-cutting (to create tension) and static frame means that we are not drawn into the proceedings. In this way the film acted as a weak competitor to films such as ‘Birth of a nation’ which featured much more developed techniques of creating suspense, these being particularly visible in the scene in which The Ku Klux Klan come to the rescue of the innocent white people being helped captive by the evil Black men. But if we view this film as such we all blatantly ignoring all in the film that is revolutionary and “cutting edge”, the set designs for example offered a refreshing alternative to those of Hollywood which were based firmly in the realms of the “real”.
The use of painted sets, crafted by real Expressionist artists, allowed the film a surreal and extremely expressionistic edge that couldn’t have been achieved with location shooting. The mise-en-scene itself coming from the mind of a mad-man. There was great controversy over the conclusion of Caligari, the original ending having been changed due to nervous German executives. In the original the story expressed was seen as fact with the final sequence not even in existence, not the delusions of a man-man. After the studio had viewed the film they decided it was too risqué to be released as is and told the film-makers to shoot the final sequence in the asylum so that no fingers would be pointed. Of course, having the final sequence shot with the warped sets begs the question as to whether this changes anything. If this is reality and the rest of the movie the fabrication of a decayed mind then why does everything still look so messed up? The final shot with Caligari exclaiming “Ah! He thinks me to be this Caligari! At last I know his illness and how to treat it!” makes us overly dubious of the Doctor as it seems like he is simply covering his tracks. There have been many arguments over whether this ending is a cop out or simply re-enforces the original message of the movie.
‘The cabinet of Dr Caligari’ was also the first ever Horror movie and as such paved the way filmmakers to come. German Expressionist cinema can be seen as the roots of the horror genre, being the first to show the darker sides of humanity and society in general. In this way it was more brutally honest and “real” than what could be seen in Hollywood at the time. But expressionism has not only influenced the Horror genre. The idea of sickness and depravity in society is one that runs through-out Film Noir as well as many other films that delve into the human psyche such as ‘Pi’ , ‘Se7en’, ‘Fight Club’ and others of their ilk.
German Expressionism has also influenced science fiction cinema (a notable example being ‘Bladerunner’) especially through the silent classic ‘Metropolis’ which was the first film to feature images of a dystopian future where the Proletariat slave away mindlessly to serve their masters. These Proles live beneath the ground in identical expressionist houses (warped and twisted) living out a machine existence, working collectively without individuality (Even when they rise up against their masters they do so collectively under the guidance of someone else). This is probably the Expressionistic of the German Expressionist cinema, especially in idea of people losing their humanity and acting without thought and individuality..
Another Expressionist classic ‘Nosferatu: The vampire” moved the genre into more sophisticated realms particularly in it’s use of Cinematic technique. This development is clearly visible in practically all aspects of the film. It’s use of editing in the frame as well as a moving camera is right up there with anything Griffith produced. Also of note is it’s sophisticated Narrative techniques, which draw the audience in and create tension and suspense. For example, the use of the “Book of the vampires” to reveal vital information to both the audience and Thomas concerning the habits and mannerisms of a vampire give us a sense of anxiety concerning the Counts freakish behaviour. The use of cross-cutting in the film is also suitably impressive. In the scene were Count Orlock is creeping upon the sleeping Thomas presumably in order to suck his body dry of his precious life blood, the camera cuts to a shot of Nina, who, apparently aware of what is going on, calls out to her beloved husband only to have Orlock respond and turn to look at her as if she is in the very same room! This, of course, creates a massive sense of anxiety and paranoia within the audience.
No discussion of ‘Nosferatu’, however slight, would be complete without mentioning it’s radical composition of shadow to inflict feelings within the viewer. This was not being seen to quite as much effect in Hollywood. The way in which Orlock’s shadow is seen to creep up the wall and move along corridors, as if he was the shadow itself, is unnerving and creates an amazing sense of anxiety and fear. Of course the film also manages to fit in other hallmark expressionist traits such as warped mise-en-scene and characters. Notably Orlock himself whose appearance is both twisted and nightmarish with is long, raking fingers, frightening features and bent back and Renfield’s blatant insanity. There is a clear development between ‘The Cabinet of Dr Caligari’ and ‘Nosferatu’ in both it’s use of film language and story telling techniques which have reached such a level at this point as to be right up there with Hollywood. Not only does it compete successfully with Hollywood but also offers an alternative – Cinema with a brain, if you like.
The way in which German Expressionist cinema offered an alterative is clear. While Hollywood was bent on Entertaining with Grand stories of love and war Expressionism was far more concerned with Ideas. The Ideas that People in authority were corrupt and evil, that the common man was being led like sheep, that society was generally messed up and warped due insanity is inherent in the system along with the loss of humanity is intrinsic to all Expressionist works. The movement had a message to deliver and because it was an artistic movement, it was well suited to the visual media of Cinema. With the growth and mainstream acceptance of Film The artists and intellectuals suddenly had a new and powerful tool at their disposal, While a painting is flat and static or a book, enclosed by the limits of written language and leaving much up to the imagination of the audience with, a film (being very much a combination of these two media, if you think about it) could be both visually and intellectually striking, allowing you to deliver you message through all the channels that film language had to offer. Sound, editing, and Mise-en-scene. Each one a useful tool in it’s own right but when used in the combination of Cinema, your message has so much more effect. In Cabinet of Dr. Calagari, the props and set design scream their message at you with their warped structure and unwelcoming sharpness. The Somnambulistic state in which Cesaré lives out his life, locked in a box, coming out only to Caligari’s bidding reflects the state of not only German society of the time, but also Modern day life. The Style and themes of Expressionism ring only to clear in today’s society.
What I like most about German Expressionism is that it makes you think. You went to see a film by Griffith you were entertained, taken along for a ride, treated to sights and sounds that got your heart racing but as soon as the flicker of the projector ends and the lights go up you leave the theatre (or living room) and go on about your everyday lives. When you come out from watching Nosferatu or ‘The Cabinet of Dr Caligari’ you think about what you have just seen. In studying German Expressionist Cinema this term I have been treated to a visual trip through the human sub-conscious and while I didn’t learn anything about humanity that I didn’t already know, I was opened up to the possibilities inherent in cinema – not only can it be used to entertain and woo, but it can be used to educate. It excites me as a possible future film-maker that there is so much more to Film than entertainment or witty inter-textual name dropping and self-reference. I can say with all honesty that not only has this has been one of the most interesting parts of this course and that I have enjoyed in Immensely but that it has left a lasting impression on me.
“Man is born free Yet everywhere he is in chains.” – Jean-Jacques Rousseau, The Social Contract