The Great War and Expressionism in German Film

by Agustina Diaz Rhein

The impact of World War one on German society was immense; the country was affected not only by a humbling defeat, but also by the experiences people brought home from a technologically unfamiliar and altogether catastrophic new type of warfare. Cinema, like other forms of artistic expression, manifest these feelings of disillusionment, anxiety, fear and frustration, and it was in this context that German Expressionism emerged. Thus, it can be understood as an artistic response to the First World War; as it focuses on the surreal and subjective, Expressionism in film avoids the purely objective – perhaps as a way to escape the horrors and difficulties of the real world.

The 1920s was an explosive decade for art and cinema: in the Weimar Period, the German movie industry became one of the most sophisticated in the world, both thematically and technologically. Cinema in Germany first appeared during the last decade of the 19th Century. However, it was not until the Weimar Republic (1919-1933) after the Great War that cinema became truly popular to both Germans in general, and Berliners in particular.

Still part of the Silent Era of film, expressionist movies relied heavily on symbolism and artistic imagery — rather than realism — to tell their stories. Given the austere and sour mood in post-war Germany, it is not surprising that these films focused heavily on crime and horror. Amongst the most prominent films (because of their societal impact) are Nosferatu (F.W. Murnau, 1922), Metropolis (Fritz Lang, 1927) and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (Robert Weiner, 1920).

Nosferatu  is an unofficial adaptation of  Bram Stoker’s  epistolary novel Dracula. Given that the studio was not able to acquire the rights to the novel, Bram Stoker’s widow sued the studio after it opened, demanding all copies be burnt. She won the case, but one copy survived and was eventually duplicated – ensuring its survival to the present day. The plot is well known, but it’s the atmosphere that is absolutely haunting. The film became an excellent example of German Expressionism for dealing with death and fear in a surreal, almost dreamlike way.

Metropolis opened in 1927, and to this day remains a masterpiece in its own right. In the film, Fritz Lang tells a story of a dystopian future in a society as modern and technologically advanced as it is socially unjust. In the film, the workers rebel against the small elite and take over the city, but the two main characters bring about reconciliation between the opposing forces. In this way, Metropolis deals with important issues that deeply connect with the war experience, such as the consequences of modernity, and the effects on society brought by capitalism and the evolution of technology.

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is considered a horror classic, and has had a huge impact on the genre, the Expressionist movement itself and in future genres such as film noir. This film is a perfect example of what it is meant by German Expressionism. From a thematic point of view, it is a psychological thriller with horror elements that dig deep into the human psyche. Stylistically, it displays wild and distorted sets put together with a masterful use of shadow and light. A dream-like feeling haunts the film, although to the audience, it feels more like a nightmare, for many in Germany after WWI, this feeling of being trapped in a bad dream was ubiquitous.

German Expressionism, in addition to certain recurring themes, stressed the importance of camera management, special effects, and above all, of sets and lighting to enhance the mood of the film. These more artistic elements became an integral part of filmmaking. When the Nazis came to power, the German film industry suffered many great changes, and consequently, a significant number of German filmmakers immigrated to Hollywood. And with them, their style and approach to making movies. In a way, German Expressionism found a new space in Hollywood, where it continued to develop and from which it continued to influence world cinema for years to come.


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