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. Caligari, Nosferatu, 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. Caligari, Nosferatu, 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
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.