Surreal and distorted, heavy shadows, unexpected camera angles. German expressionism; one of the most recognisable and memorable styles of silent cinema. A movement that birthed, what we refer to now, as film noir.
Expressionism is a modernist movement that initially began in the world of poetry and painting, originating in Germany at the beginning of the 20th century. Most expressionist forms of art present the world solely from a subjective perspective, distorting it radically for emotional effect, in order to evoke moods or ideas.
Expressionism began in the world of cinema in response to the German government placing a ban on all foreign films – meaning a huge increase in German-produced films.
The German economy and lives of people were suffering greatly at this time and expressionist films stand out as reflecting the inner conflict of their 1920s German audiences. They put their woes on the big screen and depict the reality of daily life.
If you look closely, every expressionist film has similar qualities. Films tend to be surreal and distorted, with heavy shadows, making the story appear gloomy and depressing. The sets are artificial with realistic details. The camera work is set in unexpected angles, giving the audience a different perception. They all similarly aim to evoke mystery and emotional stress which reflects exactly the mood of Germany at that time.
Take the film ‘Der Golem; Wie er in die Welt kam’ for example, an iconic early masterpiece of German expressionist horror. When watching with a modern eye however, it includes very few horror moments, but back when it was made, it would have been considered a scary film.
Written and directed by Carl Boese and Paul Wegener, the silent horror film is based around the mythical creature and Jewish Legend, ‘Golem,’ who has transfixed audiences for centuries.
The story, derived from Jewish Kabbalah (Jewish mysticism) is an interesting and unusual one. Set in medieval Prague, a respected Rabbi (played by Albert Steinrück) observes the stars one evening and concludes that trouble is brewing for his people. So, of course, he creates a man shaped from clay and names him ‘Golem’ (played by Wegener.) This clay-man then comes to life (with a demon spirit and the star of David placed in the centre of its chest) and serves as a stoical servant and protector of the ghetto, pretty handy.
Golem, surprisingly, becomes a likeable character. He does not play the role of a threatening monster rather a practical servant who is used to fetch groceries and wood. His scenes are in some cases, quite humourful.
The story continues with the Rabbi, known for his supernatural expertise, being invited to the emperor’s palace to entertain the people during a festival, but when they respond with laughter, the palace crumbles. Naturally, the Golem saves the Emperor and his citizens by holding up the crumbling roof. He is a heroic character.
Der Golem is a pre-World War II German film that deals with Jewish religion and community which is what makes it so interesting. What is striking is how the story portrays the mistreatment of the Jewish community in showing them being kicked out of their homes, as a precursor of the abuse laid out by the nazi which was commonplace at that time in many European cities.
Der Golem is a landmark film. It had a major influence on the horror films that followed (most notably James Whale’s 1931 adaption of Frankenstein) and therefore made a hugely important contribution to the world of Weimar cinema.
The special effects, music and editing make this film an innovative and intelligent piece of early fantasy film and expressionist cinema, that is appreciated mostly by the die-hard fans of horror.