GERMAN EXPRESSIONISM—EVERYONE'S FAVORITE NIGHTMARE?
The German cinema of the Weimar period, usually regarded as one of the “golden ages” of world cinema, stays in the spotlight until the emergence of Soviet montage cinema in the mid- and late 1920s, by which time it competes, under the heading of Neue Sachlichkeit, with the gritty realism of Erich von Stroheim, Ralph Ince, Joseph von Sternberg and King Vidor. The German films from the first half of the decade, of which the best-known is still Robert Wiene's The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), are often labeled “German Expressionism,” borrowing the name from an avant-garde movement in literature, drama, painting and sculpture, and associated with such artists’ groups as Der Blaue Reiter, Der Sturm and Die Brücke, which peaked around 1912, and whose creative energies were largely spent by the end of World War I.
The reasons for labeling some of the more internationally successful films of the Weimar period “Expressionist” were complex and are still contested. What undoubtedly played a role were efforts to associate the provenance “German” with something more elevated and artistic than Prussian militarism and the horrors of a brutal war of recent memory. Such efforts may even have originated in France, Germany's arch-enemy in those days, where Caligari was enthusiastically received among Paris intellectuals and praised more warmly than, for instance, in Berlin. There, audiences had the choice among a wide array of indigenous genre films, such as social melodrama and detective films, comedies and “star vehicles” (Asta Nielsen and Harry Piel, Henny Porten and Harry Liedtke). None of these could be considered “Expressionist,” and besides the Asta Nielsen films, most had little international resonance. Thus, the label “Expressionist” treats as representative of the German cinema of the period quite a small sample of films, favoring a handful of exceptional productions at the expense of what was the mainstay of a rapidly expanding and consolidating film industry, centered on the Ufa studio and its network of theaters.