German Expressionism - Origin of Cinema?

Our third topic in this four part series of expeditions into National Cinemas is one that naturally lies quite close to my heart. For this iteration we will explore one of the oldest National Cinemas in the world which coincidentally originated in my very own home country. We will be talking about German Expressionism and its development through the 20th Century.

German Expressionism is not only limited to Film but was a cultural movement in Germany, after WWI. There was no manifesto or ground rules to this art form. German Expressionism was the result of a generation of people who had experienced the same horrors through out their early life.

The movement was also heavily influenced by the desire of the younger generation to set themselves apart from the ruling bourgeoisie. The art movement itself depicted the cultural change in Germany through metaphysical subjects (blue horses) or through politically motivated art.

In film, German Expressionism took hold in silent cinema. The lack of sound allowed the filmmakers to make theatrical images with over dramatized shadows (some of them not even real) and overexpressions by their actors.

The characteristics changed over the years going from rebellion to submission. This type of cinema drew a lot of attention, becoming a massive contender to Hollywood’s mass entertainment that had already manifested itself in the 20s. German filmmakers were regarded as experts in their craft which played a later role at the end of WWII.

German Expressionist Art was, as so many art movements, oppressed by the NSDAP. When Hitler came to power, art institutions were slowly reorganized into propaganda machines and so the infrastructure for making Expressionist films diminished.

Many filmmakers during the 30s were also of Jewish decent and had to flee the country. Their prime choice, of course, was the sparkling Film Paradise of Hollywood. By the 1940s, German filmmakers had mass immigrated to the US West Coast and were working on Hollywood films, which became apparent as US films started to take on strong German Expressionist influences, especially in lighting.

After the war there was an attempt to revive German Expressionism, even by now well established Hollywood Directors such as Fritz Lang. Sadly though, time had moved on and the then young generation, which German Expressionism relied on, had been replaced with a new young generation which was scarred by the tragedies of WWII. Attempts to revive the movement mostly ended in mediocre films that washed out quickly. And the Allied forces demounted the German UFA Film Company, while the Soviets turned DEFA into their very own propaganda machine. German Cinema had died and would remain dead until the 60s.

But German Expressionism lived on abroad in its influences on Cinema across the world. As already mentioned, Hollywood was heavily moulded by the ground-breaking advances that German filmmakers trail blazed in the 20s. For the next 70 years, German Expressionism would appear in Horror movies, Sci-fi and the already mentioned Film Noir.

US Noir was primarily based on German Expressionism, using Lighting to define the entrapment of a main character in his own fate. Noir only exchanged fantastical dream scenery for realistic, grungy US metropolises. Hollywood Horror borrowed the notions of madness and fear and based early VfX work on techniques explored by Expressionist Filmmakers. Even Cinematic Classics such as Citizen Kane (Welles, 1942) tipped their hat to the German Filmmakers.

Hitchcock was influenced throughout his career with his styles of lighting and overacted horror. Today, big names such as Tim Burton openly confess to take inspiration from the German Filmmakers of the 20s.

German Expressionist Filmmakers built a foundation on which much of todays Cinema is based upon, so it is fundamental to any aspiring Filmmaker to study these old examples of cinematic art and truly understand where todays Cinema techniques originated from.