Expressionism in Film
Robert Weine’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919) encapsulates expressionism in film so much so that expressionist cinema was dubbed as Caligarisme. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari ventures into the psyche of Francis, the protagonist. Francis’ flashbacks are featured throughout the film. Nevertheless, the film ends with a twist that reveals Francis’ flashbacks were a product of his imagination. Francis, is in fact, in a mental institution and the characters in his flashbacks were other patients in the asylum including his doctor, Dr. Caligari. Expressionism is prominent in the way that Francis’ flashbacks were featured in the film, which played a role in establishing that the scenes were mere delusions. Contrast between light and dark – an influence of art, particularly chiaroscuro lighting – for instance, was heavily used in the film to create a dreamlike sense. The contrast creates an unnatural, peculiar, and uncanny atmosphere that mirrors the bizarre nature of the film owing to Francis’ delusions.
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari fully captures the essence of expressionism in film, which aims to disconcert viewers as a means to illustrate the desolation of the world and human experiences and express varying views or perspectives about the world. Hence, these views and perspectives are represented in expressionist films in a subjective manner. Consequently, expressionist films expose the audience to the inner workings of the mind, so to speak, as they are interpreted in a fashion that is genuine to a character’s consciousness or subconsciousness. We can attribute this to the Freudian influences in German expressionism, specifically in the way that expressionist films explore a man’s psyche and aims to depict the film from the conscious or subconscious viewpoint. Filmmakers then manipulate several aspects of film to develop scenes detached from reality and based on subjectivity. Since expressionist films veer away from realism, filmmakers manipulate aspects or elements such as lighting – and therefore, the use of surfaces that reflect light such as glass in mirrors and windows – scenery, and shape to illustrate subjective views or perspectives of human experiences and the world. In The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, for instance, filmmaker Robert Wiene used contrast in lighting to produce shadows and distorted shapes to truthfully convey the imaginary world that Francis created.
Expressionism is common in horror films and film noir. F. W. Murnau’s Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror also encapsulates the essence of expressionism. Contrast between lightness and darkness is also prominent in the film. The manipulation of light is evident in the film and this technique contributed to the development of an unnerving and disturbing atmosphere that clearly reflects the theme or plot of the film. This disturbing mood manifest in the use of shadows in the film – the shadow of Nosferatu by the staircase is a perfect example. Aside from manipulating light in the film, the filmmakers also used various angles to portray feelings or emotions such as fear and panic or even pain, consequently closing the proximity between these scenes and the audience and acquainting the latter with these emotions. In a way, German expressionism, as depicted in the film, allows filmmakers to establish a mood or atmosphere that coincides with the film genre, plot, or theme.
Considering the application of expressionism, specifically German expressionism in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Nosferatu, we can then define this technique or style in a film as a means of representing subjective views or perspectives of the world. Since it is subjective, expressionist films tend to create worlds detached from reality as these subjective viewpoints are supposed to represent consciousness and how it affects perspectives. Furthermore, German expressionism also aims to create an atmosphere that accurately evokes the plot or theme of films. This is evident in the way that filmmakers created The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, which is a study of sanity, and Nosferatu, a horror film. Since expressionism is common in film noir and horror films, one of its goals is also to disconcert the audience. Expressionist films also depict a certain sense of directness particularly in the way that these films are minimally edited. Hence, the audience follows the plot as it happens. Expressionist techniques such as the use of light and dark to create contrast or shadows, the distortion of reality through mangled shapes or lines, and even the eccentric performance of the actors – especially those portraying the characters in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Nosferatu – all merge to represent what expressionism in film is all about. The succeeding discussion employs the concept of expressionism in film as a means to analyze existing aspects of this style in Fritz Lang’s film M.
Fritz Lang’s film M similarly portrays expressionism. M is film noir, which makes it an ideal medium for expressionism. M is a crime thriller that follows the pursuit of a serial killer who murders children. All the basic elements of German expressionism are in the film. Lang used lighting to create contrast between light and dark in the film. Consequently, this contrast also highlights the shadows in the film that contribute to the development of the mood or atmosphere in the film – a chilling thriller. One of perhaps the most iconic scenes in the film that clearly depicts expressionism is the view of the girl Elsie Beckmann against the shadow of the child murderer. The scene not only employs the use of shadows but also achieves the goals or objectives of expressionism, which is to evoke fear among the audience. The scene immediately sparks a sense of danger, caution, and fear, which not only depicts the plot of the film but also one of the elements of film noir. Aside from the shadows, Lang also used chiaroscuro to create a contrast between light and dark.
Lang also used difficult angles to establish an atmosphere of fear, as if there is an eerie presence that watches the children as they play or go about in the film. Similarly, the angles then create an atmosphere of fear and danger, which is characteristic of expressionism. In this way, Lang portrays a subjective view, one that represents the view of the killer. Lang also used reflective surfaces such as mirrors and glass to startle the audience. One of the scenes that not only uses a mirror but also chiaroscuro is the one where the inspector looks at himself in the mirror with fear in his eyes. In another scene, the inspector sees a reflection of a girl through the window. These scenes encapsulate the elements of German expressionism. Overall, Lang’s film M is similar to The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Nosferatu in that these films portray or depict the essence of expressionism in film, particularly German expressionism.