German Expressionism’s Greater Contribution to Cinema*

         The German expressionist film movement began soon after World War I as an offshoot of an overarching expressionist movement in the fledgling German republic. The films reflect the dark psychological state of mind of many of the German citizens as they were subjugated by the Treaty of Versailles, hindered by the worldwide economic depression of the 1930’s, and caught up in the subsequent rise of fascism. The effects of the German expressionist movement later had a large impact on Hollywood films as some film makers fled Europe for Hollywood.

         The rise of the German film industry between the world wars is partially due to the war itself. When America joined the Allies the country placed an embargo on Germany and German film makers, who had to previously compete with larger budget American films, suddenly had no competition. The German populace, desperate for escape from the war and depression, flooded the cinema. Dozens of studios and hundreds of films sprung up to fill the need for entertainment. Near the end of the war the government’s propaganda department partnered with some of the new studios to form Universum-Film Aktiengesellschaft (or Ufa). Ufa was instrumental in financing and promoting German films both inside and outside of Germany and was privatized in 1921. The creation of a central movie studio helped finance larger productions, which allowed German films to better compete with the imported Hollywood films. Sadly the financing of larger films led to Ufa’s eventual downfall and purchase by the Nazi party as Fritz Lang’s film, Metropolis, went heavily over budget and nearly bankrupted the studio. After the debacle with Metropolis the studio was bought by the Nazi party and began producing their early propaganda films though Ufa was eventually incorporated with the rest of the German film industry into a single, state-owned entity (Flippo).

         In the beginning, German films were confined to the trappings of small budgets and competition with larger Hollywood movies. The small budgets led to small sets and precious use of film while the competition led to an explosion of creativity in set design and acting. Stylistically German expressionism is defined by the heavy use of shadows, lighting effects and set design to create a dark, forbidding mise-en-scene that accompanies a plot line that drags a viewer through the darker areas of the human condition. The early films used their limited budgets to fulfill a practical need by creating surrealist settings instead of more realistic looking set pieces that would look cheap in comparison with larger foreign productions. The use of both light and shadow is another staple of expressionist film making, one that would have the most impact across the pond.

         Since the German expressionist movement came so early in cinema’s history, it had a profound and lasting effect on the style of modern film. The most immediate effect of movement is its help in the creation of the film-noir genre. With the genre’s penchant for heavy shadows and ne’re-do-well characters one can easily draw a visual and thematic connection. Another immediate influence of expressionism shows itself in the early Hollywood horror movies, specifically the ones created by Universal Studios in the early 1930’s. F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu and Faust and Robert Wiene’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari dealt with the supernatural and psychoanalytical elements that would later reveal themselves in Universal’s Dracula and Frankenstein films. In modern film the influence of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis can be seen in themes and settings of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner and in the design of many Tim Burton movies, such as Batman and Edward Scissorhands.

         German expressionism, though no longer an active film genre, was instrumental in the evolution of cinema in not only large-budget Hollywood films but also in smaller art-house cinema, as the expressionist movement helped bring smaller, non-realism based films to the attention of the greater world of cinema, making modern non-traditional films more palatable.

Work Cited

Flippo, Hyde. Ufa and German Film Chronology 2001. 16 Feb. 2008

Michael Belcher

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