I said I would, so today I’m going to talk to everyone about German Expressionism, a distinct cinema style that emerged from Germany in the 1920s.
But first, a brief introduction to film history:
Before the 20s filming was mostly a novelty hobby. A few feature films did exist, some pioneering complex editing techniques (like we’re used to now; in the beginning it was just one shot of something happening until the film ran out!). By the time World War I rolled around, film cameras were used mostly to make recordings of the war or were dropped altogether (people quickly saw the use of film for propaganda reasons). But after the war ended, it became more of an art form and was really used for self-expression.
Now for a brief look into German history:
World War I was settled through the Treaty of Versailles, which made Germany responsible for paying back all the war debts to France and England. Germany was driven into economic ruin and debt and closed its borders in a period of isolation.
Classic German Expressionism arose from the anguish of the people. Their money was worthless and they felt isolated and trapped within Europe.
Sets like this (from the film The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, dir. Robert Weine, 1920) were common in Expressionist films. They were shot at low, odd angles with a high contrast between very light and very dark. The sets themselves were very Tim Burton-esque, being odd and distorted. Nothing seemed real, but this was reality in the film: dark and twisted.
(From Nosferatu, dir. F.W. Murnau, 1922)
German Expressionism also uses a lot of shadows and silhouettes to build an eerie kind of suspense and thrill, making it the ancestor of the modern horror/thriller movie. The use of contrast and shadows also makes it a predecessor to American detective films (Film Noir), but it is most notably the birth of the horror film.
Essentially what directors were trying to do was share to the world what the German people felt; they felt helpless and alone, gripped at the throat of the rest of Europe.
In the 1930s with the rise of the Third Reich, films became most widely used for propaganda and very few Expressionist films were being made in Germany. However, most German Expressionist filmmakers fled Europe for America and brought their ideas about film with them, allowing for these dark and suspenseful themes to become part of American cinema (examples include F.W. Murnau, Fritz Lang).