EXPRESSIONISM AND FILM HISTORY
As early as 1930 Paul Rotha was conflating expressionist cinema with German national cinema, but the responsibility for the semantic expansion of the term rests primarily with the influential German film historians Kracauer and Eisner. Both writers discuss only a handful of films while ignoring the thousands of comedies and other genre films produced in Berlin in the 1920s. Ironically, what for Kurtz had still been a revolutionary and liberating aesthetic form is inverted in their histories, turning expressionism into a prescient manifestation of German fascism and romantic doom—visual evidence for the German predilection toward Nazism and mass murder.
b. Vienna, Austria, 5 December 1890, d. 2 August 1976
Considered one of the greatest directors of the classical German and Hollywood cinemas, Fritz Lang was equally at home in large-scale studio epics and dark, brooding melodramas. Throughout his career he was known for his intense visual style, which wed expressionist lighting techniques with highly geometric compositions to articulate a fatalistic, entrapping world.
After beginning as a scriptwriter in 1917, Lang attained a huge commercial success directing Die Spinnen ( The Spiders ) in 1920. That same year he married Thea von Harbou, his scriptwriter on all his subsequent German films, including Der Müde Tod ( Between Worlds , 1921), Dr. Mabuse, der Spieler ( Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler , 1923), Die Nibelungen (1924), and Metropolis (1927). Created at the giant Neubabelsberg Studios of Universum Film Aktiengesellschaft (Ufa), these films are characterized by German mysticism, monumental sets and costumes, and stylized compositions. With M (1931), Lang immediately set new standards for the sound film, in particular through his montages of sound and image. That film starred Peter Lorre as a "sympathetic" child murderer, introducing darker themes that would become more prevalent in his American work.
Lang was forced into exile by the Nazis, ending up in Hollywood in June 1934. His first American film was Fury (1936), which featured Spencer Tracy as a man falsely accused of murder and almost lynched by a mob. Equally downbeat, You Only Live Once (1937) was a reworking of the Bonnie and Clyde story. Without a studio contract, Lang worked only occasionally in the next years. With four anti-Nazi films, including Hangmen Also Die! (1943) and Ministry of Fear (1944), Lang attempted to educate the public about fascism. Both films are suffused with a film noir atmosphere, as are Woman in the Window (1944) and Scarlet Street (1945). Lang was soon forced to take on a variety of low-budget projects, and was temporarily blacklisted during the McCarthy era due to his association with writer Bertolt Brecht, a known Communist sympathizer. In 1957 Lang returned to Germany to direct the two-part Das indische Grabmal ( Indian Tomb , 1958), and Die tausend Augen des Dr. Mabuse ( The Thousand Eyes of Dr. Mabuse , 1960). In 1963 he appeared as a disenchanted Hollywood film director in Jean-Luc Godard's Le Mépris ( Contempt , 1963).
While for decades critics considered Lang to have gone into decline after his great German films, auteurist and more recent feminist readings have recuperated his American work. Reevaluating his contributions to both the anti-Nazi film cycle and to film noir, critics see Lang's Hollywood films in terms of his dark vision of the American bourgeoisie: Edward G. Robinson's characters in Window and Scarlet Street , for example, are middle-class citizens who commit or cover up murder for a femme fatale. Stylistically, Lang's films wed German expressionism to American genre cinema, finding film noir a congenial form for the expression of his dark, determinist vision.
Der Müde Tod ( Between Worlds , 1921), Die Nibelungen (1924), Metropolis (1927), M (1931), Fury (1936), Hangmen Also Die! (1943), Woman in the Window (1944), Scarlet Street (1945), The Big Heat (1953)
Bogdanovich, Peter. Fritz Lang in America . New York: Praeger, 1969.
Grant, Barry Keith, ed. Fritz Lang Interviews . Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2003.
Gunning, Tom. The Films of Fritz Lang: Allegories of Vision and Modernity . London: British Film Institute, 2000.
Jenkins, Stephen, ed. Fritz Lang: The Image and the Look . London: British Film Institute, 1981.
McGilligan, Patrick. Fritz Lang: The Nature of the Beast . New York: St. Martin's, 1997.
Kracauer, a former film critic in Weimar Germany, wrote his book From Caligari to Hitler (1947) while in exile in New York during and immediately after World War II, primarily to explain to Americans why the German nation sank into barbarism. Kracauer almost completely ignores German expressionism's stylistic features, focusing instead on narrative threads and typologies that buttress his case that the cinema of the Weimar Republic gave evidence of the deluge to come by visualizing German psychology, specifically a supposed national character trait that embraced authoritarian figures. Critics have noted that Kracauer's analyses are highly selective and teleological, and the book leaves the impression that the expressionism of Caligari was inherent in all subsequent German cinema.
Eisner's The Haunted Screen , first published in France in 1952, was likewise the work of a German Jewish film critic in exile, although, unlike Kracauer, Eisner's purpose was less ideological than art historical. Attempting to analyze the stylistic uniqueness of German art cinema in the 1920s while acknowledging its precedents in German romanticism, Eisner discusses two essentially unrelated phenomena: the influence of theater impresario Max Reinhardt and film expressionism. In fact, Reinhardt's utilization of chiaroscuro (interplay of light and shadow) and Kammerspiel (an intimate stage, involving only a few characters and sparse sets) mise-en-scène had little to do with German expressionism, as Eisner herself admitted in a series of articles published in the wake of her book's reception. Yet her description of formal lighting techniques and mise-en-scène in the films of Fritz Lang (1890–1976) and F. W. Murnau (1888–1931) have been associated with German expressionism ever since, as have the stylized acting common to much German silent cinema.
