Friday, October 31, 2014

10 Essential Films of German Expressionist Cinema.

  by Ekin Göksoy
best german expressionist films

Like Italian Neorealism, German Expressionism had a direct relation with the politics of the time. Neorealism emerged after fascism destroyed Italy. In response, leftist filmmakers tried to create a cinema which dealt with the social realities produced by fascism. 

German Expressionism was born in between two World Wars, in a growing Germany where Weimar Republic had a promising future. The German Emperor had been overthrown and democracy was established. Nevertheless, this new Republic still had its problems. There was a looming economic crisis and anti-Semitism was a on the rise. In the midst of all this, the new Republic promised freedom. The music and literary scenes were on the rise in Germany.

After the Allied ban on cinema was lifted on 1920 – a ban on making films against Allies of WWI – Germans started to search for a project which could combine social critique with the artistic perfection of German filmmakers. This project was Das Cabinet des Dr.Caligari – The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. This film which defined German Expressionism was critically hailed in Europe and further afield. It had a significant impact on filmmaking and brought about an opportunity for German filmmakers to work in international projects, particularly in United States.

After World War II, prominent cultural theorist Siegfried Kracauer wrote an important book on Expressionist film detailing how it foreshadowed the Nazi regime and the total eclipse of reason which accompanied it. Of course, German Expressionism was much more than a precessor of Nazism. This movement has many films with a unique style which can be attributed to its relationship to and reflection of architecture. 

Expressionism has a city-in-its mind: a city with sharp angles, great heights, crowded places; a city which is unsettling, distressing and in a constant state of anxiety.
To depict life in Weimar Republic, filmmakers chose unrealistic, cartoon-like places with dark colors, painted on canvas backgrounds which resemble Edvard Munch’s paintings (an Expressionist painter from Norway best known for his painting ‘The Scream’). 

After the rise of Third Reich, German Expressionist filmmakers had no choice but to move to the US. The traces of the filmmaking approach that they brought with them can be tracked in the 1940s film noirs.

German Expressionism, in fact, had a very short life span; however, its cinematic style evident through such things as lighting, sets and subtle, metaphorical language has had a great effect on history of cinema.

10. Schatten – Eine nächtliche Halluzination – Warning Shadows (1923)
Warning Shadows (1923)

Warning Shadows tells the story of a baron, his wife and four men who are her lovers. Set in 19th century Germany, the story follows a shadow player who uses his art to narrate the stories about each of the baroness’s lovers. Each story is in a way a prophecy in which the baron realizes that these men are after his wife, becomes jealous and does terrible things to them. Each story is told through shadows as a warning sign to men.

Warning Shadows is a powerful film where the lighting was characteristic and unique, as was the shadow work. Director Arthur Robison, aware of the power of the shadows, tries to imitate the shadow play with his actors also. 

Set in a claustrophobic castle, camera tracks through dark and narrow corridors and shows the characters behind doors in the shadowy candlelight. Despite its confusing ending, Warning Shadows is an important example of German Expressionism.

9. Der Student von Prag – The Student of Prague (Paul Wegener & Stellan Rye & Hanns Heinz Ewers, 1913)
the student of prague (1913)

This film tells a classic Faustian, ‘deal with devil’ story, a German legend famously reworked by Goethe, although Christopher Marlowe had popularised it in England two hundred years before Goethe’s version. 

In the film, a student in Prague saves an aristocrat woman and becomes obsessed with her. He makes a deal with a mysterious sorcerer who promises him wealth and fame. Known also as the first feature length horror film, The Student of Prague seems to be inspired both by The Portrait of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson.

The Student of Prague is an important film for German Expressionism and has a remake in the same style which is equally important. In 1926, Henrik Galeen, director of The Golem, shot its remake, which is also worth checking out it.

