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This lesson introduces the formalist tradition in film history through a study of the German Expressionist cinema of the 1920s. “Of all national cinemas”, writes film historian Mike Budd, “the 1920s German films had the greatest influence on Hollywood.” The enduring legacy of these German silent film classics can be seen today in expressionist cinematography and mise-en-scene and in genres such as the horror film and film noir. In this lesson, we will explore their stylistic influence on several animators. In the next lesson, we will trace the influence of German Expressionism on the films of Tim Burton.
The following areas will be covered in this lesson:
1. Formalism and Realism in the Cinema
2. German Expressionism
3. The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari
4. Expessionist Mise-en-scene in Caligari
5. Animation and Expressionism
The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari is the most famous German Expressionist classic. Made in Germany in 1919, Caligari is considered to be cinema’s first art film. In our close study of the Cabinet of Doctor Caligari, we will draw heavily upon the voice-over commentary provided by film historian Mike Budd in the Eureka DVD release of film. The extracts we have selected for viewing are best played with the accompanying commentary.
The Cabinet of Dr Caligari is a journey into a strange and distorted world of horror and madness. The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari is therefore also an early example of a horror film. It can be used to study the use of genre within an alternative cinema culture from Hollywood.
This lesson also provides a useful stepping stone to the study of mise-en-scene in the films of Tim Burton in the next lesson.
The first school of thought to defend film as an art form were the formalists. Formalists argue that film’s specific property is its inability to perfectly imitate normal visual experience of reality. Formalists believe that these limitations define the expressive potential of film and offer the filmmaker the opportunity to manipulate and distort our everyday experience of reality for artistic ends.
A filmmaker is therefore in a position to express his/her unique vision of the world, made possible by film’s specific properties – editing, fast and slow motion, the use of low and high camera angles, etc. It is these specific properties that distinguish film from the other arts and define film as an art.
Realists believe that by means of its automatic mechanical recording of events, film does indeed perfectly imitate our normal visual experience of reality. In polar opposition to the formalists, realists argue that it is film’s ability to imitate reality that defines film as an art form. Film’s specific property is its photographic representation of reality
To realists such as the French film critic Andre Bazin, the long take and deep focus camera shots as the elements of film style that realize film’s specific property to imitate reality. By allowing for a number of actions to be composed in the same shot, deep focus cinematography dispenses with the need for editing and supports the use of long takes. Using these two techniques, filmmakers are able to maintain the spatial and temporal unity of a scene, thus imitating reality (in the eyes of the realists).
These two different approaches date from the very earliest days of filmmaking. The Lumiere brothers’ set up their film camera to record real life events such as a train pulling into a station or workers leaving a factory. Just a few years later, the French film pioneer and magician George Melies used special effects and stop motion camera tricks to create spectacular fantasy sequences in short films such as A Trip to the Moon (1902).
The German cinema of the early 1920s is invariably associated with Expressionism – films such as the Cabinet of Doctor Caligari, Nosferatu, Metropolis, Doctor Mabuse, the Gamber and M.
Expressionism was one of several artistic trends around the turn of the twentieth century – associated with modernism – that reacted against realism and turned toward extreme distortion to express an inner emotional reality. Expressionism therefore belongs to the formalist tradition of filmmaking.
Expressionist art often used large shapes of bright, unrealistic colors with dark, cartoonlike outlines. Figures might be elongated; faces wore grotesque, anguished expressions. Buildings might sag or lean, with the ground tilted up steeply in defiance of traditional perspective.
In their study of the German cinema of the 1920s in ‘Film History: An Introduction’, film historians David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson describe the essential characteristics of German Expressionism.
“German Expressionist cinema uses the various techniques of film – mise-en-scene, editing and camerawork in distinctive ways. It is distinctive primarily for its use of mise-en-scene. German Expressionist films emphasise the composition of individual shots to an exceptional degree. Expressionist films had many tactics for blending the settings, costumes, figures and lighting. These include the use of stylised surfaces, symmetry, distortion, and exaggeration and the juxtaposition of similar shapes.
Perhaps the most obvious and pervasive trait of Expressionism is the use of distortion and exaggeration. In Expressionist films, houses are often pointed and twisted, chairs are tall, staircases are crooked and uneven.”
