Film styles reflect the historical times they emerge from, and the cultures in those times. That’s why genres get named after they happen. When a new trend is first happening, the audiences and filmmakers are too close to see it in a broad perspective. Sometimes it’s an effect of public concerns, like the way fear about the danger of the atomic bomb got translated into all those movies about GIANT BUGS and GODZILLA. In England the importation of American movies was killing their native film industry, so in 1927 they passed a law requiring a certain percentage of all films shown to be British. This led directly to a whole style of low-budget films called “quota quickies”. Many of these films were dreadful, but this opportunity was also how Alfred Hitchcock first became famous.
Germany in the period between the two world wars was an economic nightmare. Rampant inflation and a timid republican government trying to hide out in Weimar left the public feeling unsettled. German optics and cameras were among the best in the world, but how to use them without money? In fact, where’s the next meal coming from?! Germans know how to organize, though. So what if there’s not enough money for sets and full lighting. We have actors and writers and cameras. Make films anyway!
They adopted stark lighting methods, used forced-perspective sets and wrote films about moral bankruptcy, fear, horror, paranoia and underworld masterminds. This style became known as German Expressionism, and it’s the film genre that WILL NOT DIE. It keeps coming back generation after generation in slightly altered form, because it’s such an effective way of telling stories.
Expressionism didn’t start in the movies. It was already established in other art forms including painting, sculpture and theater. Expressionism is anti-realistic and unnatural by design. The tilted angles and inability to see clearly through ever-invading pools of darkness heighten the tension. This is subjective storytelling. The audience is misdirected along with the hapless central characters. Expressionistic stories are presented through views colored by extreme emotions. The emotions literally and visually distort reality. The shadows personify the subconscious, and they are everywhere.
You may think you don’t know these films but you do. If you haven’t seen the originals, you have seen a newer version of stories, style and characters directly influenced by them. Some of the more famous ones include The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, The Golem, Nosferatu, Faust, The Man Who Laughs, Metropolis and M. The German films were big hits all over the world. Alfred Hitchcock began his career as an art director at UFA, the main studio producing these films, and he brought the style to England. The directors of early Hollywood horror movies studied the style carefully, and created classics based on it.
Then when Hitler came to power and took over the German film industry, many of the original directors, cameramen and set designers emigrated to America and made Expressionist films. The American Expressionist variants eventually became known as Film Noir. Same tilted angles. Same shadows. Same sense of a world off-balance and claustrophobic. Here are some more examples to show you where the style has been re-imagined, reborn and re-used.
I could go into a detailed analysis of any of these terrific German films, but you didn’t come here for film school did you? I just want you to get excited about recognizing the style. You’re going to start seeing it everywhere.
Everywhere the shadows hide…