"As has often been noted, it is sometimes very difficult to distinguish between horror and science fiction. Not only that, it can at times be difficult to distinguish between horror and the crime film, and science fiction, adventure and fantasy as well."
-- Steve Neale, Genre and Hollywood p. 85.
Expressionism is an artistic movement that began in Germany around the turn of the twentieth century. Expressionism at first emerged in poetry and painting before moving into theater and, eventually, film. The style eschews realism in favor of a more intensely subjective point of view. It favors oblique angles, forced perspective, heavy lines, and distorted and grotesque imagery. With its roots in Germany's trauma of losing World War One and subsequently plummeting into a recession, Expressionism tends to depict exaggerated / extreme emotional states, especially grim, negative ones like terror, fear, pain, sadness, disorientation, loss, etc.
Though it predates German Expressionism proper, Norwegian painter Edvard Munch's The Scream (1893, 1910) is considered exemplary of Expressionist aesthetics and was itself influential on twentieth-century Expressionism.
The interwar period of German film production, lasting from 1919-1933, is known as “Weimar Cinema.” It is named after the Weimar Republic, Germany’s first democratic government. The tumultuous, unstable Weimar period coincides with the emergence of German Expressionist cinema -- that is, Weimar cinema and Expressionism are somewhat synonymous. Noting that "German’s cultural strength in the 1920s stood in marked contrast to its political and military weakness," historian of German film Stephen Brockmann describes Weimar Expressionism as
characterized particularly by the use of chiaroscuro (an Italian word containing the words for light and dark and indicating sharp contrasts between light and shadow), by jagged and bizarre sets that indicate an otherworldly or inhuman space, or that reflect the torments of the individual soul, and by stylized, unnatural acting.*I would add that many Expressionist films use mise-en-scene to simultaneously indicate otherworldly, uncanny spaces AND individual torment, as in Count Orlok's castle and surroundings in Nosferatu (1922), or the Moloch sequence when Freder first visits the underground factory in Metropolis (1927).
Austrian Expressionist painter Egon Schiele's Living Room in Neulengbach (1911). . .
High-contrast lighting is one of the most pronounced aesthetic properties of German Expressionism, horror films, and films noir, as these stills from Caligari, Dracula (1931), and The Third Man (1949) respectively demonstrate.
Specifically, Expressionist cinema gives rise to the sound horror film (predominantly a rural genre, descended mainly from Caligari and F.W. Murnau's Nosferatu) and, later, to film noir (predominantly an urban genre, descended from Caligari and most other Expressionist films). German Expressionism (especially Fritz Lang's Metropolis) also exerts a strong influence on the development of science fiction, horror's generic cousin. No Metropolis = no Bladerunner.
The Replicants in Bladerunner . . .
. . . are cinematic descendants of the Maria robot from Metropolis . . .
. . . as is this guy.
Speaking of Bladerunner, observe how film noir and science-fiction blend together so organically in that film. Same with stuff like Dark City (1998) and the Christopher Nolan Batman trilogy (2005-12). I think these genres and styles intermix well because of their shared Expressionist heritage -- its aesthetic strategies and dark, grisly themes. Along this same line, there's Tim Burton's excellent Batman duology (1989, 1992), especially the criminally underrated Batman Returns, which mixes noir and sci-fi and horror and gothic melodrama all in one. It's a veritable Expressionism-descendant feast!
"Holy genre mash-ups, Oswald Cobblepot!"
In his historically grounded book Genre and Hollywood, Steve Neale refuses to split apart cinematic sci-fi and horror, treating them as "related, but also as distinct" intertwined genres (p. 85). One only need consider obvious examples like Alien (grotesque body horror meets hard sci-fi) and Bladerunner (with its Metropolis-like "evil robot run amok" plotline plus raw frozen eyeballs and graphic head squeezings) to see the truth of this conception. Also note how certain monster movies, especially 1950s ones like The Thing from Another World (1951), Gojira, Them! (both 1954), and even the slightly more "hard" sci-fi thriller Forbidden Planet (1956) tread a super-fine, nearly indistinguishable line between horror and science-fiction.
However, despite their inherent messiness and tendency to hybridize, film genres have specific histories. The sound horror film begins with the Universal monster-movie cycle launched by Dracula and Frankenstein in 1931. The American film noir starts with The Maltese Falcon in 1942 though I've heard Julien Duvivier's Pepe Le Moko (1937) and even Fritz Lang's M (1931) put forward as credible candidates for the "first" film noir.*** In any case, as we've seen, both horror and noir share an antecedent: German Expressionist cinema of the 1920s.
Film horror is a fusion of Expressionism (twisted psychology, high-contrast lighting, dark shadows) with the literary Gothic (or romantic gothic, including Dracula, Frankenstein, etc.) and the grotesque (the explicit blood, gore, graphic monstrosity, and gross-out stuff).
Film Noir is a fusion of Expressionism (twisted psychology, high-contrast lighting, dark shadows) with hardboiled detective fiction and the police procedural film genre.† Film noir is extremely male-centered due to its ties to the hardboiled tradition, the police procedural, and the gangster film.
Like the melodrama or weepie, film noir favors style and sensationalism over complex character psychology. But unlike the melodrama, which uses elevated style to convey heightened (usually female) emotions and to evoke viewer pathos, film noir uses its distinct stylistic repertoire to reflect (primarily) white, male subjectivity and to achieve a disorienting, alienating effect.
