An Analysis of German Expressionism
in Relation to the Emerging Hollywood Style
© Julia Weinmann
In the first twenty years of film history, Hollywood had already conquered large parts of the world through the creation of artistic silent films. While American filmmakers, such as D. W. Griffith, focused on montage, continuity, and coherence as a means of narrating a story, thus making the narration more comprehensible and the characters more reliable, German filmmakers predominantly emphasized the mise-en-scène of the film when they created a new genre – the Expressionist film.
In general, Expressionism is a term used for the distorted representation of reality which attempts to reveal an inner vision of the soul that is shaped by fear and wonder at the same time. The rise of German Expressionism after World War I can be traced back to a number of reasons. First of all, society was shattered by years of war and the rapid changes that had taken place in the last decade. The political system of the monarchy was abolished to pave the way for a parliamentary democracy. However, the Weimar Republic was politically instable, a revolution was put down and economy was not flourishing. The cultural movement of Expressionism represented all the changes in society, among them industrialization, the boom of radio and film, and Einstein’s and Freud’s revolutionary approaches to the world; all of which provoked the need of a new representation of reality. Moreover, people not only longed for entertainment and distraction in this insecure new world, but also did they inherit a new sense of “intellectual liberation” after censorship was ended and women were allowed to vote. Furthermore, the German film industry lacked film imports from other countries and decided to become involved in international film business itself, thus creating the large film company Ufa (Universum Film AG) that still exists today. Ufa produced films of various genres, but the most popular and influential in the world was to become the Expressionist film.
Expressionism insofar forms a sharp contrast to Impressionism and Naturalism, as it does not attempt to depict momentary impressions of the world, nor does it aim at presenting the physical world as it is. On the contrary, it portrays an interpreted psychological and spiritual reality, thus revealing the underlying essence and meaning of things. As a result, reality can be seen as a creation of the mind, which calls for the viewer’s interpretation.
Expressionism had already been used for all kinds of art forms, such as painting, literature, architecture and theatre. The era of Expressionist film began shortly after the war and lasted until the termination of creativity by Hitler’s takeover of power and film industry in 1933. Being adapted for the cinema, Expressionism created a world which was on the one hand shaped by the fear of new technologies and psychological confusion, and on the other hand faced the potentialities of a new reality. Most important is the inner vision conveyed by the camera, so the camera was liberated in order to function as “a window into the mind”. This subjective camera could mirror thoughts and emotions of the characters and turned into an active participant instead of merely being an impartial observer, such as it was commonly the case in the movies of D. W. Griffith, a revolutionary American director whose style ought to serve as a contrasting example to German Expressionism.
 Cooke, Paul: German Expressionist Films; Herts; Pocket Essentials; 2002, p. 14
 Ibid., p. 11
 Mast, Gerald & Kawin, Bruce F.: A Short History of the Movies; New York, San Francisco, Boston et al.; Longman; 2003, p. 148 (in the following cited as History)
Cinema Sem Lei has made a nice supercut video essay that explores the influence of German Expressionism on the films of Tim Burton. There’s undeniably some direct quotes: The first shot comparing the cityscapes of Metropolis and Batman Returns, the shadows on the wall of both The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and The Corpse Bride, and the similarities in the haircuts of Metropolis’ Rotwang and Christopher Walken’s Max Shreck (the name a tribute to the title actor in Nosferatu) again in Batman Returns. (Beetlejuice is notoriously absent.)
But there’s also a sense that Cinema Sem Lei’s video is cutting off a crab’s legs to make it fit in a box. Not everything in Burton’s films has a direct link to German Expressionism, and to do so is to pretend that this silent movie style lie dormant between the 1920s and 1982, when Burton created his first animated short, Vincent. (Watch it here.) It’s to ignore that Burton most likely got his Expressionism, like many other '80s filmmakers, second and third hand.
German Expressionism didn’t result in that many films, but the ones that did have become famous for their visionary aesthetic, standing out visually and intellectually against the other films of the day. When many of its directors fled the Nazis and moved to Hollywood, the style began to influence horror movies and film noir. One other place where Expressionism popped up was in the animated films of Warner Brothers, Disney, and MGM, something Burton definitely grew up watching. The comic exaggerations in Tex Avery are nothing but expressionist, and the design of both the desert vistas of Chuck Jones' Road Runner films, and his wild sci-fi designs bear the distortions of Caligari's sets.
So while we can see the angled rooftops and spindly stairs of Caligari in the shot of Burton’s Vincent sulkily climbing the stairs to his room, a more direct influence was the art of Dr. Seuss, and while a skeleton might play a bone as a flute in Murnau’s Faust, it’s Burton’s childhood love of Ray Harryhausen that you can see in the skeleton band from Corpse Bride.
Also, it’s not known when Burton may have seen these classic silent films. Growing up in the ‘70s he would have had to seek out prints, or look at stills in books about the history of horror. Once he got to CalArts to study, his access to films would have expanded beyond what was on television.
But it’s interesting that in most interviews, Burton quickly diverts the discussion if and rarely when asked about German Expressionism, but indulges when asked about what he watched as a child.
Once working in the film industry, no doubt those Burton brought on for his art directors and costume designers came with their own knowledge of history, while music videos in the early ‘80s were also awash with Expressionistinfluence mixed with modernist design. Not to say that Burton isn’t a singular visionary with a stack of influences, but one who had grown up lonely, he soon found himself among many who shared his particular tastes, the film production as a second family.
Six Early Short Films By Tim Burton
Watch 10 Classic German Expressionist Films: From Fritz Lang’s M to The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari
Vincent: Tim Burton’s Early Animated Film
Tim Burton’s The World of Stainboy: Watch the Complete Animated Series
Ted Mills is a freelance writer on the arts who currently hosts the FunkZone Podcast. You can also follow him on Twitter at @tedmills, read his other arts writing at tedmills.com and/or watch his films here.