Sunrise (1927), an example of an American film by a German director.
There is no doubt that the one of the greatest art forms to come out of the 20th century is movie making. Virtually, anybody alive today has a favorite movie or at least seen numerous films throughout their lifetime. But very few know about how, in the early, silent years of cinema, Hollywood was changed forever by the influence of German filmmakers.
Throughout the mid 1910s to 1920s, the American film industry focused mainly on only two main genres, action/adventure films (which were mainly based off historical events or novels) and comedies. Popular Hollywood films at the time were: D.W. Griffith’s controversial, but highly influential Birth of A Nation (1915); the foreign fantasy, The Sheik (1921); The Mark of Zorro (1920) and The Thief of Baghdad (1924). But comedians (like Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd) and comedic cartoons (such as Felix the Cat and Oswald the Lucky Rabbit) arguably met the widest success.
Charlie Chaplin, one of the most famous American silent Stars.
Felix the Cat was to cartoons what Chaplin was to American cinema.
However, filmmaking in Europe focused less on action-adventure and comedic routines than Hollywood did, and more on experimentation, visuals, emotion, and the flaws of human nature. This is particularly true in the case of German Expressionism- a term used to describe the unique take of German filmmakers during the era. The movement was characterized by its usage of elaborate sets and exaggerated acting to emphasize mood, abstract scenery, high contrast lighting, and had a tendency to tackle darker subject matter. The plots and stories of the Expressionist films often dealt with madness, insanity, betrayal, and other “intellectual” topics. Some of the most famous expressionist films are: The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), The Golem (1920), Nosferatu (1922), Faust (1924) Metropolis (1927), Pandora’s Box (1929), and M (1931).
A typical German Expressionist Film: moody, experimental, elaborately made, and dark.
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is a bizarre frame story in which a man retells his experience with a creepy carnival overruled by the hypnotist, Caligari, and the sleepwalker Caligari controls in order to carry out murders. It was one of the first movies to feature a twist ending (the narrator is revealed to be mentally insane). This film was hugely influential on many directors, like all expressionist films, but most notably Tim Burton. This can be seen in Burton’s fondness of using outlandish and geometrical sets, the resemblance of Edward Scissorhands to Cesare (the sleepwalker), and the dreamlike atmosphere in his films.
It's easy to see the influence of this film on Tim Burton's style.
The Golem, Nosferatu, and Faust are arguably the expressionist films most responsible for creating the horror genre. All of three dealt with the supernatural, malicious beings or monsters, and featured dark and/or tragic storylines. The Golem was about rabbi creating a clay warrior to protect the Jews from being prosecuted, but his creation goes out of control. (This is pretty eerie considering that the Holocaust occurred twenty years later.) Nosferatu was one of the earliest vampire films, heavily borrowed from Dracula, and linked the legend to the spread of the black plague. Faust, which was also adapted from a classic novel, was about an alchemist conflicted by his own selfish ambitions motivated by the Devil and his desire to do good. The effects of these films were felt immediately as Hollywood began releasing films like The Phantom of the Opera, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and Frankenstein over the next several years.
Nosferatu is a vampire.
This thing is not.
Metropolis is the story of a dystopian future were the elite live in luxury at the expense of the underclass workers who live below surface. When a woman named Maria tries to bring peace between the exploited workers and the elite, a robot duplicate is given her image so it can manipulate the masses and crush any chance of rebellion. It was the most expensive silent film costing over 7 million Reichmarks which would be about $200 million today. Metropolis’s influence was huge. It is widely considered to be the first major (and most significant) science fiction film and featured ground-breaking special affects. Even today it has continued to be used as inspiration where you would least expect. For example, strangely enough, Lady Gaga. The name Lady Gaga actually comes from a music video by Queen entitled “Radio Gaga” which uses footage from Metropolis. Lady Gaga’s outlandish costumes also seem to be sometimes inspired by the Maria robot or the film’s bizarre dance scene.
Marvel at how the miniatures were made.
Words can not describe how groundbreaking Metropolis was.
Among the last German expressionist films made were Pandora’s Box and M. Both were less abstract in nature, set in contemporary times with a crime backdrop, and focused more on flawed, tormented characters with questionable motives. Pandora’s Box was about a woman whose selfish, seductive behavior ignites jealously in men causing her to be accused of manslaughter when one of her lovers murders another man. M featured a detective trying to track down a troubled child murderer.
Pandoras' Box and M are perhaps the most Film Noir-like of German films.
By the end of the 1920s, the German film industry became increasingly regulated as the Nazi Regime rose to power. Many artists and filmmakers fled to Hollywood so they could continue to keep making films (and many of them also happened to be Jewish). They brought with them their unique visions and created a new major movement in Hollywood, Film Noir. Film Noir was also made in response to The Hays Box Office Code, which regulated the film industry causing many 'safe' films to made throughout the 1940s and 50s (i.e. musical romantic comedies). Film Noir movies were crime dramas shot in black and white, featured characters with questionable motives, femme fatales, and dramatic lighting. (Sound familiar?) This in turn eventually changed the whole Hollywood film industry by causing The Hayes Box Office Code to loosen its restrictions and eventually be replaced by the film rating system. Because German Expressionism influenced Film Noir it also influenced countless directors (ranging from Orson Welles, to Alfred Hitchcock, to Ridley Scott) which made way for the variety of films we experience in modern cinema today.
Typical Film Noir movies. Notice how similar they looks to German Expressionist Films!
Alferd Hitchcock studied film in Germany for a while.
Thus, German Expressionist Films are hugely important to many aspects of film today. The genres Horror and Film Noir owe their origin to it. Expressionism, through influencing Film Noir, eventually resulted in the fall of the Hays Box Office Code. Countless directors also owe some of their success to techniques they picked up from German filmmakers. So next time you watch a movie, check to see if you can spot any traits associated with German Expressionism. You might be surprised.
Citizen Cane, Sunset Blvd, The Godfather, Blade Runner, and even The Dark Knight are just a few examples of films influenced by the long legacy of German Expressionism.