German Expressionist films Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Nosferatu
The Expressionist movement began in Europe around 1908: first as a style of painting, and then as a style of theater. It inspired Robert Weine’s famed The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, which was released in 1920 and instantly recognized for its stylized mise-en-scène (or everything that appears before the camera) and theatrical choreography. The crux of the German Expressionist movement came two years later, with F.W. Mernau's classic film, Nosferatu.
Expressionist films like Cabinet and Nosferatu are characterized by their painted backdrops, symmetry and patterns, abnormally large proportions, sharp angles, artificial shadows, and slanted walls. These distorted landscapes create the illusion that the viewer is observing a painting set in motion: each shot, taken out of context, might be seen as its own piece of artwork. By expressing extreme psychological states via backdrop and costume, everything that occurs in front of the camera creates a heightened, maddened version of reality. Shadows are also used to create an added element of mystery and fear.
The actors in Expressionist films blend into surrounding scenery through dramatic costumes and makeup that mimic the fabric, lighting, or texture of accompanying sets and objects. The actors’ physical placements may also blend them into the scene, like Cabinet's Cesare the Somnambulist when he is unveiled, rigidly upright in a box, or Nosferatu's Count Orlok hunched in an archway that acts like a coffin. Many of the doors within Orlok's castle are also reminiscent of coffins, reflecting his living-dead state. Human bodies, much like the rooms, landscapes, and objects, are distorted and exaggerated in order to highlight and heighten the characters' emotions and personalities. Faces are also pale, with dark, sunken eyes.
The acting itself is exaggerated; embellished facial expressions and body movements represent psychotic states, likewise represented by the bizarre sets. In Cabinet, these feature impossible angles like triangular windows, crooked staircases, oversized doors, inclined walls, and a room with thick lines converging at the center. In Nosferatu, ongoing patterns, like the checkerboard floor, covey a sense of infinite space, unrestricted boundaries, and the illusion of endlessness.
Expressionist films tap into viewers’ imaginations and blatantly disregard all social and scientific norms of the ordinary world, or even of other types of film. There is no firm foundation to ground the characters, no set location or era in time to guide us as viewers, and no denoted reality. All events of the film take place within a mythical world; although resembling our own, the world of the film is a separate entity, surrealistic in its ability to trick the eye and fool the mind.
Dream and reality are also interchangeable and inseparable, especially in Cabinet. We are never sure whether we're watching the internal workings of a (perhaps dreaming) human mind, an artistic representation, or a film that speaks on behalf of the actual conditions of some place we've never been.
To take that idea even further, we can also consider the mental state of the actor, Max Schreck, who played the rat-like, long-nailed, vampiric Count Orlok (Mernau did not have permission to use the name Dracula, although Nosferatu is the first filmic version of Dracula). Some have speculated that he thought he was a vampire, although this is mostly a myth. Or is it? In 2000, the movie Shadow of the Vampire was a fictional account of the making of Nosferatu, where Max Schreck was indeed a vampire. I guess we'll never really know.