Dr. Harald Menz
German Expressionism and Early Cinema
German expressionism is one of the most fundamental movements of early cinema. With its basic foundation stemming from the creation of the Universum Film AG in 1917 by the German government, expressionism found a happy home in Germany until, arguably the late 1920s (Wolf). Expressionism changed the canvas of cinema with its technical innovations as well as its impact on Hollywood, not only with its borrowing of ideas, but with the emigration of German actors, writers, and directors to Hollywood, such as Murnau and his creation of Sunrise (Welsh, 98). American films at the same time as this movement in Germany were based in realism, with very distinct ideas of good and bad, comedy, and aesthetics. German film was seen as highly compound, with thick, perplexing stories that were more solicitous instead of being superficial. The notable works from this movement have been time tested references to the rise of cinema, and have been looked upon for reference in film genres in later years not only because of the innovation and place in history, but also for the overt artistic styling that has been difficult to match since. It seems as though German cinema, almost all together must be discussed in its own category. Just as French cinema, historically speaking, Germany has seemed to keep at least a somewhat independent cinema culture from that of Hollywood and its beginnings are either independent from Hollywood or influencing for the most part. Although its beginnings were earlier, “…the period roughly between 1897 and 1908, motion pictures in Germany had graduated from a side-show novelty to a fast developing form, if not of art, then certainly of popular entertainment” (Figge, 308). “By 1909, however, hundreds of new cinemas were offering longer and more cohesive programs”, which laid the groundwork for the progressive technical explosion that was the Expressionist movement (Figgins, 308). Germany reached a height in silent cinema in the 1920s, the time after World War I (Wexman 38). This was a national time of crisis with most of the culpability of the Great War being put on Germany not only politically, but more enduringly and impactfully, economically; this created discord in the sociopolitical environment. Due to such social upheaval, film was seen as an expression of “counter activity” to the state of affairs in Germany (Wexman, 38). German expressionism is one of the more major film movements which helped mold the face of early cinema, and has had enduring impacts on the horror genre, film noir and is even seen trickling into modern day cinema. The innovations that came along with this movement are astounding, especially given the modicum of improvement in physical film itself, which one could argue, were brought about by the mass creative and artistic movement expressionism fundamentally is. Some of these technical aspects include a highly subjective and dynamic camera, design innovations including staging and set designs, and being the first movement to actually implement scripting of films (Dilman). Telltale signs of expressionism are the use of backlighting to create a sense of dimensionality and montage, and splicing the film together to make the story be more seamless and continuous, which was also a style used by the Soviet film movement (Figge, 313). Some of the indications of expressionism seem to be the anti-heroism, the complex philosophical and psychological plots and primarily urban settings. The scenes are intentionally shot to look staged, creating an alternate reality on screen with its highly geometric scapes, tilted stages, clashing vertical and horizontal lines and overshadowing. Indeed as Warm said, Expressionist film is art come to life (Wexman). Historical and mythological themes are very telling of this movement, as are abstract story lines that seem philosophically or psychologically provoking, fantastic ideas,...