Sunday, February 11, 2007


Alraune, 1928

Alrane was Brigette Helm’s first film after her astounding debut in Metropolis. Her character and the film’s expressionist style are rendered perfectly by Hans Neuman for this 2-sheet poster design.

Year: 1928

Production: Ama Film

Director: Henrik Galeen

Starring: Brigitte Helm, Paul Wegener, Ivan Petrovich

Screenwriter: Henrik Galeen

Based on Alraune (1911) by Hanns Heinz Ewers

125 minutes; B/W

A professor of genetics (Wegener) conducts a cold-blooded experiment into the Nature-versus-nurture controversy. Using the semen of a hanged man to fertilize a whore, he creates life - a girl baby called Alraune - by artificial insemination in the laboratory. After this scientificional beginning, Alraune becomes like Frankenstein (1818) by Mary Shelley, a fantastic Gothic melodrama of retribution for a crime against Nature; nevertheless, in its distrust of the scientist, Alraune is wholly central to the development of sf. Alraune (Helm), who is named after and compared throughout with the mythic mandrake root that grows where a hanged man's seed falls, appears to have no soul, and when, as a young woman, she learns of her dark origins, she revenges herself against her "father", the professor - although at the end there is hope she will be heartless no longer. Usually spoken of as a great classic of the German silent cinema, Alraune is actually more of an early exploitation movie, stylish but prurient, with more than a whiff of incest in the theme. Helm's eroticism, which we are to deplore, was in fact the reason for the film's commercial success. However, Galeen considerably softened the portrait of Alraune rendered in Ewer's sensationalist novel: whereas in the book she is a monster of depravity, causing illness and suicide wherever she goes, in the film she merely causes mayhem and a little pain. This is generally agreed to be the best of the five film versions of the 1911 book, the others being from 1918 (twice - Germany and Hungary - the latter being directed by Mihaly Kertesz, who became Michael Curtiz, the director of Casablanca [1942]), 1930 (Germany, again starring Helm) and 1952 (Germany, starring Hildegard Knef and Erich von Stroheim).

The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction


Good horror genre is the stuff of nightmares are made of. No film has ever reproduced the subjective feeling of nightmares - but some, notably the classics of German expressionism, sometimes comes pretty damn close! Henry_Allen

German Expressionist Cinema 1919 - 1933


In this essay I intend to discuss the German expressionism cinema movement from 1919- 1933. First I look at the meaning of expressionism in general and in terms of film. Then I show the expressionist cinema in a historian context and how it could become the only national cinema comparable to America's at this time. I have a closer look at The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, the film that "first brought expressionism to the German cinema." Finally I examine why the expressionist movement "died out around 1924" but influenced later films such as Metropolis, M and Kameradschaft.

First of all I would like to look at the meaning of "expressionism". Expressionism has it roots in "painting (starting about 1910) and had been quickly taken up in theatre, then in literature, and in architecture." "Flashback, A Brief History Of Film" quotes that "expressionism emphasized a given artist's emotional, intensely personal reactions; it was thus in contrast to the traditional view that an artist should strive faithfully to reproduce the natural appearance of the object or person being painted, sculpted, or written about." All different definitions of "Expressionism" acquaint it as a theory of art that expresses feelings in an abstract way.

The German Expressionist cinema from 1919 to 1933 was a new movie style that revealed a few widely regarded films. As adapted for film Pam Cook describes expressionism in her Cinema Book as an "extreme stylisation of mise en scene... " and "The stylistic features of German Expressionism are fairly specific and include chiaroscuro lighting , surrealistic settings and, frequently, a remarkable fluidity of mobile framing." Flashback adds that German Expressionism "concentrated on a heavy use of light and dark contrasts, exaggeration, tilted angles, a dream like atmosphere" and "German films of this area are united by their uncanny evocation of stimmung ..."

As Pam Cook points out World War One contributed the development of German film productions. After the closure of the borders the German film producer had to provide the domestic film market with their own products. According to Kracauer, the number of film productions rose from 28 in 1913 to 245 in 1919. Unfortunately the films quality wasn't as good as the quantity. At this time German films were either commercial ones or copies of foreign films.

At the end of 1917 the German military (Oberste Heeresleitung) and the government founded the Universum Film AG (Ufa) in order to influence German cinema audience with propaganda films. "Almost at once Ufa became the major production company in Germany" and took over a lot of other important film production companies and their directors, cameramen, actors, architects etc. In order to attract the domestic market the film producer had to increase the quality of the films.

"The end of the Fist World War [in 1918], the collapse of the November uprising and massive inflation all contributed to an export boom in the German film industry that began in 1919." "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is generally regarded as the film which first brought Expressionism to the German cinema." "It is also one of the most typical examples." However it is "the story of a madman's fantasies filmed with starkly artificial sets made up cardboard backdrops or painted cubist shadows, which effectively suggested the disorientation of the storyteller's mind." "We see the world as the hero does. The world of the film is literally a projection of the hero's vision."

