Politics in 1910 Germany was highly tumultuous. World War I dominated the country, and most of its films were geared towards recruiting soldiers for the war effort, and hardly any films were made, simply for the enjoyment of making films. However, 1918 saw the end of the war, with Germany being defeated and slapped in the face with a treaty that they couldn’t ignore.
Now with the restrictions on what goes in and out of the country, the German film market was rapidly declining, and they needed new ideas to revive their dying industry, and who better to do that than the UFA (Universum Film Aktiengesellschaft – AG for short). With the release of Madam DuBarry, the German film markets began to rise. Of course, as the UFA’s influence began to dominate Germany, smaller companies were becoming less and less independent. One of these companies was Erich Pommer’s Decla (which would become Decla-Bioscop in later years). It was this small company that created the first ever German Expressionist film, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.
According to Bordwell and Thompson, the writers of the film, Carl Mayer and Hans Janowitz, wanted a highly stylised film and so with the help of the three designers they brought onto the scene, Hermann Warm, Walter Reimann and Walter Röhrig, they incorporated the artistic style of German Expressionism. It had been an avant-garde movement in the art world, eventually moving on to theatre, literature and architecture, and because Film was becoming a major hit around the world, Mayer, Janowitz and their three “amigos” decided to see if this artistic style could be just as big as the industry itself.
Needless to say, it did, and the film itself became a major hit in the international market, eventually winning over Europe and causing a storm in the USA, despite the heavy tariffs and prejudice against the German film industry. However, the film’s release did not go uncontested. As David Puttnam (1997) claims, “[For Americans] Germany was depicted as a society riddled by class hatred, in which the sexual immorality of its citizens manifested itself in a voyeuristic enjoyment of ‘horror and suffering on the screen’”.
His statement is arguably true. If we look closely at The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Towards the end of the film, Francis, the protagonist, proposes to his fiancé, Jane, but she declines, claiming that she can only marry royalty. It’s a somewhat overt example of this claim and it does run parallel with the protectionist attitude the USA had for its own film industry. However, nothing could stop the movement and eventually, America had to accept the fact that Germany was soon becoming as popular as they were.
For several years, in the early 1920s, German Expressionism dominated the international market, but as soon as the German economy was stabilised, in 1924, the movement all but disappeared. German saw an influx of foreign films and failed in exporting their own homemade productions, and in 1927, the German Expressionist movement was gone, or at least, it disappeared as a major player in film markets. What did manage to remain was the influence the movement had on filmmakers all around the world.
The Departure from Germany to America
With the rise of the Nazi regime, it’s no wonder that many Expressionist artists, including those in the film industry, fled to America, and although their styles died as a means to create a film, key elements of the movement lived on. In fact, these elements inspired many other American filmmakers and gave rise to many other genres, which might not have existed without the styles of German Expressionism.
The horror genre probably wouldn’t have become a major player in the film industry if it weren’t for the influence of German Expressionism. In fact, one of horror’s most famous directors, Alfred Hitchcock, probably wouldn’t have made his most famous masterpieces, if it weren’t for the German Expressionist movement. Films like Psycho or I Confess were heavily influenced by German Expressionism and it is rather evident in the way the films are lighted. The high contrast and the eerie use of shadow figures all hark to the strange shapes and distorted sets of the old German Expressionist films. Not only did German Expressionism inspire the classic horror films, but it also inspired other genres like film noir, and would go on to inspire thrillers and other fantasy related films. For example, in the modern day, Tim Burton’s gothic styled films can be considered to be inspired by German Expressionism, since films like Batman Returns and Sleepy Hollow all have some elements of the distorted shapes that defined German Expressionist films.
So, although the movement died in 1927, the film style never really did, and even though it has been diluted by many other film movements and styles, it isn’t too hard to find the quirky and eccentric elements of German Expressionism in today’s films. The distorted shapes and use of high contrasts are the most common ways that can help distinguish if a film is inspired by German Expressionism or not.