Expessionism in Film



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For my film Waxworks I have tried to create sets so stylized that they evince no idea of reality.

My fairground is sketched in with an utter renunciation of detail. All it seeks to engender is an indescribable fluidity of light, moving shapes, shadows, lines and curves. It is not extreme reality that the camera perceives, but the reality of the inner event, which is more profound, effective and moving than what we see through everyday eyes, and I equally believe that the cinema can reproduce the truth, heightened effectively.

Paul Leni (Film Director)

Expressionist film is usually a term associated with certain films that were produced in Weimar Germany. What is included in or excluded from this cannon varies with different commentators. However, few will argue that it started with Richard Weine’s Des Cabinets de Dr. Caligari

Des Cabinets de Dr Caligari revolves around Dr. Caligari and his somnambulist Cesare. Through Cesare, the doctor brings havoc to a small German medieval town; Cesare starts to murder its inhabitants. Weine employed the set designers Hermann Warm, Walter Rohrig and Walter Reimann to devise the setting for the town. The sets were studio built highly stylized, with distorted perspectives, twisted shapes and sharp angles. These elements exaggerated the lack of realism and accentuated tension within the film. For example, the high stool that the town clerk is perched on is out of proportion to the desks and the size of the room it is situated in. When sitting on the stool the clerk’s head practically touches the ceiling, suggesting a claustrophobic and tense space. The sets also facilitated the use of chiaroscuro.

Throughhout the film. Shadows are employed to heighten dramatic effect. When Cesare murders Alan in his bedroom the audience are aware of his presence by his shadow on the wall. The gestures of the actors are highly defined and the movement from one gesture to another is jarred, reflecting the twisting and sharp angles of the set. This is also reminiscent of the sharp angles employed by Expressionist painters. The ending of the film was not the ending intended by the director.The producer devised the ending in order, it is said, to protect the sensibility of the spectator. The ending of the film concludes that Dr Caligari is the head of a mental asylum with Cesare and the chief protagonists being inmates. Why did the producer need to seal the story within the imagination of a mental patient? To answer this I believe we need to look at expressionism as a concept in very much the same way Paul Leni has described in the opening quotation as a means of representing the inner event.

The highly stylized sets, the adoption of chiaroscuro lighting, a macabre or sinister plot, the use of shadows and an exaggerated form of acting are characteristics of Expressionist film. To what extent those films labeled as expressionistic all contain the same elements is contestable and therefore trying to define Expressionism in terms of style becomes problematic. For example, in Fritz Lang’s film M the sets are not highly stylized but actually are realistic. The plot focuses on a series of child murders. Peter Lorre plays Franz Beckert, the murderer. We are made aware of his presence and the forthcoming danger to his next victim, Elsie Breckman, by his shadow. Lang also adopts techniques that distance the viewer from the subject by not showing the trauma being felt by the victim’s parents. He focuses instead on the criminal underworld and their resolution to capture the perpetrator. Once the killer is captured he is subjected to a kangaroo court. It is here that the doppelganger; theme comes into effect when Beckert declares that he is not responsible for the killings but is forced to kill by the voices inside his head. In Lang’s Dr Mabuse the Gambler, Dr Mabuse uses his psychic powers in order to embezzle money from his opponents. The master villain has remained elusive from the police. The plot outlines the eventual capture of Dr Mabuse. The sets are studio built, combining Baroque and Art Deco elements. As we can see in these two films there is no consistent style and therefore, when trying to understand Expressionist film, we need to analyse it in the context of Germany at the time.

After the defeat of the First World War, Germany was in a state of political and economic turmoil. The War reparations were crippling the nation and resulted in high unemployment and high inflation. The post war period was a time for self-reflection in Germany. Individuals were grappling with what had preceded -the defeat and horrors of war- and what should succeed. For some it was a time when one could transform a Germany from a country that was obsessed with materiality to a country that looked to spirituality to shape its outcome, that is, the architectural utopias of the Expressionist architects. Film is a medium where one can depict the hopes and desires of individuals and the Expressionist film portrayed a specific viewpoint of certain individuals. Therefore Expressionism is best defined in the manner Paul Leni refers to as a representation of the inner reality. The inner reality in this case was the threat or danger of the prevailing undercurrents that in existed at the time. It portrayed an angst that was generated by the forces within the society of the time. It was a time of change that was generated at all levels within society. Through Expressionist films their creators portrayed the threat and danger of the changing dynamics within Germany. Dr Mabuse, Franz Beckert, and Dr Caligari are manifestations of this danger, and techniques such as chiaroscuro and distorted shapes were devices to magnify this danger.

Selection of Expressionist Film

Nosferatu 1922: Directed by Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau.

Dr Mabuse the Gambler: Directed by Fritz Lang.

Genuine 1920: Directed by Robert Wiene.

The Golem: how he came into the world 1920: Directed by Paul Wegener.

The last man (usually known as the last laugh. F W Murnau.

Destiny 1921: Directed by Fritz Lang.

Waxworks 1924: Directed by Paul Leni.

M 1931: Directed by Fritz Lang.

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