As Siegfried Kracauer describes in "From Hitler To Caligari" Caligari's authors Carl Meyer and Hans Janowitz original story had been essential changed by Director Wiene. While Meyer's and Janowitz' story exposed the madness inherent in authority, Wiene's Caligari glorified authority and convicted its antagonist of madness. Wiene wanted his Caligari to be a commercial film that answers to mass desires. With "his instinctive submission to the necessities of the screen" he put the originally story into a framing story that introduces the hero Francis as a madman.

Caligari was designed by three expressionist artists. One of them, Hermann Warm, claimed: "The film image must become graphic art." I thought that the whole film could have been performed on stage. Watching Caligari I felled being reminiscent of costly scened dramatisations. Kracauer mentioned that in accordance with Warms' belief, "the canvases and draperies of Caligari abounded in complexes of jagged, sharp pointed forms strongly reminiscent of gothic patterns. Except for a few slips or concessions-some backgrounds opposed the pictorial convention in too direct a manner, while others all but preserved them- the settings amounted to a perfect transformation of material objects into emotional ornaments."

From my point of view it is very interesting that Caligari was completely shot in the studio. It seems as if the camera did not take the plunge to go on the streets. Krakauer pointed out that their withdrawal into the studio was part of the general German retreat into a shell. I personally think that as well as a shell the studio offered much more possibilities for the film producers to express abstract thoughts. In the early 20th century some big art forms such as the painting moved towards bigger abstraction, "less topic but more art" as James Monaco quotes. The art of film making wanted to be as pretentious as e.g. the painting. Monaco adds that "the expressionist film maker had big manipulative power to create a popular art form in the studio." The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari was a big success in the United States, France and other countries after its release in the early 1920 "while the Germans were to close to Caligari to appraise its symptomatic value." "The French coined the term "Caligarisme" and applied it to a postwar world seemingly all upside down; which at any rate, proves that they sensed the film's bearing on the structure of society." After its release in the United States in April 1921 it gained "world fame." Because of its success, other films in the expressionist style soon appeared. But Jerzy Toeblitz points out that the following German expressionist films never have been as self-contained and harmonic in their expressionistic style as Caligari.

One of the last Decla-Bioscob films to be made before Ufa took over was Der muede Tod (Destiny). "Death personified by a morose, black-clad, ashen faced man, enters a tavern where flowers wilt and a cat arches his back." The successful three hours film Dr. Mabuse der Spieler is about a gambler who makes a fortune on the stock exchange and as Pam Cook points out "it can be related to the economic conditions of contemporary Germany..." In 1922 another short lived Studio, Prana Film, supplied Ufa with Nosferatu. Murnau's conception of Dracula "as a rat in human form" was successful on the box office with its "gothic subject matter and visual style." while Warning Shadows (Schatten) "exemplifies all the stylistic features of German Expressionism" but "only found a response among film aesthetes."

While the German economy recovered and the US. Dawes Plan helped to stabilise the country in 1924 the German film industry suffered a great deal. In times of inflation films were cheap and therefor easy to sell on foreign markets. Now as the mark was stabilised, expressionist film budgets were rising and "foreign films came in more frequently, offering a degree of competition unknown in Germany for nearly a decade." "The export boom in the film industry collapsed almost as swiftly as it had started..." Therefor the two part project Die Niebelungen, a historical epic shot in 31 weeks(!) and The last Laugh by Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau were a "commercial failure" although The last Laugh " received laudatory press notices." "Murnau was the first to make camera movement a style sufficient into itself."

As Pam Cook quotes "Expressionism as a national movement died out around 1924, though Expressionist tendencies can be found in later German films..." Metropolis (1926) "made effective use of miniatures and other special effects." This vision of the world of the future was the most expensive German film up to that date "production costs exceeded 5 million marks." Its Director Fritz Lang "had employed some 800 actors, 30000 extras and taken 310 days and 60 nights of filming." "Metropolis greatness is in its design, its geometric use of shapes as well as of masses of people." "The film works as a critcism of the manipulative capitalist system which both oppresses the people and transforms them into a monstrous destructive power."

As Georges Sadoul has pointed out, an expressionist tendency lingered on in many of the German films even into such 1930s films as Lang's M (1930)" M and Kameradschaft were some early sound films had international success. By 1933, when M was finally released in America it's half-Jewish director Fritz Lang as well as it's world famous stars Peter Lorre and Marlene Dietrich, Robert Wiene, Billy Wilder etc. emigrated to the United States before Adolf Hitler came to power in January 1933...