8. Der Müde Tod – Destiny (Fritz Lang, 1921)
Destiny (1921)

Great German director Fritz Lang’s first important movie Destiny is a tale comprising three stories. The scenes binding the three stories together have an uncanny setting but the film can be seen as an epic love story. A woman is given three chances by Death in three different settings, a Persian, a Venetian in Renaissance and in China, to save her love from death.

In Destiny, Fritz Lang uses innovative effects and hints at the unique style which he develops in his transition movie M. Douglas Banks bought the screening rights in the US and used its Persian extracts in his own movie, Thief of Baghdad.

7. Der Golem – The Golem (Paul Wegener & Henrik Galeen, 1915)
The Golem (1915)

Again a love story but this time a sinister one. The Golem is directed by Galeen and Wegener who also play the leading roles. It tells the story of a man who buys a clay Golem statue and brings it to life. However, when the Golem falls in love with the man’s wife is rejected by her, he becomes brutally out of control.

Inspired by an ancient Jewish tale, The Golem has overtones of Frankenstein with its changes of character depicted in emotional ways. The film is set in a German village in which buildings and houses are made of mud-bricks; but all the streets seem endless and all the houses have disturbing shapes and surprising curves. The setting is designed to prepare us for the bitter ending of the movie.

6. Der Letzte Mann – The Last Laugh (F. W. Murnau, 1924)
The Last Laugh (1924)

This is the first film on the list that is not a horror movie. The Last Laugh, written by one of the pioneers German Expressionism, Carl Mayer, starring the well-known German actor Emil Jannings and directed by the talented but ill-fated Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau, tells the story of a doorman of a great hotel. The film has nearly no intertitles and those that Murnau chose not to add do not convey dialogue. It focuses on life of a middle-class citizen in the post-war period. As an important film of German Expressionism, The Last Laugh also is featured within Kammerspielfilm ecole.

In the film, the poor, old doorman played by Jannings is demoted to washroom attendant in the hotel. He seems dogged by misfortune – even to the point that as the film was about to end on a touch of hope the writer/director iintervenes via an intertitle and changes his life completely. 

With its innovative, maybe even revolutionary style, The Last Laugh is a great example of F. W. Murnau’s talent and imagination. It is considered the movie which made him famous and paved the way for his move to Hollywood.

5. M (Fritz Lang, 1931)
m 1931

M, magnum opus of acclaimed director Fritz Lang, is a rather late movie of the movement. It is the only ‘talkie’ on this list and has both political and artistic importance. Joseph Goebbels, propaganda minister in the Nazi Government, always showed an interest in Lang’s filmmaking and had a special connection with this film. He asked Lang to direct Nazi propaganda movies. Lang said he would think it and escaped to Paris that night. Lang always thought that Goebbels got the movie “wrong”.

M is set in Berlin which is haunted by a child-molesting serial killer brilliantly portrayed by Peter Lorre. The film moves between the story of the killer – who whistles the tune of ‘In the Hall of the Mountain King’ whenever he feels the urge to murder – and the police who are hunting him. Its striking ending is a big question thrown on the face of German people. The film depicts the mass hysteria of then-Germany in a very visionary way. It was an early warning of the rising Nazi dictatorship, or perhaps of all potential dictatorships.

4. Die Büchse der Pandora – Pandora’s Box (G. W. Pabst, 1929)
Pandora’s Box

G.W. Pabst is known to international audiences for two things. The first is this film; the second is being mentioned by name several times in Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds. Of course, Pandora’s Box has a significant value for Pabst’s career. However, the movie owes its fame to Louise Brooks, an American star, who played the leading role, Lulu, a flapper and the mistress of a rich man.

Pandora’s Box tells the story of Lulu, an ill-fated seductive young woman who can be seen as the first example of the femme fatale. Her character annoyed lots of people in Germany since her behavior was viewed as immoral. However, Lulu made Louise Brooks famous and inspired the female characters of film noir. The film is a brilliant portrait of Weimar era and the Jazz age, where there is no place for “free” women and what awaits for those who would like to stand alone and strong is tragedy.

