German Expressionism: Crash Course Film History #7

German Expressionism: Crash Course Film History #7


The earliest days of film were possibly when
cinema was its most global as a medium. There was no synchronous sound, so filmmakers
had to tell their stories visually – with tools like framing, shot size, and editing
– instead of with spoken dialogue. Because of this, films could be understood
across cultures: Someone throws a punch at the camera, and you flinch, whether you speak
English or Russian… or Eagle. So far, we’ve been focusing a lot on France
and the United States, where many advances in film technology, storytelling, and commerce
were born. But the rest of the world wasn’t very far
behind. Europe had a vibrant film culture leading
right up to 1914, and the outbreak of World War I, which profoundly changed world history – as world wars tend to do – and left an impact on cinema that’s still felt to this day. German film, especially, became stranger and
darker, as filmmakers attempted to disorient the audience and immerse us in the heads of
their main characters. It’s time to delve into the psychological
depths of German Expressionism. [OPENING MUSIC PLAYS] When you think of World War I, you might think
of trench warfare, chemical weapons, or a war that began with an assassin’s bullet. But the war’s effect on the burgeoning global
film industry – as well as its political and psychological influence on emerging filmmakers
– was deep and powerful. In countries like France, Italy, and the U.K.,
World War I brought feature film production to a near-standstill, because the infrastructure
and facilities were destroyed, or because the filmmakers and their equipment were conscripted
into the war effort. You see, film was used to bring images of
battle and its aftermath to audiences far from the front lines. The two national film industries most affected
by World War I were those of Germany and Russia. For now, let’s focus on Germany. We’ll get to Russia next time. Prior to the war, German films fell firmly
within our idea of a “cinema of attractions” – they were spectacles designed for entertainment. Like me. As film became a more sophisticated medium,
many German filmmakers took a page from the French “film d’art” movement. They began thinking more about the craft of
narrative filmmaking, telling more complex stories rooted in specific characters’ experiences. Sounds boring to me. Where are the explosions, am I right? And they called this kind of film Autorenfilm,
or “famous author’s film.” In 1913, director Stellan Rye made a film
called Der Student von Prag, or The Student from Prague, that finally unshackled German
film from theatrical staging – the Proscenium arch approach we talked about before. This freed the camera to enter a scene and
join the action, rather than sitting back to observe. By the mid-1910s, the German government realized
that its film industry wasn’t at the same level as that of the United States, France,
Italy, or England. Combine that with the country’s struggles
with pre-war depression and anti-government propaganda, and you had a recipe for trouble. In 1917, the German military supreme command
took control of all the major film studios and production companies and consolidated
them under one, enormous, state-sponsored entity called UFA. The idea was to centralize all the film talent,
equipment, and facilities in the country, and to focus on nationalist films – a pro-German,
pro-government cinema that would help them win the war. Imagine if the U.S. military took over and
combined Warner Brothers, Paramount, Disney, Universal, Fox, Sony, Canon Films (Breakin’ 2:Electric Boogaloo?) – all the major
film studios. And then told them what they could and couldn’t
make. That’s a lot of resources, and a lot of
power. Now, Germany lost the war… badly. And in the aftermath, Imperial rule ended
and a national assembly in the city of Weimar gave birth to a new republican government. This era in German history – which we call
the Weimar Period – was marked by hyperinflation, political extremism, violence, and deeply
troubled relationships with the countries that had won the war. But Germany was left with a huge infrastructure
for film production and distribution that actually grew during the war, while the rest
of the economy went into a free fall. Meanwhile, the rest of Europe’s filmmaking
capacity had been all but decimated. So by 1920, Germany had the only film industry
in the world able to compete with Hollywood. The first post-war films made by UFA were
beautiful costume dramas, or “Kostumfilme.” — Aptly Named. Their aim was to compete with the popular,
large-scale historical spectacles made by Italy before the war, to entertain and distract
audiences from the devastated economy. A filmmaker named Ernst Lubitsch became the
acknowledged master of the Kostumfilme, known for his huge crowd scenes and mastery of artificial
lighting. Hopefully known for his costumes, too. I would think. I mean, it’s a Kostumfilme. You better have costumes. His first big international hit was Madame
DuBarry, also known as Passion, made in 1919. And in just over a decade, he would become
the first high-profile German director to emigrate to Hollywood to escape the rise of
Nazi rule. Now, with UFA sucking up all the filmmaking
oxygen in Germany, there wasn’t much room for independent production companies. And yet a few persisted. One of them, called Decla, knew they couldn’t
compete with UFA in terms of scale or resources. They were even hamstrung by the rationing
of electricity, which limited the lighting they could use. So the producers knew they had to do something
different to get people’s attention – and they did. Their breakout film would reshape the German
film style, and eventually influence the look and tone of Hollywood genre movies. It was called The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. This little studio, made a movie that changed the face of cinema! Written by Hans Janowitz and Carl Mayer, this
film was thematically based on their experiences as soldiers in World War I and their distrust
of authoritarian leadership. It tells the story of a young German man who
meets a madman doctor whose somnambulist – a kind of sleepwalking zombie – may also be
a serial killer, targeting the young man’s best friend and the woman he loves. The story gains a level of complexity at the
end when it’s revealed that… Spoiler… get ready. – our hero is an unreliable narrator. He lives in a mental institution and may have
made up the entire plot using his fellow inmates and the director of the asylum as models for
his characters. Creepy, right? What made the film stand out in 1920, and
even today, is its use of mise-en-scène. Mise-en-scène refers to the arrangement of
things that appear in front of the camera. All the physical stuff in a shot: the sets,