As actors in expressionist films make no attempt at realistic performance, their jerky or dancelike movements, more often than not, come across as extreme versions of silent film acting. Yet this style of acting was very deliberate. The heightened and exaggerated acting style was designed to match the other elements of a stylised mise-en-scene. So for example, viewed in long shot, the gestures of the actors appear dancelike as they move in patterns dictated by the sets. It is therefore important that such performances not be judged not by the standards of realism, but by how they fit into the mise-en-scene as a whole.
The juxtaposition of similar shapes within a composition is a key feature of Expressionist mise-en-scene. This can seen clearly in the films of F. W. Murnau, particularly his gothic horror tale, Nosferatu (1922), which features numerous stylised compositions in which figures blend in with their surroundings. Murnau was not the first – nor the last – Expressionist film-maker to post human figures beside distorted trees to create similar shapes. In one of the most memorable scenes from the Cabinet of Doctor Caligari, the somnambulist Cesare blends in with a forest of artificial trees in exactly this way.
Expressionist cinematography functions in a similar way to stress the links between the figure and the décor. Most Expressionist films employ a relatively simple lighting scheme, illuminating the scene from the front and sides to create a flat and uneven effect. However to a director such as F. W. Murnau, the use of shadows is a key expressionist technique. In Nosferatu, the elongated shadows of the prowling vampire create one of the most influential compositions in horror cinema.
Expressionist filmmakers employ camera and editing techniques in an unobtrusive manner in order to display the mise-en-scene to best effect. Editing patterns are simple, closely following the rules of the continuity style in their use of techniques such shot/reverse shot and crosscutting. The Expressionist editing style is often slower than classical Hollywood cinema allowing the viewer the necessary time to absorb the distinctive compositions created by Expressionist visual style.
Camera technique is similarly unobtrusive and functional as Bordwell and Thompson point out: “Camera movement and high or low angles are relatively rare, and the camera tends to remain at a straight-on angle and an approximately eye-level or chest-level height. In a few cases, however, a camera angle could create a striking composition by juxtaposing actor and decor in an unusual way.”
In choosing subject matter for their films, Expressionist filmmakers drew upon the literary traditions of German romanticism to find stories and characters that matched the Expressionist style. The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari motivates the strange distorted world of the film by choosing a narrator who is revealed at the end of the story to be insane. Frame stories such as that used in Caligari were a popular narrative choice with Expressionist filmmakers. Nosferatu is narrated by the historian of Bremen, the German town were much of the film takes place.
Many Expressionist films journey into the past and feature fantasy or horror stories. One of the most famous and influential Expressionist films is set in a futuristic city oppressed workers labour in huge underground factories. Director Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1926) was avant-garde in its artistic inspiration, reflecting, in the words of Lang’s biographer Patrick Gilligan, “in all its violent diversity the artistic ferment in 1920s Germany”. Traces of all the major artistic schools and contemporary trends can be glimpsed in the film’s design – Dadaism, Surrealism, Bauhaus, Cubism and Expressionism.
It is the futuristic vision of ‘the age of the machine’ at the heart of the film which has earned Metropolis its deserved reputation as one of the twentieth century’s major works of art. According to film critic Heide Schonemann, “In the 1920s, the Expressionist imagery of technology as a nightmare existed side by side with the Constructivist fascination with technology – both found their place in avant-garde art. In Metropolis too, this is not an element to be underestimated. The beauty and horror of the machine excited many artists.”
The major set-pieces of Metropolis – the Tower of Babel sequence, the flooding of the underground, the sacrifice of the robot-Maria – have entered cinema history. Most famous of all, the on-camera of the robot-Maria in Rotwang’s laboratory from a creature of Cubist metal parts to a being of flesh and blood is one of the great moments in the history of the science fiction film.
