Conrad Veidt plays Gwynplain in The Man Who Laughs, 1928
If you love Batman and know the history of his enemies, you already know The Joker was inspired by the American silent film, The Man Who Laughs, released in 1928. Wearing dental apparatus and fake teeth, Conrad Veidt’s look was downright ghastly and explains why people (including myself) suffer from coulrophobia. What happened in the German theater in the 1920s influenced the studios in Hollywood in the 20s and 30s and the genre of the horror story–and science fiction if you consider Metropolis–began. Creepy and macabre is how I like it, and it all began with German filmmakers like Fritz Lang. This brief time span influenced the filmmakers discussed with reverence today like Alfred Hitchcock, Orson Welles, Billy Wilder, and Tim Burton. Also, its influence melted into the elements of the American film noir like The Big Sleep.
What is German Expressionism?
Maybe you never went to film school or are unaware of German Expressionism. Simply stated, it was an art movement in film during the Weimar Republic (1919-1933). At its height during the decade of the 1920s, it was a German reaction to the horrors of World War I. Mutilated soldiers returned with haunted eyes, hopeless, and depressed. I speculate the society as a whole suffered from nightmares more than dreams. It would explain why Germans are stereotyped as a notoriously serious culture. I read a fascinating article, scholarship suggesting the correlation between the Weimar years of emasculated men who committed depraved sex acts and murders against women particularly in 1920. This reaction to the war might be a link explaining the mindset of a society that allowed Nazi intolerance toward Jews. https://harvardmagazine.com/1997/03/right.lust.html
In a paralyzed German society after WWI, it is easier to understand how horror came to be expressed on the film screen.
Examples You Should Watch
Abstract production designs mimicked Surrealism in art. Architecture with exaggerated lines and points replicated the skyscraper. Shadows, nightmares, long staircases, dream sequences, ghoulish villains and pretty, naïve women nurtured the psychologically damaged. The Man Who Laughs is an example of German Expressionism taking root in Hollywood. If you have 14 minutes, try this documentary short about the love story of a maimed man who falls in love with a blind girl:
Inspired by Bram Stoker’s classic, Dracula, actor Max Schrek plays the vampire Count Orlok the nocturnal stalker in F.W. Murnau’s masterpiece, Nosferatu. As an aside, have you seen Shadow of the Vampire (2000) with Willem Defoe as Count Orlok? I highly recommend it.
Metropolis (1927) is a Fritz Lang masterpiece. In the future in a utopian world, Thinkers are all head and Workers are all heart. One group lives above ground and clueless how their towering metropolis functions while the other group lives underground, an exploited work force that wants a rebellion. Modern and marvelous, it astounds me this was created in 1927. If you have to sit through one silent film, let it be this.
German police cannot find a child murderer and criminals join the manhunt. Peter Lorre is great in this role and follows German filmakers to Hollywood and stars and speaks in film noir classics like The Maltese Falcon.
United Pictures tried their hand with silent films in the German style with material adapted from Hugo’s classic tales, The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923) and The Phantom of the Opera in 1925 with Lon Chaney. With their popular success, United Pictures created a franchise in the 1930s. Monster movies like James Whale’s Frankenstein, The Werewolf, The Mummy, and Dracula were commercial successes.
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, 1920
Robert Wiene directed the quintessential German Expressionist film. The twisted Dr. Caligari has an exhibit where he keeps Cesare in a closet. He is able to foretell the future and like a zombie, stalks and kidnaps a beautiful girl named Jane. Madness and mayhem. It’s a simple story surrounded by all the characteristics of German Expressionism. Shadows. Long staircases. Symbols. Madness. Murder. Darkness. Unrealistic settings. A nightmare come true.
Can you guess the following films and why they are considered a bow of respect to German Expressionism? Here’s a set of Alfred Hitchcock examples.
Here’s another set. Can you guess which particular film influenced these contemporary remakes?
What are your thoughts about German Expressionism? Does it seem to you, as it does to me, that German Expressionism is very similar to the characteristics of Gothic born in the Romantic period?