props, costumes, makeup, actors and their blocking, and the lighting. Pretty much everything. And Caligari’s innovation was to use mise-en-scène
expressionistically, rather than realistically. That is, instead of making things like the
sets, costumes, and props, as realistic as possible, director Robert Weine and his two
production designers deliberately distorted everything within the frame. It’s all designed to look deliberately artificial
and throw you off balance – from chairs, desks, and doors that are way too tall, to
impossibly peaked roofs, and even shafts of moonlight painted across the set. The pale-faced, dark-eyed makeup of the characters,
as well as they way they move – particularly the sleepwalking killer Cesare – is meant
to be super creepy. This is the heart of German Expressionism,
using an exaggerated, distorted mise-en-scène to reflect the inner psychology of the characters. It’s the world’s first taste of highly
subjective filmmaking as well – putting us in the mind of an insane main character
and making us experience the world as he does. Given its anti-authoritarian themes, exaggerated
mise-en-scène, subjective point of view, and twist ending, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari
is a powerhouse of a story. It made at least four breakthroughs all at
once for the history of film. And although Caligari wasn’t an immediate
hit, other filmmakers soon began to pick up its techniques. Even UFA started to borrow its style. And, before long, expressionistic mise-en-scène
became a hallmark of German cinema in the Weimar Period. Because UFA was the largest film studio in
the world at the time, it attracted young filmmakers and technicians from all over Europe
– including a 25-year-old Alfred Hitchcock. Then, as Germany took a hard right toward
fascism, many German filmmakers fled for London, New York, or Hollywood, taking the techniques
of German Expressionism with them. Watch a film noir from the 1930s or a horror
film from the 1940s, or even a studio melodrama like Douglas Sirk’s All that Heaven Allows
from 1955, and you’ll see the deep influence of German Expressionism. Heck, take another look at David Fincher’s
Se7en, and tell me those grisly murder scenes and that ending would exist without Caligari. WHAT’S IN THE BOOOOOOX?!?! Now, another German filmmaker from the Weimar
Period we should talk about is Fritz Lang. Lang started as an architect, and, boy, does
it show in his work. His films depict grand, epic spaces, and he
pays incredibly close attention to the details and structure of his narratives. They feel solid, like you could live in them. He borrowed heavily from Caligari’s use
of mise-en-scène to amplify his own rich and morally-complex stories. But his films were less intellectual, and
more interested in exploring the visceral emotions of characters. Lang’s masterpiece is the sci-fi epic Metropolis,
which combined German Expressionist techniques with his interest in special effects. The film is set in a futuristic society, in
which the wealthy live in luxury high above the toiling masses. It’s a love story between the son of the
ruler of this society, and a poor worker from down below – which, y’know, is par for
the course in dystopian stories. Metropolis was a precursor to everything from
Blade Runner to The Hunger Games, but it was also a huge financial failure at the time. It took decades before it was hailed as a
dark and sinister classic. Now, no discussion of German Expressionism
is complete without mentioning the other major director of the time: F.W. Murnau. Murnau was an art historian before he was
a filmmaker, and wanted to make a film of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, but couldn’t afford
the rights to the book. So he just… fudged it a bit. He changed some of the names, rearranged some
locations, and made his own version of the same story in 1922, called Nosferatu. He was heavily inspired by Caligari, but instead
of building exaggerated sets, Murnau focused more on lighting, staging, special effects,
and makeup to get at the characters’ inner psychology. Murnau would eventually turn his attention
to Kammerspielfilm, or the “Intimate Theater” film tradition, which tried to depict the
oppressiveness of middle class life in
contemporary Germany. He remained as experimental as ever, particularly
with camera movement. His 1924 film The Last Laugh, for instance,
is a masterclass in what Murnau called the “unchained camera.” From pans and tilts to dolly and crane shots,
his camera never stops moving, in an attempt to make us feel what his characters are feeling. Can you move our camera around for the rest of the video, Nick? Nick: No. That… that’s fine. That same year, the United States and its
European allies implemented the Dawes Plan, to try and help Germany pay for the extensive
damage it caused during the war. So the extra aid from the Dawes Plan was good
for the German economy overall, but it was a gut punch to the film industry. Among other things, it strangled exports,
meaning that German films had a much harder time finding distribution outside of the country. That in turn made it harder for production
companies to get loans from the banks, so many independent companies ended up declaring
bankruptcy between 1924 and 1925. American film studios saw the chance to take
out their greatest rivals, and flooded Germany with Hollywood films. Germany’s days as a leader in global cinema
were over. That said, German cinema of the Weimar period
has had a profound and long-lasting influence on film history, like few other movements
have. From The Silence of the Lambs to Don’t Breathe
to anything M. Night Shyamalan has ever put on film, the techniques of German Expressionism
are creeping us out to this very day. Today we talked about how the political climate
during and after World War I influenced filmmakers across the world and the German film industry. We learned about styles and techniques that
emerged from this post-war society, like German Expressionism’s exaggerated mise-en-scène
and Murnau’s “unchained camera”. And we looked at how filmmakers like Weine,
Lubitsch, and Lang taught the world to use these tools of cinema to bring audiences more
directly into the minds of characters. Next time, we’ll witness how the Russian
Revolution incited a lot of filmmaking study and innovation too – especially in editing
– and delve into the theory of Soviet Montage. Crash Course Film History is produced in association
with PBS Digital Studios. You can head over to their channel to check
out a playlist of their latest amazing shows, like Coma Niddy, Reactions, and Deep Look. This episode of Crash Course was filmed in
the Doctor Cheryl C. Kinney Studio with the help of all these unchained cameras and our amazing
graphics team, is Thought Cafe.