Fritz Lang’s other Expressionist masterpieces – Dr Mabuse, the Gambler and M – are set in the present. So while most Expressionist filmmakers used the style to create exotic and fantastic settings far removed from contemporary reality, one of the master-filmmakers of German cinema employed the thriller genre to satirise the decadence of post-war German society. M, Lang’s 1931 psychothriller about a child murderer pursued by a bloodthirsty mob, is still celebrated today as one of the key studies of the criminal mind in the history of the cinema. To Lang’s biographer Patrick Gilligan, the film “holds a mirror up to humanity and reveals the torments of the inner soul. M evidences not only the most advanced command of camera, lighting and editing techniques, but philosophically probes into the depths of sin and criminality, hate and redemption.”
Film Historian, Mike Budd, provides an overview of Modernist Art and Expressionism in his commentary on the Eureka DVD release of The Cabinet of Dr Caligari . The following 5 minute extract establishes the context to the development of German Expressionist cinema in post-war Germany.
Expressionism in Post-War Germany: (00:09:48 to 00:14:36)
“German writers, directors, actors, set designers and other studio workers were often artistically orientated, in contrast to the craft and commercial orientation of their Hollywood counterparts. Thus they excelled at an artistic stylisation that contrasted with the usual realism of American films……For several years after the war, the German film industry was unusually open to artistic experimentation. In post WW1 Germany, artistic often meant expressionistic – a movement in many arts that was part of modernism. In the early decades of the 20th century, a revolution of international modernism took place in virtually all the arts. Cubism and Surrealism in France, Expressionism in Germany, Futurism in Italy and Constructivism in the Soviet Union were all diverse and cross-cultural movements in themselves, but they were also part of an international assault on traditional artistic procedures and styles.”
In the chapter ‘The Moments of Caligari’ from the full study of The Cabinet of Caligari: Texts, Contexts, Histories, Mike Budd argues that although the film is often thought of as a modernist or avant-garde work of art, in many ways it is very conventional. He contends that we need to understand the unconventional aspects of the Cabinet of Caligari as transgressions of the norm of an otherwise commercial narrative film.
According to Mike Budd, “Caligari is famous in large part precisely because its techniques draw attention to themselves: the setting and the acting, costumes and make up of Werner Krauss as Caligari and Conrad Veidt as Cesare, and the uncanny narrative reversal at the end. But these strange elements are so effective, I believe, only because of more familiar, less visible elements of realism and continuity that have received little attention.”
Budd points out that much of the film is constructed as a conventional search, a kind of detective story with Francis looking for the murderer of his friend Alan. The search gives the central character a goal and drives narrative forward. The film is structured as a conventional, classical narrative relying heavily upon the continuity device of crosscutting to weave together two or more narrative lines.
The expressionist settings of Caligari are the first and most important way in which the film deviates from the realist norms of classical narrative cinema. They seem insistently to force their attention on us, to refuse the subordination of “background” to narrative action and character demanded by classical cinema. But, according to Mike Budd, “the strong narrative momentum generated by the protagonist/narrator’s search works against this and tends to put the settings back in their place.”
Viewing Extract 1
The following extract from Mike Budd’s commentary on the Eureka DVD release of The Cabinet of Dr Caligari explores the film’s role in introducing modern art to the cinema.
Cinema’s first art film: (00:05:23 to 00:08:53)
“Caligai was made within the German Studio System and was first shown in commercial theatres. Later it was shown in art theatres, film societies and film courses. It became famous as the film that introduced modern art – expressionism specifically – into the new medium of the movies. Modernist art is often difficult for many people to understand. Caligari helped bring this new art into the larger world of popular culture…”Viewing Extract 2
This extract from Mike Budd’s commentary on the Eureka DVD release of The Cabinet of Dr Caligari explores the use of Classical Hollywood Style in the one scene from the film.Scene analysis: Framing and Frame Cuts: (00:27:00 to 00:28:06)
“Following the rules of the continuity system, Francis exits one shot, then enters the next, thus perceptually, our eyes will follow the movement of the central character. The first shot in this next scene, establishes the whole space of Jane’s garden. Then cuts into a closer shot at the point in the scene where the audience is likely to want to see the character’s faces more closely. In particular, the film director wants us to focus on the emotions of the characters as Francis tells Jane of Alan’s murder. The editing, as with other film techniques, follows the dictates of the story. This shot eliminates the space around the characters, emphasising their gestures and facial expressions. Like the previous scene with Francis on the steps, the shot ends with the characters leaving the shot. And the next shot begins with the characters entering the shot. These are called frame cuts.”Viewing Extract 3
This extract from Mike Budd’s commentary on the Eureka DVD release of The Cabinet of Dr Caligari explores the relationship between Expressionism and Classical Hollywood Narrative in the film.
