German Expressionism: Cinema or Theatre?
Expressionism was first applied to painting before being shared by other art forms such as music, fiction, and theatre. “” Expressionism,” already in circulation before the war, connoting revolt against the established order, was elevated enough as high culture” (Elsaesser, 2016, p. 21) and initially relied on binary oppositions such as freedom against authority and wealthy vs. poor which can be seen in Metropolis (Lang, 1927) which follows the same ideologies of revolt against established order as seen in expressionist pieces before the war. A group of expressionist artists called Die Brücke particularly used pre-war ideas in the same way in order to close the gap between new and old Germany. The style of expressionist cinema quickly develops to include clear attempts at expressing Freudian psychology and the inner psychological state of the characters shown on screen. “silent cinema more closely approximates the language of dream and desire than does sound cinema: The very silence abstracts one from everyday life.” (Coates, 1991, p. 43). This abstraction is an important part of expressionism as it is a wholly subjective style and is unmoving in its anti-realism, something that is consistent across all works of expressionist art.
Metropolis is a key example of an expressionist film in the Die Brücke style, from the artificial sets to the stylised acting seen throughout. This scene is indicative of such features, and of Die Brücke as a group with the risqué subject matter and the clear aim of a working-class audience. The set of the bedroom in particular shows the angularity and use of geometric shapes and patterns which were so familiar in expressionist texts. The triangular shape of the bed, along with its size, shows the distortion of architecture which is a common occurrence in expressionism. Being set in a utopian society for the wealthy and dystopian for the working-class resulting in a revolt is a clear indicator of how the film is made for a working-class audience.
However, along with other films from the German expressionist era, Metropolis shares these features with expressionist theatre and does little to differentiate expressionist film from theatre. The fact that many of the directors and writers of such films moved from theatre over to cinema is a direct cause of these similarities and resulted in expressionist films essentially being filmed theatre as the film industry didn’t do enough to progress the movement and differentiate it from theatre in any significant ways. Stayan (1981, pp. 4 – 5) outlines the techniques and characteristics which were associated with expressionist theatre. As I have established these are no different to the aspects seen in expressionist films therefore exhibiting the fact that German expressionism is theatre, whether viewed on the stage or on the screen.
Coates, P. (1991). The Gorgons Gaze. Cambridge: University of Cambridge press.
Elsaesser, T. (2016). Expressionist Cinema – Style and Design in Film History. In O. Brill, & G.D. Rhodes (Eds.), Expressionism in Cinema. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.
Lang, F. (Director). (1927). Metropolis [Motion Picture][DVD]. Germany: UFA.
Stayan, J.L. (1981). Modern drama in theory and practice. Vol. 3, Expressionism and epic theatre. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press