The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari (1920)
The Golem (1920)
The Last Laugh (1924)
Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927)
The Bride of Frankenstein (1935)
Night of the Hunter (1955)
The Burbs (1989)
Edward Scissorhands (1990)
By 1914, the industrial revolution was in full swing, with one man in a tractor doing the work of fifty farmers. So what did all these ex-farmers do? Well, there were plenty of new jobs in the modern factories. What did these factories do? Assemble pots and pans, automobiles, or maybe ammunition, lots of ammunition. What did they need so much ammunition for? To put in the newly invented machine guns and warplanes and tanks. Yes, technology can make things very convenient, but it has always had a dark side. In just a few years, more people died in World War I than any previous war. So after the war, things were looking pretty bleak in Europe. So bleak that painting pictures of beautiful people doing beautiful things just didn't seem to cut it anymore. Instead, artists like Edward Munch went more in this direction:
Now, if he went out and painted a man standing on a bridge with a lake and hills in the background and tried to do it as realistically as possible, it wouldn't look like this. But instead, he was trying to paint how this man (or he, the painter) felt, and that requires manipulating reality. That's what expressionism is all about: an outward expression of inner emotions.
Pretty soon, this caught on in the film world as well. Robert Wiene's The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is one of the early examples. Sure, the acting is way over the top, and it gets kind of funny how long they pause in between every line with some awkward facial expression. But ,the visuals are dynamite. Shadows, crooked angles, sinister settings. To some it was "painting in motion." It uses the sets, lighting, costumes, and stylized acting to convey the character's’ inner life.
Many later directors incorporated some of these stylistic elements, such at Fritz Lang in Die Nibelungen and Metropolis, G.W. Pabst in The Joyless Street, and F.W. Murnau in Nosferatu and Faust.
Some characteristics of expressionism:
1. Purposefully unrealistic, dreamlike or nightmare quality
2. Exaggerated sets, costumes, acting
3. Dark/ominous subject and tone
4. Lots of darkness and shadows
5. Main character has some kind of unfulfilled spiritual hunger
6. A search for meaning in an industrial world (often ends in failure)
7. Fear of being overwhelmed or overtaken by technology
Have you seen any of these patterns going on in modern films? You can tell Tim Burton is a huge fan of the stuff, as is Terry Gilliam. What else?
Download: Expressionism worksheet