German Expressionism-part one: Darkness Over Berlin

By: Ned Casey
By: Ned Casey


Whenever the words "Age of" or "Era of ", or a particular “ism” are attached to a period, one can naturally exhibit some reactionary tendencies. The Age of Enlightenment, which nurtured the philosophical underpinnings of the American Revolution, envelops a number of drastically varying viewpoints. Rationality may be the touchstone of this period, but placing the hard-nosed Scot skeptic David Hume next to the idealist Bishop Berkeley is a stretch. The sons and daughters of John Locke and Edmund Burke barely speak to each other these days and the dour depictions of human nature delivered by Thomas Hobbes who described the life of man as nasty, brutish and short, could not be further from the pragmatic optimism of Benjamin Franklin. Certainly one can discern subterranean similarities in much of the work and worldview propagated beneath the banner of "Age of…", but it is perhaps those eras in which the mighty ferment of chaos and conflicting philosophies flourish that we find most interesting, the influences of which still resonate.

So it is with German Expressionism.
German Expressionism was recognizable in a general fashion to aesthetic taste testers some years before World War I but the seismic eruptions of that calamity created a fractured funnel through which poured a vastly different kind of brew. The expressionist style is marked by an appeal to raw emotion and a rejection of standard forms and rules but this new brand was boiled in the cauldron of war and its aftermath. This was an expressionism that would be recognized by the veterans of Verdun and the victims of horror. Nothing like it had ever been seen or imagined.
Bodies at the Battle of Verdun                                      Trench warfare in World War I
The historian Barbara Tuchman in “The Proud Tower”, a study of the generation prior to 1914, writes “The Great War of 1914-18 lies like a band of scorched earth dividing that time from ours. In wiping out so many lives which would have been operative on the years that followed, in destroying beliefs, changing ideas, and leaving incurable wounds of disillusion, it created a physical as well as psychological gulf between two epochs.”
In 1919 with Europe in ruins, leaders, diplomats, generals, the press, and the merely curious descended upon Paris in a cavalcade to watch and kibbutz as the world was carved up in the wake of the horrors of the Great War. The French wanted German blood. Georges Clemenceau, French prime minister, upon hearing that hundreds of thousands of German civilians were starving (the French insisted on blockading supplies to Germany even after the armistice) opined that there were 20 million Germans too many. Clemenceau, along with David Lloyd George, British prime minister and the American president Woodrow Wilson led the luminaries who sat down to redraw the borders of the world. Their inner circle--called the Supreme Council--was inundated with pleas for a hearing from all manner of supplicants from heads of state to a busboy working at the Ritz hotel. This particular busboy sent a letter to the Council beseeching them to free his country from the colonial control of France. His request was likely never heard but the world heard plenty from him in the decades to come. He was Ho Chi Minh.
Lloyd George, Clemenceau and Wilson in Paris, 1919 and the signing of the Treaty of Versailles
The horrors of the war were still too fresh for those on both sides to take clearly the full measure of the potential fallout from the Treaty of Versailles. Germany, as the primary aggressor, reeled under massive amounts in war reparations. The German economy went into a death spiral and traditional accounts, especially one by the greatly respected economist John Maynard Keynes, reckoned this to be an essential causal factor in the rise of the National Socialists under the former corporal and self-proclaimed Aryan avenger Adolf Hitler. Margaret MacMillan in a brilliant analysis of the Treaty of Versailles and its aftermath points to an equally likely reason for the problems Germany faced after the war. They never believed they lost. The “stabbed in the back by traitors” rationale spread quickly and supporters of the war effort clung to this questionable but comforting casuistry that placed the blame on the backs of inept, traitorous politicians and, of course, Jews.