The Geman expressionist cinema from 1919 to 1933 released some very successful films that were able to compete with the American cinema. In 1919 after Word War One "Germany entered a period of unrest and confusion, a period of hysteric despair and unbridled vice full of the excesses of an inflation-ridden country" as director Fritz Lang captured the psychological mood. "The terror of social pressure could be found again in the soul of one's own as the suffering from an irrational evil." German movies began to thrive on "the constant, ever-present yearning for the fantastic, the mysterious, the macabre, for the strangling terror of the dark." The German film industry boomed until 1924 when the Dawes plan brought stabilisation to the German industry "and the German soul". Though the expressionist movement died out in 1924 there had been a big influence on later films such as Metropolis (1926), M (1931) and Kameradschaft (1931) and on a trend in film style.

from -
Hosted by Fabian Ziesing


German Expressionist Cinema - From Caligari to Metropolis
By A. Wolf

After theWorld War I and until the arising of the Nazism at the beginning of the 1930s, Germany was the birthplace of a new movie style based in the stylistic features of the expressionist movement such as the use of the chiaroscuro, oneiric atmospheres and exaggerated angles and compositions. The exact birth date of this movement must be placed at the end of 1917, when the Universum Film AG (UFA) was founded by the German government and military.

There are a lot of in-depth studies about this movement on books, magazines and even in the WWW, but this little essay is only my original and personal reflection about the films I had the opportunity to watch –and love.

Caligari! CALIGARI!!

Directed in 1919 by Robert Wiene, The cabinet of Dr. Caligari is the most paradigmatical film of the early German expressionism.

Brief synopsis: an ambulant fair visits a small German town. Main attraction at that fair is Dr. Caligari's stand, where a somnambulist named Cesare (Conrad Veidt) is advertised. One of the visitors asks the somnambulist an extremely brainy question: “How long will I live?” The freak answers: “You will die tomorrow…” Interestingly, the man –instead of laughing- seems very worried about the somnambulist's prediction. Even more interestingly, he dies the day after…

The art direction was managed by Walter Reimann and Walter Roehrig, fellow members of the “Der Sturm group”, a Berlin expressionist art group, featuring world famous artists such as Bruno Taut and Herwarth Walden. They created an original, fantastic makeup that fills the film with a delirium-like imagery, and emphasizes the protagonist's own psycho-destruction.

Caligari's brutal domination over the half-somnambulist/ half-zombie Cesare is easily interpretable as a metaphor of the fascist and authoritarian governments that arose in Europe in the first half of the XX century, as Siegfried Kracauer explains in his famous book From Caligari to Hitler.

Murnau's Nosferatu

Don't ask me how, but some years ago I was lucky enough to obtain a copy of Friedrich Murnau's earliest surviving film, Schloß Vogeloed (The Haunted Castle, 1921). I was not really thrilled by it, but the beauty of the makeup, the strange and disturbing ending and the stunning use of the chiaroscuro were enough to make me to introduce in Murnau's light/dark universe, which will reach its zenith in the movie I'll review now.

One year after filming Schloß Vogeloed, Murnau was ready to film his undisclosed masterwork: Nosferatu, eine symphonie des grauens is based on Bram Stoker's novel Dracula , but a lawsuit with the writer's widow forced Murnau to change some aspects of the movie, such as the title or the name of the protagonist (Count Orlok) Nevertheless, it was not enough, and, due to the lawsuit, almost all copies of the film were destroyed. The Deutsche Film Production was able to save one of them, and the movie was finally premiered in the USA in 1929.

Max Schreck's incredible performance as sinister Count Orlok(extremely slim, pale, rat-like teeth, crow-like nose, like a Transylvanian version of The Simpson's Mr. Burns), the charm and painterly of its landscapes, and the lyrical beauty of the texts place the film at the pinnacle of the horror genre. Nosferatu is the most cryptical and necrophilic, but also oneiric and romantic film based on the Transylvanian vampire, a true masterwork that neither Tod Browning, Terence Fisher or Francis Ford Coppola have never surpassed.


Along with Stanley Kubrick's 2001, a space odyssey (1968) and Ridley Scott's Blade Runner (1982), Fritz Lang's Metropolis is considered the height of the then called sci-fi cinema. The influence in both posterior films is evident: Blade Runner 's opening sequences of the dark, futurist, neo-industrial L.A. seems to pay tribute to Metropolis astonishing cityscapes (see picture left), while in Kubrick's masterpiece the tribute is even in the title: Metropolis story line occurs in year 2000, and Kubrick place his film one year after as a tribute.

But while Blade Runner and 2001 predictions had been quite erroneous (I haven't seen any replicant out there, and Saturn is still a bit difficult to reach) Metropolis fatalist vision of the working class is a cruel metaphor still valid in our times. Almost 40 years later, and with no direct relationship with this film, Julio Cortázar wrote a sentence that resumes by itself Metropolis tragic message: “…mankind will begin to be worthy of his name the day in that the exploitation of the human being by the human being stop”

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