The Classical Narrative Style: (00:01:07 to 00:05:23)
“The key to understanding this film is to understand the two broad and opposing cultural traditions operating within it. First, the popular, commercial tradition of story continuity and realistic imitation of the world. And second, the artistic, non commercial tradition of discontinuity, modernism and active transformation of the world….the narrative and continuity style was a major popular and commercial success.”Viewing Extract 4
This extract from Mike Budd’s commentary on the Eureka DVD release of The Cabinet of Dr Caligari explores how the makers of Caligari combined Expressionist techniques with the continuity style.Expressionism meets Classical Narrative : (00:14:42 to 00:16:361 )
“The makers of Caligari carefully selected those elements of expressionism that would fit into a popular and commercial context. Rejecting the most radical elements, they appropriated certain themes, settings and other elements. Whereas the story and editing continuity in Caligari is thoroughly conventional and untouched by expressionism, the settings introduced the most disturbing and modernist elements. Make-up, costumes and acting are also stylised and expressionistic…….The angular, splintery shapes, the titled houses, leaning walls and distorted spaces seem to infuse the world of the film with strangeness and dread. These uncanny shapes came from the artistic world of the expressionist avant-garde. But when they became part of a story told in the continuity style, they also became part of the popular tradition of the horror film, exemplified by Frankenstein and Son of Frankenstein. Both disturbing and familiar, Caligari is caught between the innovations of an artistic avante-garde and the reassuring familiarities of commercial culture.”
The Cabinet of Dr Caligari uses stylised sets, with strange, distorted buildings painted on canvas backdrops in a theatrical manner. Caligari showed how studio-built sets could approximate the stylization of Expressionist painting. Performance works hand-in-hand with the other elements of mise-en-scene. Conrad Veidt’s dancelike portrayal of the sleepwalker Cesare makes him blend in with the graphic elements of the setting. According to David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson, “the graphic design of the scene where Cesare’s body echoes the tilted tree trunks, typifies the systematic distortion characteristic of German Expressionism.”
Viewing Extract 1
This extract from Mike Budd’s commentary on the Eureka DVD release of The Cabinet of Dr Caligari explores one of the most famous scenes from the film.
Scene Analyis: (00:40:08 to 00:40:49)
“One of the most famous and memorable scenes in the film begins with Cesare creeping along the wall. One critic has said, ‘it is as though the wall exuded him.”
Viewing Extract 2
This extract from Mike Budd’s commentary on the Eureka DVD release of The Cabinet of Dr Caligari explores the connection between mise-en-scene and character.
Scene Analyis: (00:42:52 to 00:43:06)
“In this shot of Cesare carrying Jane across the deranged perspectives of the town’s rooftops, character, action and setting seem to fuse into a simple, but powerful expressionist image. “
Viewing Extract 3
This extract from Mike Budd’s commentary on the Eureka DVD release of The Cabinet of Dr Caligari examines the visual representation of the character of Cesare in the film.
Scene Analyis: (00:43:52 to 00:44:24)
“David Borwell and Kristin Thomson have noted that an actor is always a graphic element in a film, but a stylised film, like the Cabinet of Caligari, underlines this fact. They point out, “Conrad Veidt’s dance-like portrayal of the somnambulist Cesare makes him blend in with the graphic elements of the setting. His body echoes the titled tree trunks. His arms and hands, their branches and leaves.”
Viewing Extract 4
This extract from Mike Budd’s commentary on the Eureka DVD release of The Cabinet of Dr Caligari explores the relationship between character emotion and an expressionist mise-en-ecene.
Scene Analyis: (00:26:24 to 00:26:59)
“At this point Francis is walking down the stairs from the police station and his path of light is painted directly onto the steps he walks on. Crazy patches of painted light adorn the walls. And if we reflect that this character is about to begin the logical and rational process of solving a murder mystery, the bizarrely irrational nature of his surroundings becomes even more striking.”