As Raymond Borde and Etienne Chaumeton argue in "Towards a Definition of Film Noir,"
the moral ambivalence, the criminality, the complex contradictions in motives and events, all conspire to make the viewer co-experience the anguish and insecurity which are the true emotions of contemporary film noir.††
Furthermore, both noir and melodrama use highly stylized mise-en-scene to achieve their effects, so there is always a tension between the intensity of the subjective emotions being evoked and one's distanciating awareness of stylistics and surface aesthetics. It may be most accurate to say that classic film noir is a form of highly stylized male melodrama, a violent precursor to the male weepies of the 1950s starring method actors like Marlon Brando, Montgomery Clift, and James Dean.
Anyway, to conclude, I'll say a few words about some must-see German Expressionist (and related) films:
Subtitled "A Symphony of Horror," F.W. Murnau's Nosferatu (1922) is probably my favorite German Expressionist movie. Unusual for its being shot outdoors in real wilderness locations, Nosferatu is the main progenitor (along with Caligari) of the sound horror film. The influence is direct: Nosferatu is an unauthorized adaptation of Bram Stoker's Gothic novel Dracula (1897). which also provides (legally obtained) story material for Universal Studios' Dracula (1931) starring Bela Lugosi.
Plus legendary Expressionist cinematographer Karl Freund, who lensed The Last Laugh for Murnau and Metropolis for Fritz Lang, was Tod Browning's cinematographer on Dracula.
Either The Last Laugh (1924) or Faust (1926) could stake a legitimate claim to being F.W. Murnau’s greatest German Expressionist film masterpiece. (His greatest film ever, Sunrise, was made in Hollywood so I'm not counting it here.)
Of the two, Laugh is more intimate, the tale of one humble (yet proud) doorman's downfall into old age and despair. Laugh's dynamic camera work and insistence upon the visual -- it uses a mobile, "untethered" camera style and eschews intertitles -- makes it stand out in the German Expressionist film canon. (Again, you'll have to see Sunrise if you want to see Murnau top himself in this area.)
Then there's Faust, the highest-budgeted Expressionist film Murnau worked on, grandiose in scale and breathtaking in its use of lighting and special effects. Frankly, for its startling imagery alone, and for Emil Jannings' insane performance as Mephisto, Faust might be my tied-for-favorite Murnau film. In any case, if you want a succinct one-two punch of some of the most provocative, dark, and beautiful German Expressionist cinema ever made, you can hardly go wrong with either of these mid-career Murnau masterpieces.
Mephisto sez: "Watch German Expressionist cinema or I'll incinerate your SOUL!!"
Fritz Lang's Metropolis (1927) is the one other German Expressionist film -- besides The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and at least one of Murnau's -- that I urge everyone to see. Metropolis is a grand, dystopian adventure story, told on a big canvas with lots of eccentric weirdness to enjoy along the way. All the Dr. Rotwang stuff is great, as is the havoc wreaked by the Maria robot once she's set loose. Metropolis is the ur-text of urban sci-fi / dystopian horror -- pretty much all later science-fiction owes a debt to Lang's epic film. So carve out some time -- Metropolis is long, two hours and thirty three minutes -- and see the damn thing. Hell, we're lucky to even be able to see it in its (mostly) complete form at all.
Sunrise (1927), subtitled "A Song of Two Humans," was made in Hollywood but still rivals (and possibly surpasses) any of the Expressionist masterpieces Murnau made in Germany. Released in the year "silent films reached perfection and then disappeared," Sunrise, according to Roger Ebert, "was not a box-office success, but the industry knew it was looking at a masterpiece." Turner Classic Movies' Bret Wood goes even further, boldly claiming that Sunrise "represents the artistic pinnacle of the cinema as a purely visual medium." In other words, go see Sunrise.
M. (1931) is Lang’s proto-noir masterpiece about a manhunt for a serial killer. The suspenseful, spooky, brilliantly edited and sound-designed M incepts the serial-killer thriller, and is the most obvious Expressionist antecedent to Hitchcock's 1930s work and to film noir in general.
Scarlet Street (1945), a classic Hollywood film noir directed by Lang.
Nosferatu (1979), Werner Herzog’s amazing color and sound remake of Murnau’s original, silent Nosferatu. I highly recommend Herzog's uniquely updated take on the vampire myth, with a freakishly edgy Klaus Kinski playing the title role. (I discuss Herzog's version glancingly here.)
Orson Welles' Macbeth (1948).
German Expressionist Cinema also inspired Jean Vigo's Poetic Realism, Dreyer, Hitchcock, Welles, and possibly Gordon Willis' low-exposure work on The Godfather. Not to mention Batman's most enduring nemesis, the Joker.
German Expressionist film star Conrad Veidt sez: "I'm the original inspiration for the Joker, Batman fans!"
* Brockmann, A Critical History of German Film (Camden House, 2010) p. 43, 50. Brockmann's introductory overview of Weimar Cinema on pp. 43-57 is essential reading if you are interested in the history of Expressionist cinema.
** Intriguingly, Brockmann also mentions Caligari as example of the cinematic uncanny (p. 65), a subject I will take up at length in a separate, forthcoming post.
*** It dawns on me that I will need to write a whole separate post (or two) on film noir, perhaps in conjunction with Entertainment Weekly's #27 film, The Maltese Falcon (1941).
† Fritz Lang is a key figure here -- the great Expressionist director left Germany for Hollywood after Hitler took power and subsequently made several American noirs including Ministry of Fear (1943) and Scarlet Street (1945). Indeed, Brockmann calls Lang "one of the transmission mechanisms by which German Expressionist sensibilities influenced American film noir" (p. 84).
†† Borde and Chaumeton's 1955 essay is reprinted in Alain Silver and James Ursini's Film Noir Reader (Limelight Editions, 1996) pp. 17-25.