Thus was the stage set for nearly twenty years of ferment in politics but also in philosophy, education and especially the arts. Although an Expressionistic trend had sprouted prior to the war it burgeoned as the new government in Weimar assayed the post-war landscape. For a time the harsh hand of Prussian political and military control relaxed. The political and economic upheavals allowed for an unusual period of freedom of expression. Often this expression was a wildly emotional reaction to the rules and forms from the other side of Tuchman’s band of scorched earth. Painters such as George Grosz crafted the darkest and most ignoble of images: despair, suicide, addiction, cruelty. An early supporter of the war, Grosz' time in the army quickly disabused him of any sense of the nobility of war. Arnold Schoenberg rejected standard musical forms and composed pieces using a 12 tone scale that challenged contemporary ears. The plays of Bertolt Brecht excoriated a corrupt system and gave voice to a rampant nihilism. The stage productions of Max Reinhardt threw conventional approaches aside and, through dramatic use of light and dark on stage and clever combinations of music, movement and dialogue cut a window into the inner world of strangled souls.
 George Grosz, The Hero          Bertolt Brecht                                             Max Reinhardt
Many of Reinhardt's production assistants took what they learned on the Berlin stages and used it to create German Expressionist film. F.W. Murnau, Robert Wiene, Fritz Lang, Carl Mayer, Karl Freund, all studied and worked with Reinhardt. Film, in the hands of these artists and technicians, became the primary conduit of the expressionist form both in and out of Germany.
The Weimar Republic proved fertile ground for an aesthetic that burned with the passion and fiery emotions of those seeking a new path through a dark world. The path for many led to the Berlin neighborhood of Babelsberg and the epicenter of the German film industry, Universum Film AG (UFA). Prior to the war there were but a handful of film production companies in Germany owned and run by Germans. During the war the number of foreign owned companies understandably dwindled and by the early 1920s there were several hundred domestic film production units in operation. The merger of several of these companies created UFA which became a dream factory unlike any in the world for its primary practitioners had all just awakened from a nightmare.
The great American film critic Pauline Kael once noted a major difference between the responses of Hollywood and European filmmakers to events of World War II. Comparing two prison camp escape films, The Great Escape, directed by John Sturges, and A Man Escaped, directed by Robert Bresson, Kael makes the point that the Hollywood version is a boy’s adventure story set in a prison camp featuring iconic action heroes like Steve McQueen, James Coburn and Charles Bronson. (There have also been several video games based on The Great Escape. I doubt that any developers are planning games based on Schindler’s List.) The Bresson film is a highly personal, deadly serious portrayal of an imprisoned resistance fighter who must escape before he is executed by the Nazis. It’s not my intention here to run down The Great Escape. It’s one of my favorite movies. I’ll gladly sit through all three hours. A number of those involved in the production had experience as prisoners of war. Screenwriter James Clavell was imprisoned by the Japanese and actor Donald Pleasance spent time in a Nazi POW camp. But the hardship of their ordeals was blunted by a film produced for a largely American audience most of whom had no experience as members of an occupied population or as prisoners of war. A television comedy like Hogan’s Heroes showing the silly side of life behind the wire would have been unthinkable in Europe even a generation after the war had ended. Bresson fought in the underground and spent a year trying to stay alive in a Nazi prison camp. His vision is intensely personal, existentialist and stripped down--ascetic, Kael called it—and was molded by his war time experiences as much as by his approach to film as an art form. So it was for the survivors of the First World War in the German film industry. They channeled the darkness of the war years directly onto the screen.
Steve McQueen takes on the Nazis                                             The Great Escape video game
The 1920 release of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Directed by Robert Wiene, stunned viewers in Europe and America with its use of unusual camera angles, weirdly distorted sets, light and shadows painted in nightmarish shapes across background flats and floors and its highly stylized acting. The story of a mad doctor in control of a sleep walking murderer who spreads terror across a city arose from an original screenplay by Carl Mayer and Hans Janowitz. Mayer, whose father shot himself when he was a boy and who was consigned to the care of a crackpot psychiatrist after serving in the war had plenty of bad dreams on which to draw. It is a stark portrayal of murder and insanity the horror of which is not abated by an ending that was cooked up by the producers to keep despairing audience members, they hoped, from slitting their wrists. The final scene reveals that events of the film are the fantastical delusions of a man confined in an insane asylum. Other inmates populate his nightmare world but the kicker is that the overseer of this madhouse, the one who “cares” for them all is the barking mad Dr. Caligari himself. The ending that supposedly let the audience go home and sleep peacefully actually demonstrates that the horror never stops. That you can’t escape the world you live in; the prime directive of Film Noir, German Expressionism’s American stepchild born in the 40s after yet another war.
