Movies and Film: Germany's Greatest -Ism

Germany's Greatest -Ism

In 1919, world cinema was changed forever with the release of director Robert Wiene's The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (Das Kabinett des Dr. Caligari). The story of a hypnotist who uses a murderous somnambulist to abduct a desirous woman, Cabinet explores an underworld of madness, insanity, and institutional decadence that had generally been neglected by silent-era cinema in Germany and around the world.

Filmophile's Lexicon

Expressionism was a movement in early twentieth-century art—painting, music, film, and so on—that sought to make the inner psychological and emotional life of human beings its subject, rather than event-driven outer life (realism) or sensory impression (impressionism).

Second Take

Not everyone was enamored of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, or of Expressionism more generally. Robert Wolmuth's hard-to-find Das Kabinett des Dr. Larifari, released in 1930, is a brilliant parody of the movement's hallmark film—and, if you can get your hands on it, well worth viewing right after taking in the original.

Dr. Caligari and Beyond

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari was the hallmark film of an aesthetic movement known as German Expressionism. The film's set design alone marked the beginning of a new era; Wiene's inventive directing created a dark world of fear and suspicion complemented by the fabulously dark acting of Werner Krauss (Caligari the hypnotist) and Conrad Veidt (Cesare the sleepwalker).

With its distorted perspectives, grotesque enlargements, skewed camera angles, and obliquely directed lighting throwing eerie and paranoia-inducing shadows every which way, the film created a climate of troubled inwardness that broke new ground in representing the repressions, fantasies, and unfulfilled desires structuring the human unconscious.

Wiene's subsequent films in the expressionist style include Raskolnikoff (1923) and the yucky Orlacs Hnde (1925), the story of a pianist who loses his hands in a train accident and becomes convinced that his newly grafted-on hands once belonged to a murderer. This grotesque film is an almost over-the-top example of the German genre, though it's definitely worth a rent. (Maybe watch it one night as a warm-up to Halloween 12.)

The German Expressionist school is also famous for introducing the world to the "monster film," a sub-genre that quickly captured the public imagination around the world. Paul Wegener's Der Golem (The Golem, 1920; not to be confused with the "presequel" of the same title that Wegener made in 1914) retells an ancient Jewish legend about a phoenix-like spirit created by a medieval rabbi. It was followed two years later by F. W. Murnau's Nosferatu, perhaps the most familiar Expressionist film to today's audiences.

Director's Cut

It's a little-known and rarely discussed fact that the full title of F. W. Murnau's 1922 vampire classic is actually Nosferatu: Eine Symphonie des Grauens, or Nosferatu: A Symphony of Terror. The musical term symphony is a curious metaphor given the film's status as a silent-era masterpiece. Perhaps the film's producers and director were attempting to enlist the power of orchestral music to convey the full range of terror embodied in world cinema's first vampire.

Nosferatu starred Max Schreck as the world's first film vampire in a massively influential performance that set the stage for literally hundreds of subsequent ghoulish and ghostly monster movies during the succeeding decades. Murnau's innovative use of negative film to create death-like effects, his employment of variable camera speeds to simulate fast-action motion, and his decision to shoot the film on location brought Expressionist filmmaking out of the confines of the studio and into the "real world," where an adoring public waited to feel the vampire's bite.

Fantastic Fritz

Yet perhaps the most important director of Germany's Expressionist school—in fact, probably the most significant figure in the history of German silent and sound film—was Fritz Lang. Lang's variegated early career included stints as a scriptwriter, actor, and film editor. His directorial debut came with Halbblut (The Half-Breed, 1919), and the same year he began Die Spinnen (The Spiders). This two-part serial crime story was immensely popular among German audiences, and it immediately established Lang as something of a star in the nation's fledgling film industry.

Director's Cut

Robert Wiene wasn't originally slated to be the director of the Expressionist classic The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. In fact, the producer Erich Pommer selected Fritz Lang for the job. But Lang's Die Spinnen was doing so well at the box office that he was pulled at the last minute in favor of Wiene so he could begin work on part two.

Lang's greatest silent film is Metropolis (1927), a tremendous, futuristic, 1984-ish story of totalitarian subjugation and class solidarity that many regard as his greatest work. A four-and-a-half-hour tour-de-force directly inspired by the skyscrapers of Manhattan, Metropolis is an urban masterpiece of world cinema that was followed just four years later by another, M (1931), which starred Peter Lorre as a psycho child killer haunting a city with its own repressed fears.

The theme of a vengeful mob out of control carried through into Lang's first feature of his "American phase," which began when he came to Hollywood in 1935. Fury (1936) starred Spencer Tracy and Sylvia Sidney in an enduringly powerful and critical story about lynching and mob psychology. Other successful and well-worth-watching films from this phase of his career are You Only Live Once (1937), Western Union (1941), Man Hunt (1941), and Hangmen Also Die (1943), with a screenplay coauthored by Bertolt Brecht.

A typically weird shot from Fritz Lang's Expressionist masterpiece, Metropolis (1926).

A typically weird shot from Fritz Lang's Expressionist masterpiece, Metropolis (1926).

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Excerpted from The Complete Idiot's Guide to Movies and Film © 2001 by Mark Winokur and Bruce Holsinger. All rights reserved including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form. Used by arrangement with Alpha Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

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