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Everything you’ve always wanted to know about German Expressionism…

This entry was posted on Feb 06 2010 by Meredith Slifkin '10

…but were too afraid to ask! And who could blame you? German Expressionism is creepy, but in a good way. For all of you horror fans out there, I hope you’re paying proper due to the genre that started it all. To give a brief history, German Expressionism originated in Germany (obviously) around the 1920s. It’s a highly stylistic early genre of film that functions largely as an alternative to realism. Its plots and characters are often steeped in madness or psychological distress, and thematically it toes the line between the real and the surreal, or even the paranormal. Probably more important is the visual manifestation of these themes in the distinctly German Expressionist style–the stark lights and darks, dramatic shadows, exaggerated make-up, and constructed sets that use sharp angles to create a setting that is determinedly non-real. The result is a disorienting exaggeration of reality, and an overwhelming sense of creepiness. The classic example is The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), which is definitely worth a gander if you’re at all interested in the genre.

from The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)

from The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)

Like vampire movies? Looking for something a little more edgy than Twilight? Then check out Nosferatu (1922), Murnau’s classic Dracula-like vampire extravaganza! The make-up may seem a bit corny and outdated, but Murnau actually uses some pretty impressive techniques for the times.

from Nosferatu (1922)

from Nosferatu (1922)

Probably the most accessible example of German Expressionism that you can find is Fritz Lang’s M (1931). This film, a little later than the others, exemplifies more clearly the style of narrative filmmaking that we’re used to today. It’s a brilliant and highly enjoyable film, that fits nicely between the classic German Expressionism style, and the exciting drama of the emerging film noir genre.

from M (1931)

from M (1931)

A note on German Expressionism’s enduring influence on modern cinema… Its thematic and stylistic influence is clearly visible in film noir, horror, psychological thrillers, and absurdist films. If you were to have a conversation with say, Alfred Hitchcock, or Tim Burton, I’m sure they’d have a lot to say on the matter.

Meredith Slifkin ’10

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