Expressions of madness and murder: The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari
Viewers today might remark that Caligari is dated by its stiff acting and stylized sets but there is no denying its genuine creepiness.
Two years later UFA released Nosferatu the mad mother of all horror films. If Caligari’s painted sets and stiff acting looked a bit like crazed community theater, Nosferatu was a full-throated opera replete with hordes of rats, a nightmare coach, pestilential cargo ship, and a rail-thin, rat-faced, blood-sucking monster at center stage. In fact the complete title was Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror whose creator was one of the great directors of world cinema, F.W. Murnau.
F.W. Murnau
Although Murnau and his films are collected under the banner of German expressionism his work bears the stamp of other influences as well, notably Romanticism, a much more lyric and less obviously emotional aesthetic. The admixture of two distinct aesthetic approaches might have made a hash of things except for Murnau's impressive abilities, his alchemical genius.
Murnau came to the project through Albin Grau, owner of the short-lived Prana Film company who hired him to direct a version of Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula. (Unfortunately for Grau his version was too close to the original. Stoker's widow sued him for his unauthorized use of her husband's novel. The suit bankrupted Prana). Grau, who produced the film, was a devotee of Aleister Crowley, a controversial British occultist and provocateur who at one time was called the “wickedest man in the world” for his excursions into what were referred to as the dark arts. Interest in the occult spread across Germany in the years following the war (Hitler reportedly dabbled) and Grau’s studies of it made him a unique collaborator for a director with a dark story to tell. What Grau couldn’t offer in the way of deep pockets he made up for with his contributions to the look, feel, and overall gestalt of the film.
Nosferatu. Ding-dong, vampire calling!                    Death and decay ooze out of Murnau's locations.
The lack of money to build sets was not an impediment; rather it improved the film because it forced Grau and Murnau to scout real locations. Murnau's fine eye for the right quality of light, the most resonant architectural and natural details, and the best way to shoot them added immensely to the film's sense of dream-like lyricism. Murnau infused Nosferatu with a dark poetry and his ability to combine naturalistic elements with a Romantic vision and expressionistic story line made for that unique blend of styles. It soon becomes clear that the primary aesthetic movement influencing Murnau was, at least in Nosferatu, Romanticism. Romanticism’s idealized view of nature and natural elements and the privileged status it grants to folk tales, myths and legends of a particular culture or country--in this case the Germanic culture--clearly influenced Murnau's narrative and filmic approach. As a former student of art history and philosophy Murnau appreciated the rich heritage of German Romantic era artists such as Caspar David Friedrich whose mythic, moody landscapes epitomized the movement's visual dominance in late 19th century Germany.
Caspar David Friedrich, Moonrise Over the Sea                                Nosferatu, a wife watches on the beach
A number of scenes remarkably resemble, in their somber quality and careful compositions, Daguerreotypes--early photographic prints--from the mid 19th century which lends the film an eerie antiquated feel, as if Murnau had somehow transported a film crew back to the 1860s. Coupled with the influences of Caspar David Friedrich's wild woodland paintings, this aged quality imparts an odd, unsettling feeling of a dead world returned to life on the screen in front of us and looking carefully at Nosferatu one cannot help but notice the care with which Murnau takes in framing the location scenes, especially those with forest settings. 