By the dawn of Anglo-American film studies, then, expressionism and German Weimar cinema had become so conceptually intertwined that the terms were virtually interchangeable. Lang's Der Müde Tod ( Between Worlds , 1921) and Metropolis (1927), G.W. Pabst's (1885–1967) Die Freudlose Gasse ( The Joyless Street , 1925) and Die 3groschenoper ( The Threepenny Opera , 1931), Ernst Lubitsch's (1892–1947) Die Bergkatze ( The Wildcat , 1921), E.A. Dupont's (1891–1956) Varieté ( Variety , 1925), and numerous other German films were subsumed under the term German expressionist cinema , which itself became a stylistic signpost in the film historical canon, situated somewhere between D.W. Griffith's American cinema of the 1910s and Soviet revolutionary cinema of the 1920s. If expressionism did enter into idiom of silent German art cinema, it was probably the highly stylized, somewhat static acting style of German expressionist thespians. This is particularly obvious in a film such as Hintertreppe ( Backstairs , Leopold Jessner, 1921), which is a Kammerspiel without any expressionist trappings in its visual design, but features pure expressionist performances by Fritz Kortner (1892–1970), William Dieterle (1893–1972), and the usually nonexpressionist actress Henny Porten (1890–1960). Expressionist actors, including Werner Krauss (1884–1959), Conrad Veidt (1893–1943), Reinhold Schünzel (1886–1954), and Kortner, became among the most sought-after in German films of that period.
In the past, traditional and formalist film critics differentiated films, filmmakers, and epochs through a series of binary oppositions whereby "realism" signified all attempts at depicting the world in terms of the conventions of a unified space and time, as had been passed down from the Renaissance (according to Andre Bazin), while expressionism defined attempts to visualize the universe from the strictly subjective point of view of the artist. According to this view, the push and pull of film forms began with the Lumière brothers (realism) and Georges Méliès (expressionism) at the very dawn of cinema. However, more recent early cinema studies have demonstrated that no such polarity existed at the time. Furthermore, film semiotics and postmodern theory have taken the field well beyond such simple, binary oppositions so that it is questionable whether
the continued use of the term expressionism in its broadest sense remains useful.
What, then, should expressionism mean? Given its origins in modernist art, expressionism should be seen as a particular form of film design that privileges the subjective over the objective, the fantastic and the uncanny over the mundane and everyday, packaging both trivial and high art into film works that address cinema audiences within the context of commercial film culture. Contrary to Edschmid's pronouncements, subjectivity in expressionist film is not seen merely as the "expression" of an individual artist, but rather as a subjectivity shared by an audience willing to enter into an alien world in order to partake of the visual pleasures such a design affords. Unlike classical Hollywood narrative, expressionist cinema tends toward self-reflexivity, toward making audiences aware of the image's artifice and their own subject position as consumers of images, whether through the undisguised use of painted sets, through the nonnaturalistic use of color film stock and lenses, or by distancing the audience from the actors' performances through stylized poses. In any case, it seems clear that such a definition no longer carries with it any specific ideological connotations, other than a style in opposition to classical Hollywood narrative.
Expressionism, properly speaking, refers exclusively to the artistic movement in the specific historical period in Germany in the early 1920s. The term also refers to German art films in the 1920s that were strongly influenced by expressionism. These films include such stylistic qualities as high key lighting, canted camera angles, subjective camera movement, stylized sets, nonnaturalistic acting, nonlinear narratives, a tendency toward dreamlike images, and Gothic content that often privileges narratives of sexual excess, like Genuine . More broadly defined, expressionism may refer to Universal's horror films of the 1930s and films noir (many made by exiled German filmmakers) of the 1940s and 1950s, as well as contemporary films that quote German expressionist cinema, such as the films of Guy Maddin (b. 1956).
Bazin, André. What Is Cinema? , vol. 1, edited and translated by Hugh Gray. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1967.
Barlow, John D. German Expressionist Film . Boston: Twayne, 1982.
Eisner, Lotte. The Haunted Screen: Expressionism in the German Cinema and the Influence of Max Reinhardt . Berkeley: University of California Press, 1969.
Elsaesser, Thomas. Weimar Cinema and After: Germany's Historical Imaginary . London: Routledge, 2000.
Gay, Peter. Weimar Culture . London: Penguin, 1968.
Gianetti, Louis. Understanding Movies . Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1990.
Huaco, George. The Sociology of Film Art . New York: Basic Books, 1965.
Kracauer, Siegfried. From Caligari to Hitler . Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1947.
Kurtz, Rudolf. Expressionismus und Film . Berlin: Verlag der Lichtbildbühne, 1926; Reprinted Zurich: Verlag Hans Rohr, 1965. All quotations translated by Jan-Christopher Horak (2006).
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Thompson, Kristin, and David Bordwell. Film History: An Introduction . New York: McGraw-Hill, 1994.