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  1. This was fascinating! I'd absolutely love an episode on the history of the films of Leni Riefenstahl – she's a fascinating personality study and her filmmaking techniques would be really interesting to see on crash course!!

  2. @CrashCourse Thankyou for this! Could not have been more perfectly times as i am doing an essay on German expressionism. Cabinet of Dr Caligari was a masterpiece.

  3. This guy has no charisma, and every time he pretentiously says "mise-en-scene" I want to slap him.

  4. Continuity error: Craig punches the eagle off the ashtray and in the next shot the eagle is back on the ashtray.

  5. Caligari, Metropolis, insanity, art-based films, and Kirby? This one's right up my alley.
    Also, good job with the video work as always. Glad to see one of my favorite hobbies being analyzed by one of my favorite YouTube channels. Keep up with the good work.

  6. I like these videos, but Craig's German pronunciation hurt me profoundly.
    And I'm not even a German.

    Love you, Crash Course! <3

  7. As a French-Canadian with a degree in Theatre, I feel compelled to mention that 'Mise en scène' (great pronunciation btw Craig) is also the word for directing a play. So in French the director of a Play is called a 'Metteur en scène' and the direction you chose for the play is the 'Mise en scène' (basically what you said about Mise en scène in the movie, style, blocking etc.) on the other hand, someone who directs Movies is called a 'Réalisateur' which can be loosely translated to someone who implements. It come form the verb 'Réaliser' which means several things, among which, to make, implement, construct. I've never heard the words Misen en scène used in the context of film making, but of course, it works!
    Thank you for these videos, they are very fascinating!

