Another issue that is also highly poignant in many German Expressionist films, although perhaps not in a clear, obvious way, is that of sexuality. Nosferatu is an example of this, contrasting Ellen’s conventional and perhaps boring relationship with Hutter to Orlock’s dark, sexual power over her. However, the film seems to project the message that ‘Nosferatu stands for raw carnal desire which must be kept in check in the interest of higher spiritual values’ (Elsaesser, 2001).
This is a similar example to that of authority – sexuality is a power that can be used for evil, and therefore should be eliminated. The use of phallic symbolism within the film should also be noted towards this; Orlock’s castle, for example, is topped by a phallic pointed tower, and at the end when Orlock is defeated, his castle, and the representation of his sexuality, crumbles. A characteristic that is used in many German films of the period, and was highly influential of future film genre and style, is that of chiaroscuro lighting – the use of light and shadow.
Kurtz (n. d), cited by Kraucauer (1947, p. 75) states that this can be traced as being influenced by expressionist theatre practitioner Max Reinhardt, in the play ‘The Beggar’ (‘Der Bettler’), where he used imaginary settings created by lighting effects. As said by Klinge & Klinge (1983), early German films often used shadows as a substitute for people or objects, to create more dramatic emphasis, using the fear of the unknown to make them more obscure and menacing.
This can be seen in Nosferatu multiple times, one particularly famous and influential scene being when Orlock ascends the stairs to Ellen’s room – his dark shadow against the white wall is menacing and dramatic, obscuring much of the white wall, a colour associated with purity, which could be said when going back to the film’s dealing with ideas of sexuality to show the wider idea in the film of the corruption of innocence.
The chiaroscuro lighting device is most commonly seen after the German Expressionist movement in the film noir genre, the films of which use the style or lighting to complement the mystery and intrigue of thriller and detective based storylines. Many of the noir films used techniques popular in German Expressionist films however, to give one example in particular, The Third Man (Reed, 1949). Set in a post-war Vienna, it bears similarity to the background for the German Expressionist movement, with a feeling of confusion and displacement in society.
The use of distorted camera angles and expressionist lighting, similar to films such as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, capture the feelings of distress felt by the characters, in turn a representation of society. In one scene, Harry Lime, played by Orson Welles, is hidden in the shadows. His character is one that is morally ambiguous, and the use of shadow to hide him is similar to that of how it is used to represent negative characters, such as Cesare in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.
Other examples of films that fall into the noir genre are Double Indemnity (Wilder, 1944) and Mildred Pierce (Curtiz, 1945), both of which use the chiaroscuro style of lighting. The noir films also link with to Expressionist cinema thematically, with the protagonist’s mental or moral state questioned in many of these films. As in German Expressionist films, the stories in film noir are often told from the point of view of the protagonist, a technique used in Expressionist theatre (Klinge & Klinge, 1983) and emulated by the Expressionist film movement.
A film can always reveal something about the views in the period it was made in, and German Expressionist cinema is a prime example of this – it’s disjointed, dramatic visual style and dark themes give an impression of a society that felt confused and oppressed. Throughout this exploration of the movement, it can be seen that the techniques used by filmmakers at the time had a large impact on many films made subsequently, right up until the present day, such as the aforementioned The Third Man and the film noir genre, and the work of Tim Burton.
Although the progression of technology, first sound, and then colour, means that the way these films appear are different in many ways to German Expressionist films, aspects of the movement can definitely be seen in contemporary filmmaking techniques, showing that despite the movement only being at its peak for around a decade, the films and the techniques used within them have left a lasting impression on cinema.
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From Caligari to Hitler: A psychological study of the German film. New Jersey: Princeton University Press. Lang, F. (Director). (1926). Metropolis . Murnau, F. (Director). (1922). Nosferatu . Reed, C. (Director). (1949). The Third Man . Wiene, R. (Director). (1920). The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari . Wilder, B. (Director). (1944). Double Indemnity .