Forests command a special allure and have maintained a hold on the Teutonic imagination long before there was a Germany; before the Romans ventured into the black forests of the north. Forests and woodlands, depending on the historical setting or artwork, can be frightening and fearsome or comforting and even sacred. In his Gallic War Commentaries Julius Caesar remarks on the common belief that one could travel for several months and never find the edge of a German forest. The Roman historian Tacitus relates that In 9 AD three Roman Legions under command of Publius Quinctilius Varus marched into a German forest and were never seen again. The destruction wreaked upon representative forces of the greatest army in the world by local Germanic tribes was so complete that the XVII, XVIII and XIX legions were never reconstituted. Thus woodlands have an honored place in the annals of German nationalism. Goethe's hair-raising poem "Die Erlkonig" (The Erlking) describes the supernatural attraction--and evil forces--lurking just behind the forest trees and Wagner opens his great mythic Teutonic music drama "Die Walkure" (The Valkyrie) in primeval, mystical woods (the music heard in Coppola's Apocalypse Now as the helicopters fly over Vietnamese jungles comes from the second act of "Die Walkure"-the Ride of the Valkyries). Historian Simon Schama in "Landscape and Memory" describes the connection between the German psyche and the natural world thus: "German woods were more than simply an economic resource: they were in some mysteriously indeterminate way an essential element of the national character". This fascination is somewhat analogous to the American attraction to the myths of the Old West where violence and sentiment mix in surprising and sometimes disturbing ways.  In his own way Murnau kept alive and abetted the legends of Germany's haunted forests.
The German fascination with forests. Paintings by Caspar David Friedrich.
Armed with this sensibility and an ardent approach to cinematic storytelling--imagery created with craftmanship and love--Murnau wrought something wholly new, decidedly apart from Stoker's epistolary novel. Stoker's tale unfolds through a series of letters criss-crossing the continent from England to Transylvania. His suave, charismatic vampire (much like Bela Lugosi's characterization in Tod Browing’s Dracula of 1931) would be a welcome, if somewhat eccentric, guest in any well-to-do European home. Murnau's was a monster. The creature created by Murnau and Max Schreck (the word “schreck” means fear or horror in German) would never under any circumstances be invited into any dwelling by a sane person. If there is any purely expressionistic element in Murnau's film it is Schreck's vampire--a ghastly, wraith-like creature with feral fangs and claws that Freddie Krueger would covet.
Which would you invite for a dinner party?                 Max Schreck, sans fangs
The cinematographer on Nosferatu was Fritz Arno Wagner perhaps second only to Karl Freund in the creation the seminal images of Weimar era film. Wagner had worked with Murnau in 1921 on The Haunted Castle the year before Nosferatu. His nimble approach and flexible shooting style brought him to the attention of other important directors. He worked with G.W. Pabst on the beautiful and nearly forgotten The Loves of Jeanne Ney and several years later on The Threepenny Opera which brought to the screen Bertolt Brecht’s murderous Mackie Messer (Mack the Knife). Wagner later collaborated with Fritz Lang on his haunting studies of criminal minds, Dr. Mabuse the Gambler and M an international success starring the young Peter Lorre as the child murderer.
Fritz Arno Wagner's work on Pabst's Jeanne Ney, Threepenny Opera and Lang's M.
The photographic approach arrived at by Murnau and Wagner is mostly naturalistic but they did attempt a number of practical effects, notably using a half-cranked camera to speed up scenes such as the vampire's moving of coffins (scenes which elicit giggles from modern audiences). Murnau used negative film to follow the monster's carriage careening through the forest carrying his hapless victims to their fate, the negative images serving as a metaphor for a journey to the other side of reality, a world in which the poles of sanity are reversed. Typical of Murnau's thorough approach was his decision to paint the carriage white so that when reversed in the negative it would maintain its dark appearance, turning the world inside out but leaving the carriage clearly defined. Throughout the film Murnau's use of light, his careful selection and framing of natural settings and locations and his ability to combine a naturalistic approach with highly stylized elements, especially in the second half of the film, painted striking and indelible images onto the collective retina of generations of viewers. Nosferatu set the standard not only for horror but for an approach to filmmaking that used lyric and poetic sensitivity to form a dream-like world that remains with us like bits of half-remembered nightmares, vivid and vibrant in its grip on our memories.
Images that haunt still. Nosferatu
The success of Nosferatu allowed Murnau to move on to better financed projects of his own choosing. The leaps he had made in developing his abilities as a cinematic storyteller provided him with the tools needed to fine tune his vision in the creation of the high water mark of Weimar era film: The Last Laugh.
In Part two we consider Murnau's final films, Fritz Lang, Karl Freund, the great emigration to Hollywood and the descendents of German Expressionism.
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