Artistic Foundations And Basic Principles Of German Expressionist Theatre And Film Direction

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Neron Abuladze


The creation of artistic principles of expressionism and its formation as a modernist movement began in the early 20th century. Profound socio-political shifts in Europe, which resulted in the irreversible events of World War One and other revolutionary transformations, laid the basis for the emergence and development of a new artistic movement. Expressionism originates from German poetry and art. It utilizes various creative forms to depict the catastrophic feeling of the end of the world, the collapse of humanism, and the loss of individualism amongst humans trapped in a chaotic, soulless, and impersonal society. At this moment, the artist preserving his own 'I' becomes a priority. Who, in his works, depicts tragic faces, the crisis of an upcoming century, and the conflict between the individual and the mass. Where the sole hero left alone confronts a hostile, faceless crowd. Sharp epochal socio-political changes had a significant impact on contemporary artistic thinking, which was unevenly manifested in different fields.

Expressionists, furthermore, strengthened the role of the stage director. They emphasized the unusual kind of creativity used in the directive process. In their perspective, the director is a free and independent creator and sort of a stage demiurge. Richard Weichert wrote in this regard that ‘The director’s task from now on is to implement the author’s idea, make his visions clear, become a mouthpiece for his ideas, or even take on the role of his lawyer. Only he can direct the performance as he was able to penetrate the holy essence of play; He is assigned the role of a mediator between the author and the performer; He is no longer a detached observer, but an artist whose imagination and sensibility can alter the imagination into reality, henceforth from now on he becomes a full-fledged stage demiurge.’

 What are the tasks of the director-expressionist? He denies the naturalistic principle of an embodiment of action and psychology. He attempts to understand the true essence behind the play, to distinguish the major themes of the work, and the main motive (Groundmotiv), and to highlight not only the development and sequence of the events themselves but the leitmotif within them.

Expressionists believed that it is the director’s task to convey the contents of the performance as perfectly and expressively as possible. To cause it to directly touch the viewer’s feelings, to emphasize all components of the staging (acting, scenery, elements of broad impact on the viewer), through which they will become the ultimate bearers of certain ideas. Expressionist directors of naturalist and impressionist poetics used all available means, to destroy the illusion of reality. However, they were doing so in diverse ways, pursuing a common goal.

The theatric direction of German Expressionism had a considerable influence on the German cinematography of the time. Experimental approaches to spatial and artistic solutions are widely seen in German Expressionist cinematography, which at the time begins a new stage of development and shares the artistic principles and ideological and stylistic features of expressionism. Film directors such as F. Murnau, R. Vines, G. V. Pabst, and F. Lang bring expressionism to the screen through the depiction of mortifying, sometimes morbid, and depressed faces. Although the theatre was honored for this innovation, some critics believe that such nature of movie production has its uniqueness and inherent independence.

Both modern and classical plays were equally perceived by the directors, as a means to identify contemporary challenges and issues. Apart from rejecting the traditional perception of classical dramaturgy, expressionists disapprove of the usual naturalistic stage decorations. English director Edward Gordon Craig, as a prominent representative of the artistic branch of symbolism, offered tragic symbolic constructions of geometry. This was later continued within the conditional German theatre of expressionism.

German expressionistic film of the 1920s combines the reality of living with theatric abstraction, plays with symbols, and forms its authentic style. After the period of ‘Caligarism’ (the 1910s) passed, where the directors were fascinated by the mystics of human existence and fantastic stories, the film industry was introduced to the period of ‘New Expressionism’ (1920s-1930s). Detail, symbol, concentration on a hero - all these remain. Nevertheless, the director now is not attracted to the mysticism of the surroundings, but to the secrecy of everyday life, in which an ordinary person lives and dies, where the protagonist still disputes a hostile reality.

In expressionist cinematography, based on its specific abilities, the importance of the actor’s role in the overall creative process significantly increases. The expressionist actor, as already mentioned, is no longer a center of action in the performance; rather is one of the expressive means of the director. According to the very concept of expressionism, the hero is separated from the world, the directors separate him with a beam of light, forcing him to differ from the crowd, moving him like a pawn. Filmmaking also had a specific technical feature, with the help of which the directors were able to guide the audience’s attention and emotions. The main object of the screen may represent not only a point light but also a large cast view. A sudden dynamic burst is no longer enough for the expressionism of the actor. And wherever the film character differs from the theatrical one, expressionism acquires the properties of realism.

German Expressionism, Richard Weichert, Gordon Craig, Lotte Eisner, German Expressionist theater and film direction
Published: Mar 6, 2023

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Theatre Studies