Monday, April 26, 2010

German Expressionist Film

German Expressionist Cinema was a short lived movement in film that occurred in a post World War I climate, peaking in Berlin in the 1920's. Though various forms of Expressionism were coinciding throughout Europe at this time, the Expressionist movement in Germany had its own distinct traits and influences. The filmmakers of the German Universum Film AG developed their own distinct style through use of symbolism and mise-en-scene to add mood and depth to their films. The major films of the era were, The Student of Prague (1920), The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), The Golem (1920), Destiny (1921), Nosferatu (1922), The Last Laugh (1924), and Metropolis (1927).

The horror of World War I left the people of Germany in a state of desperate poverty and psychologically scarred. The films of the German Expressionist school tapped into that, with plots that dealt with madness and other dark themes in a highly stylized and symbolic way. Since the German studios had little to offer filmmakers in the way of a budget, the directors of the movement took this opportunity to freely experiment in an attempt to compete with the films that were coming out of Hollywood. The most notable of these experiments came in the form of the films visual statements. The films of the German Expressionist period, were dynamic and wildly non-realistic, with sets made of odd, geometrically shaped buildings, paint used on floors and walls as symbolic representations of darkness, light, objects, and shadows, leaving the actors to appear to be performing in the three dimensional painting as opposed to a stage set typical of the Hollywood films of the era.

Historically, two major genres of cinema were influenced by German Expressionism. First being the horror film, particularly the Universal Studios classic monster films of the 1930's. and the second being Film Noir . The influence upon the early horror genre is more obvious and direct. When the Nazi Party rose to power in the 1930's most of the directors and producers fled Germany for the United States, seeking employment with the various Hollywood Studios. Karl Freund, who was a talented German filmmaker of the era, worked as the cinematographer on Tod Browning's Dracula (1931) which would be the essential introduction of the visual style of German Expressionism to the U.S. movie going public and would set the tone and style for the rest of the Universal monster movies of the 1930's.

Film Noir took a more subtle approach to the influence of German Expressionism. Film Noir, particularly the sub genre of the crime film, would embrace the darkness of expressionism and the plot themes more so than the visual styles and use of symbolism. Filmmakers like Fritz Lang, Alfred Hitchcock, Otto Preminger, Billy Wilder, and others, would infuse their films with techniques learned from Expressionism.

The influence of German Expressionism would continue on through the decades. From films like
Ridley Scott's. Blade Runner, to the films of Tim Burton. The strong influence of Fritz Lang's Metropolis (1927) on Batman Returns (1992) can be found both in both the visual representation of Gotham City and the use of the name Max Schrek, as the evil character portrayed by Christopher Walken in the film. Max Schrek was the name of the actor who played the vampire in Nosferatu (1922). But German Expressionism's greatest influence on Tim Burton can be scene in his film Edward Scissorhands (1990). In the film Burton cast Johnny Depp in the role of Edward, a character who is a visual tribute to Caligari's somnambulist servant. In the film, Burton borrowed themes from German Expressionism and modern Hollywood films and retold the story recasting Edward, the outsider, as the hero and the townspeople as the villains.

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