3. Metropolis (Fritz Lang, 1927)

Metropolis is an important example of German Expressionism and of early science fiction. A great inquiry on future of humanity, a critique of society, a prominent dystopian film. Fritz Lang’s remarkable work has dazzlingly designed sets, costumes and unpredictable characters. Beneath its magnificent artwork and set design, the film tells the eternal conflict between oppressed and oppressor.

The movie depicts the story of Freder, son of the ruler of the city and Maria, a working class woman who strives to overcome the social and economic stratification of the city. The city was designed to reflect the social hierarchy with the upper classes living in imposing high-rise buildings and the lower classes dwell underground. A mad scientist, Rotwang, creates a robot identical to Maria in order to thwart the revolt led by Maria and Freder. However, nothing goes as he plans and through Freder’s character, a way to connect the brain and hands is found.

Metropolis received mixed reviews at the time. It was technically breathtaking and revolutionary. However, its message was criticized by both right and left wing scholars in Germany. Nevertheless, it is an indispensable movie. With its subtle references to art history and religious texts, and its design influenced both by Dutch Masters, ancient architecture and Art Deco, Metropolis is a great movie for all cinephiles. It provides important social critique despite the ending being considered by many as naïve.

2. Nosferatu (F. W. Murnau, 1922)

The first Dracula adaptation into big screen, Nosferatu is the magnum opus of director Murnau (at least in his German period, since Sunrise is also a masterpiece) . Nosferatu is the classical vampire story with “nosferatu” replacing “vampire” and Count Orlok replaced Count Dracula. This film is a classical example of German Expressionism with its dark/light games, use of shadow and its cornered, harsh costume and space design. For example, the city where Thomas Hutter (Jonathan Harker in the original) lives has a peaceful and realistic design; but Count Orlok’s castle, his costumes and the vampire itself obviously has one of the most disturbing design approach ever in film history.

Max Schreck, actor who played Orlok in the movie, played his role so convincing that the rumour that he is really a vampire continues today and even inspired a movie in 1999, Shadow of the Vampire. This movie was sued by relatives of Bram Stoker and it was decided to be destroyed; all but one copy survived up to date giving a chance to all cinephiles in the world to watch this amazing movie.

1. Das Cabinet des Dr.Caligari – The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (Robert Wiene, 1920)

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is a truly masterpiece and the most characteristic movie of the genre. Also, it is the first movie with a twist in the tail. Caligari, with its genre-defining set design, make-up, costume design, unrealistic use of paints, lights and shadows is the most important film of German Expressionism.

Furthermore, Caligari is the movie which is used both in Siegfried Kracauer’s book “From Caligari to Hitler” (1947) and Rüdiger Suchsland’s documentary “Caligari – When Horror Comes to Cinema” (2014). It is seen as an important reflection of the German society and the political situation which led the Nazi Party, Hitler to the government and whole world to a tragedy.

In the movie, Dr.Caligari a magician type doctor comes to a city and exhibits a somnambulist which he can control hypnotically. The somnambulist has a striking ability to answer questions about the future when in sleep. Somnambulist Cesare actually is a slave of Dr.Caligari and their master/slave relationship brings horror to the city and madness to the leading characters of the film. But who is really mad is not certain until its striking end.
Dr.Caligari has an innovative style which comprised flashbacks, dream sequences, twisted endings – a new approach in cinema which is still fresh and eye-opener. With its exaggerated acting and stylish expressionist understanding in the “unreal/past/dream” scenes and its more consistent narration in the frame story, Robert Wiene marks his name in the history of cinema with this unbelievable movie.

Author Bio: Ekin Can Göksoy is a social scientist/author with an M.A in Cultural Studies from İstanbul Bilgi University, Turkey. He is working on subcultures, sociology of Internet and freedom. He is an occasional cinema writer pursuing his aim of making movies since 7th grade when he watched The Man Who Knew Too Much of Alfred Hitchcock who happened to be his favorite director of all-time.



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