An Analysis of German Expressionism
in Relation to the Emerging Hollywood Style
© Julia Weinmann
In the first twenty years of film history, Hollywood had already conquered large parts of the world through the creation of artistic silent films. While American filmmakers, such as D. W. Griffith, focused on montage, continuity, and coherence as a means of narrating a story, thus making the narration more comprehensible and the characters more reliable, German filmmakers predominantly emphasized the mise-en-scène of the film when they created a new genre – the Expressionist film.
In general, Expressionism is a term used for the distorted representation of reality which attempts to reveal an inner vision of the soul that is shaped by fear and wonder at the same time. The rise of German Expressionism after World War I can be traced back to a number of reasons. First of all, society was shattered by years of war and the rapid changes that had taken place in the last decade. The political system of the monarchy was abolished to pave the way for a parliamentary democracy. However, the Weimar Republic was politically instable, a revolution was put down and economy was not flourishing. The cultural movement of Expressionism represented all the changes in society, among them industrialization, the boom of radio and film, and Einstein’s and Freud’s revolutionary approaches to the world; all of which provoked the need of a new representation of reality. Moreover, people not only longed for entertainment and distraction in this insecure new world, but also did they inherit a new sense of “intellectual liberation” after censorship was ended and women were allowed to vote. Furthermore, the German film industry lacked film imports from other countries and decided to become involved in international film business itself, thus creating the large film company Ufa (Universum Film AG) that still exists today. Ufa produced films of various genres, but the most popular and influential in the world was to become the Expressionist film.
Expressionism insofar forms a sharp contrast to Impressionism and Naturalism, as it does not attempt to depict momentary impressions of the world, nor does it aim at presenting the physical world as it is. On the contrary, it portrays an interpreted psychological and spiritual reality, thus revealing the underlying essence and meaning of things. As a result, reality can be seen as a creation of the mind, which calls for the viewer’s interpretation.
Expressionism had already been used for all kinds of art forms, such as painting, literature, architecture and theatre. The era of Expressionist film began shortly after the war and lasted until the termination of creativity by Hitler’s takeover of power and film industry in 1933. Being adapted for the cinema, Expressionism created a world which was on the one hand shaped by the fear of new technologies and psychological confusion, and on the other hand faced the potentialities of a new reality. Most important is the inner vision conveyed by the camera, so the camera was liberated in order to function as “a window into the mind”. This subjective camera could mirror thoughts and emotions of the characters and turned into an active participant instead of merely being an impartial observer, such as it was commonly the case in the movies of D. W. Griffith, a revolutionary American director whose style ought to serve as a contrasting example to German Expressionism.
 Cooke, Paul: German Expressionist Films; Herts; Pocket Essentials; 2002, p. 14
 Ibid., p. 11
 Mast, Gerald & Kawin, Bruce F.: A Short History of the Movies; New York, San Francisco, Boston et al.; Longman; 2003, p. 148 (in the following cited as History)