German Expression Introduction In addition to being one of the major art movements of the 20th century, German Expressionism was perhaps the most seminal movements in terms of art within 20th century Germany. The movement itself was greatly influenced by European expressionism, except it took on a distinctly German character, with it nihilistic attitudes and generally dark subject matter…
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While German Expressionism was expressed in a wide variety of artistic formats, today it is most recognized for its appearance within film. This essay considers the historical background of German Expressionism and also analyzes it for its deeper meaning within German Expressionist films, arguing that German Expression demonstrated a nihilistic concern with industrialization and modernization. Background While Expressionism was an art movement that had become popular in Europe during the early part of the 20th century, in Germany it took on a particularly unique approach. While this is because of a variety of reasons, one of the primary reasons is because the German filmmakers did not have the financial backing Hollywood films had so they began developing their own unique style. In considering German Expressionism, it’s clear there are a number of thematic elements that exist. In these regards, it’s been noted that frequent German Expressionist themes involve insanity, betrayal, and intellectual topics. It is perhaps for this last reason that the art movement remains so prevalent a concern within University environments. While German Expressionism was confined to a set period within German art history, its influence has been extended well beyond this early 20th century period. With Nazi’s taking power in Germany, making German Expressionist filmmakers migrated to the United States and influenced filmmaking. Slowly German Expressionist techniques took hold in American cinema and developed into film noir. Today noir remains a prominent element in Hollywood cinema. In addition, to film, it’s also been argued that German Expressionism emerged in architecture. In these regards, it’s argued that the sharp angles and contrasts of film also articulated into architecture. Indeed, German Expressionism seems to equally represent these concerns. From the opening credits it’s easy to see how American critiques could have confused The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919) as cubist. The slanted and oblique patterns with the actors and directors names placed on top of them seem to represent a multitude of perspectives. Analysis While it’s been noted that German Expressionism largely developed as a response to Hollywood films, one must also consider it in relation to the meaning behind the artistic style. In these regards, many researchers argue that parallels between the German Expressionism and deep German nihilistic anxiety with industrialization are evident (Elsasesser, 2004, p. 72). In one of the most famous German Expressionist films, the Cabinet of Dr. Caligari this is highly evident. The film begins with an iris-in of Francis in the asylum. One notes that the concern with insanity is a major theme of German Expressionism. It is also oddly appropriate as with the darkness closing in the iris seems to represent a telescopic view of his troubled soul. In fact, the film makes use of editing to cut to the deep focus set-up that features Jane walking toward the camera and then back to the dark and troubling iris surrounding Francis. We initially find Caligari registering his somnambulist for the carnival. He seems somewhat out-of-place in the well-lit setting and the mise-en-scene. even positions him well-below the registrar, almost as if the registrar represents the established governmental authority that Caligari is attempting to replace. The
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