  8. He could at least try to pronounce non-American words correctly… Without the subtitles I wouldn't have understood what he's talking about because of the effortless pronunciation.

  9. I swear to the Universe.. he said "Auto-rent-film"… so it would be a film about renting a car? Like Fast and Furious? Boy, I did not know germans were so advanced in 1914.

  10. So our U.S. film industry isn't just one big conglomerate that accepts money from the U.S. military so that they can cast them as the "heroes that save the day" lol. Yep, we're not like those other socialists, we don't make propaganda… if only.

  11. Told them what they could and couldn't make… sounds like the Hayes Code to me (although not strictly gov't regulated).

  12. Just so you know, that's not how the german flag looked like at the time. The black, red and gold colored flag is used today by the Federal Republic Of Germany. At the time of the German Empire, the flag was black, white and red. I hate when people make that mistake. Imagine europeans using the confederate flag to describe the USA.

  13. I was fortunate enough to see a screening of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari with a three-piece band – cello, electric bass and drums – accompanying it. Outstanding, even if I say so myself.

  14. Crash Course = breathless breakneck monologue that obliterates both communication and comprehension for sheer quantity of words per minute. A useless blur.

  15. The flag was wrong for the German empire. That's the Weimar and Reunification flag. I wouldn't mention this but for the fact it was very contentious at the time and represented an important rift in German society.

  16. Stop adding film grain to the old movies. Making old movies look older than they need to is not going to help people want to watch low quality film.

  17. These are really good and informative. Though I would think they could put at least a LITTLE effort and research into pronunciation. Honestly, his version of German or French words is painful to listen to. He seems well-informed on the topic, but his pronunciation just makes him sound like a rube.

  18. Decla was "lacking resources" and they proceed to create intricate sets for The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. That's must have been hell.

  19. Yes, just imagine if the US government, via the Pentagon, took over the US film industry and basically told them how war movies should be made..

  20. How is the dawesplan good for the german economy? The bread price went from 4 marken to 200.000.000.000 in less than 6 months.

  21. what are the books that Dr. Craig has behind him. I saw a Sergei Eisenstein book I think but what other movie books are there?

    Thanks

  22. The German government once consolidated all of its major film studios into a state-sponsored conglomerate?! UFA! I'm tired just thinking of all that much work!

  23. How come you skipped the golden age of comedy? Chaplin was extremely influential and talented. His contributions helped shape the industry forever.

  24. 9:17 The phrase "Drücken Sie F" is german and mean 'press F'. That refers to a scene from the controversal scene from the game 'Call of Duty: Modern Warfare'. It's a scene that is supposed to be sad, a military funeral. The narrativ of the scene suddenly stops and the game blend in the words 'Press F to Pay Respect'. It's was perceived controversal because the simple gamification of such a profound moment.

    I know, it's an obvious joke for everyone!
    …who is interested in Film History, follows modern game culture and speaks german.

    [I love it, thank's CrashCourse! ♥︎]

  25. A Hard Right towards Fascism?
    You Mean a Hard Left towards Fascism!
    Tried slipping in that little bit of Regressive Propaganda… But I Caught you 😊

  26. Why is he pronouncing Weimar as Veimar? As a third-generation German American; I believe it's pronounced as it's spelt: Weimar.

  27. Its also a problem for dogs who were bread for work to be kept as ornamental pets that do nothing because they become incredibly frustrated. If you have a dog that is bread for work then give it work or it will become a menace.

  28. Weimar cinema was not behind the USA in any way, shape or form. Quite the opposite. It wasn't until film noir in the 40s that US movies became psychologically interesting, with stark expressionistic lighting and dark brooding subject matter. US producers either used German directors and actors or people who were so heavily influenced by German cinema… they may as well have been German. I'm not German by the way. I just want to clear up some misinformation disseminated by this otherwise excellent series.

  29. Slow down! I’m interested in what you’re saying but it’s soooo stressful listening to you gabble at such speed, are you trying to set a record or something? It’s really really difficult to listen to.

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