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German Expressionism was an artistic movement that started before World War I in Germany, and culminated in the 20s with Expressionist cinema. It was an extremely influential genre that demonstrated cinema could be an art form, and not just entertainment. These films were major contributor to the Horror genre and important precursors of Film Noir.
During the period of recovery following World War I, the German film industry was booming. However, because of the hard economic times, filmmakers found it difficult to create movies that could compare with the lush, extravagant features coming from Hollywood. The filmmakers of the German Universum Film AG studio developed their own style by using symbolism and mise en scène to add mood and deeper meaning to a movie, concentrating on the dark fringes of human experience.
Universum Film AG • Formed in 1917, UFA is a film studio that was designed as a government-owned producer of World War I propaganda and public service films. It was created through the consolidation of most of Germany's commercial film companies, including Nordisk and Decla.
1914: 47 Foreign Film Companies 25 German Film Companies • 1918: 10- Foreign Film Companies 310 Film Companies
“All human action is expressive; a gesture is an intentionally expressive action. All art is expressive - of its author and of the situation in which he works - but some art is intended to move us through visual gestures that transmit, and perhaps give release to, emotions and emotionally charged messages. Such art is expressionist.” • Norbert Lyndon
Expressionism tends to be characterized by showing the subconscious feelings of the characters and making them the surface of the work. The audience will be shown not what is strictly, naturalistically real, but an abstract view what the characters feel is real. This is generally portrayed as fairly dark. This usually involves surreal set designs, dialog that dispenses with naturalism to let the characters inner motivations and thoughts be stated with brutal honesty, and stark lighting effects. A strong nightmarish atmosphere tends to prevail.
The plots and stories of the Expressionist films often dealt with • madness, • insanity, • betrayal, and • other “intellectual” topics (as opposed to standard action-adventure and romantic films).
The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1920) • Caligari featured just about all the primary elements we associate with German Expressionist film: • Anti-heroic (if not downright evil) characters at the center of the story... • which often involves madness, paranoia, obsession and... • is told in whole or in part from a subjective point of view. • A primarily urban setting (there are exceptions, particularly in the case of Murnau), providing ample opportunity to explore... • the criminal underworld...
and the complex architectural and compositional possibilities offered, for example, by stairways and their railings, mirrors and reflecting windows, structures jutting every bit as vertically as they do horizontally so that... • the director can play with stripes, angles and geometric forms sliced from the stark contrasts between light and shadow. • Shadows, in fact, can take on an ominous presence of their own;
The Cabinet of Dr Calibari (1920) Robert Wiene • The Golem (1920) Paul Wegener • Destiny (1921) (Fritz Lang) • Nosferatu (1922) F.W Murnau • The Last Laugh (1924) F.W Murnau • Metropolis (1927) Fritz Lang