What Is German Expressionism? A Crash Course on the Cinematic Tradition That Gave Us Metropolis, Nosferatu & More

Ger­man Expres­sion­ism: we’ve all heard of it, and though only some would even try to define it, we all, like old Pot­ter Stew­art, know it when we see it. Or do we? The move­ments under the umbrel­la of Ger­man Expres­sion­ism bore vivid and influ­en­tial fruits in archi­tec­ture, paint­ing, sculp­ture and espe­cial­ly film — The Cab­i­net of Dr. Cali­gariNos­fer­atu, and Metrop­o­lis, to say noth­ing of their count­less descen­dants, will come right to the minds of most movie-lovers — but the cir­cum­stance from which it first arose remain not par­tic­u­lar­ly well-under­stood by the pub­lic, or at least those of the pub­lic who haven’t seen the brief Crash Course video on Ger­man Expres­sion­ism above (and the even short­er No Film School explain­er below).

Though it also stands per­fect­ly well alone, this primer comes as the sev­enth chap­ter of the six­teen-part Crash Course Film His­to­ry, which we first fea­tured back in April. Here host Craig Ben­zine address­es the ques­tion of just what makes The Cab­i­net of Dr. Cali­gariNos­fer­atu, and Metrop­o­lis in par­tic­u­lar so mem­o­rable by exam­in­ing each film and its auteur direc­tor — Robert Wiene, F.W. Mur­nau, and Fritz Lang, respec­tive­ly  — in turn.

The cre­ativ­i­ty of Ger­man Expres­sion­ist film, like so much cre­ativ­i­ty, arose from lim­i­ta­tions: Ger­many had just lost World War I, most of its film indus­try had under­gone state-spon­sored con­sol­i­da­tion, and inde­pen­dent film­mak­ers who did­n’t want to make large-scale cos­tume dra­mas (the genre of choice to dis­tract the pub­lic from the coun­try’s pover­ty and dis­or­der) had to find a new way not just to get their movies made, but to give audi­ences a rea­son to watch them. With 1920’s The Cab­i­net of Dr. Cali­gari (which you can watch below along with Nos­fer­atu), a small stu­dio named Decla led the way.

“Writ­ten by Hans Janowitz and Carl May­er,” says Ben­zine, “this film was the­mat­i­cal­ly based on their expe­ri­ences as sol­diers in World War I and their dis­trust of author­i­tar­i­an lead­er­ship.” It inno­vat­ed by pre­sent­ing its sto­ry “expres­sion­is­ti­cal­ly, rather than real­is­ti­cal­ly. That is, instead of mak­ing things like the sets, cos­tumes, and props as real­is­tic as pos­si­ble,” the film­mak­ers “delib­er­ate­ly dis­tort­ed every­thing with­in the frame,” all “designed to look delib­er­ate­ly arti­fi­cial and throw you off bal­ance.” This “high­ly sub­jec­tive” cin­e­mat­ic sen­si­bil­i­ty, devel­oped in Ger­many and then else­where (espe­cial­ly the coun­tries to which Ger­man artists moved in flight from fas­cism) through­out the 1920s, still appears in mod­ern film, well beyond the work of avowed fan Tim Bur­ton: Ben­zine finds that, “from Silence of the Lambs to Don’t Breathe to any­thing M. Night Shya­malan has ever put on film, the tech­niques of Ger­man Expres­sion­ism are creep­ing us out to this very day.”

You can see 10 clas­sic films from this tra­di­tion in our post: Watch 10 Clas­sic Ger­man Expres­sion­ist Films: From Nos­fer­atu to The Cab­i­net of Dr. Cali­gari

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Take a 16-Week Crash Course on the His­to­ry of Movies: From the First Mov­ing Pic­tures to the Rise of Mul­ti­plex­es & Net­flix

From Cali­gari to Hitler: A Look at How Cin­e­ma Laid the Foun­da­tion for Tyran­ny in Weimar Ger­many

How Ger­man Expres­sion­ism Influ­enced Tim Bur­ton: A Video Essay

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities and cul­ture. He’s at work on a book about Los Ange­les, A Los Ange­les Primer, the video series The City in Cin­e­ma, the crowd­fund­ed jour­nal­ism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Ange­les Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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