Wednesday, April 4, 2007

the shadows of expressionism

What (you may wonder) is the distorted silhouette of Max Schreck doing on the wall of the dark room -- besides lurking there sinisterly, as is it's wont? Well, Max's shadow represents the deep and lasting impression that German Expressionism of the '20s and '30s had on the visual style and thematic undercurrents of what eventually became known as film noir. (Come to think of it, They Live By Night -- one of the all-time great noir titles -- would serve quite well as the name for a celluloid shadowplay featuring Max's Nosferatu and his fellow blood-sucking insomniacs...)

A prominent artistic movement in post-WWI Germany that influenced many disciplines (among them theater, painting, and sculpture, as well as film), Expressionism sought to give shape to psychological states through stylized visuals -- particularly (in the movies) using sharply exaggerated shadows and high-contrast lighting, disorientingly skewed set design and off-kilter camera angles. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919) is probably the most famous early example of expressionism in the movies (indeed, it has interesting structural parallels to the noir masterpiece The Woman in the Window (1944), directed by Fritz Lang, who was originally chosen to direct Caligari.)

As the Nazis rose to power, quite a few German filmmakers (including Lang, Billy Wilder, Robert Siodmak, Edward G. Ulmer) left for Hollywood, bringing with them artistic influences that would later found dramatic expression in many of the key films noir of the '40s and '50s. Lang, for example, was already famous before he began his Hollywood career as a top-line director; his German films include such Expressionist masterpieces as Metropolis (1926) and M (1931) -- dark and disturbing pictures that forshadowed noir (as Metropolis could also be said to foreshadow the Third Reich) with their nightmarish urban landscapes and their doom-filled stories of lust and violence....

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