Book Review: German Expressionist Cinema – The World of Light and Shadow

Before there were genres, before there was Hollywood in its full glory, the cinema as art (but also as entertainment) flourished in Europe. The results were nowhere more astounding, groundbreaking nor more influential than in the war-torn Germany in the second and third decades of the XX century. The films produced in that era are rightly considered among the most groundbreaking ones ever made. The geniuses who worked at that time, like Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau and Fritz Lang, are the among the founding fathers of cinematic language still used today, while their works, and the works of their less famous colleagues, have stood the test of time as the real gems of the silent era.

The classic titles of this period include THE CABINET OF DR CALIGARI, THE GOLEM, NOSFERATU, FAUST, THE LAST LAUGH, DR MABUSE: THE GAMBLER, M, METROPOLIS, THE HANDS OF ORLAC and many others, still cherished by true cinephiles. Their authors urged to establish the young medium as equal to other arts and believed passionately in the potential and power of film, constantly striving to extend the new medium’s technical and narrative possibilities. The style that connects all these disparate filmmakers and their works is known as “expressionist”, and this book from Wallflower’s series “Short cuts” presents a valuable introduction into the historical and cultural context which produced what must be the most productive and inspiring style or movement in the history of cinema.

The opening chapter places German expressionist cinema into its proper historical perspective:
“It is the surreal nature of Weimar Germany’s existence, then, where periods of rampant inflation, mass unemployment and political rivalry were marked by strikes, street fighting and armed revolt, that adds a fascinating backdrop to the study of the films produced against the backdrop of these tumultuous events. In a sense, Weimar society created the ideal breeding-ground for an art-form based fundamentally upon the illusion of reality.” (Page 3)

The period of insecurity and breakdown of all established beliefs and authorities proved to be a perfect starting point for the angst of the age to take shape in the expressionistic themes of sleepwalkers, nightmares, doubles, pacts with the Devil, vampire invasions, mad scientists, Faustian trespassing into the forbidden, and the power of the irrational to overturn the complacency of “normality” and “reality”. It was a desperate attempt to understand the incomprehensible, to create order out of chaos, to reconnect with one’s past and decipher the present in order to provide a vague hope for the future.

Ian Roberts provides a comprehensible outline of the themes, intentions and style of these films, which, briefly, include:

– a desire to combine the popular appeal with an artistic sensibility;
– a ‘look’ which resulted in some of the most carefully-fabricated mise-en-scene in the history of cinema;
– a sense of threat, to individuals, couples and society at large;
– a preoccupation with notions of dream and reality, madness and sanity, blindness and visions;
– above all, a desire to show the world in a fantasy light, a liminal space where dreams, imagination and desire may briefly be reconciled with harsh realities.

The origins of this style are not seen merely in the historical circumstances of Germany during and after the World War I; the more important aesthetic background is found in the Gothic horror novel, Classicism, Futurism, folklore, fairy tales and great many other sources. Mr. Roberts devotes special chapters to the key films of German expressionism, and deals with the ambiguous treatment of authority and power figures in CALIGARI and with the transference of real-life horrors into a fictional, but equally powerful symphony of horror that is Murnau’s NOSFERATU. For example, an interesting detail is the connection between the Spanish influenza which ravaged Europe after World War I and the vampire plague brought by rats and the rat-like Count Orlock in Murnau’s film which can rightly claim the title of the first real masterpiece of horror genre and one of its undisputed classics today.

Interesting notes about the production, premiere and critical accounts of this, and other Murnau’s films serve to illustrate the importance of this author not only for the German expressionism, but for the medium of film itself. He reminds us of Fritz Lang’s words that “film can be thankful that he (Murnau) has given it its foundations”, together with Charlie Chaplin’s claim that Murnau was “the best director Germany ever sent to Hollywood.” The complex figure of Fritz Lang is presented through analysis of his two films, THE NIBELUNGS (about Germany’s mythical past) and METROPOLIS (about the dystopian future; a direct inspiration for BLADE RUNNER).

Later expressionist films are also given their due: virgins and vamps of G. W. Pabst’s PANDORA’S BOX and the street life of Joe May’s ASPHALT are presented as films of the period in which the focus is more on the realistic portrayal of society, examining phenomena which are perceived to be threatening to stability, such as the role of the sexually-liberated woman in an age of rapidly evolving morality or the tensions created by the modern, urban space which dehumanises the individual. The stark contrasts between light and shadow remain, but are placed in a more contemporary environment, where the fantastical and irrational are placed in the homeliness of the everyday.

There is no doubt about the importance of the German expressionism: it is not only of a dusty, stale historical value, but remains a vital source without which the modern horror, SF and crime film would be divested of some of the most essential elements of their style and substance. Ian Roberts has written a succinct, clever, interesting, well-argued introduction to this fertile field which will, hopefully, make some readers want to dig even deeper into the world of lights and shadows that has been recreated and given new shapes through film noir, classic and modern horror and SF cinema, neo-noir and modern avant-garde cinema until well into the XXI century with no signs of becoming dated or passé. This book captures the essence of the German expressionism and is an invaluable read for anyone interested in film past and film present, in film as a medium in its totality.

GERMAN EXPRESSIONIST CINEMA: The World of Light and Shadow
By Ian Roberts
Wallflower, London and New York, 2008