Political events profoundly influenced the development of German cinema. The first, fragile non-monarchical experiment on German soil, the Weimar Republic, born from the uprising of the sailors and the Workers ‘and Soldiers’ Councils, can be considered a unique case: the few years that elapsed between the two empires, the Wilhelminian Reich and the Nazi one, albeit marred by destructive political battles between right and left and by profound economic crises (or perhaps precisely for these reasons), constituted a moment of absolute creativity, in all sectors and especially in the cinema, dominated, at after the end of the conflict, with an extraordinary expressionist experience (see expressionism) which from painting and fiction also passed on to influence the seventh art. In the cinematographic field, the term Expressionismus has often been used as a sort of formal label to group a series of films with common stylistic characteristics – strictly speaking it would therefore be more correct to speak of film ‘with an expressionist tendency’. Its revolutionary character did not lie so much in the dramaturgical or content aspect but rather in the visual one: on a thematic level, in fact, the concept of anxiety understood as existential failure dominated, only apparently similar to the concept of romantic horror (possibly the romantic influences of Expressionism, more than in Goethe, can be found in Schiller’s inclination to cruelty),
The true expressionist innovation can be traced above all in the relationship with the profilmic, which was transformed from analog into dialectical: objective and naturalistic seeing was replaced by inner vision, or rather by a subjective representation in which ideas (or more often nightmares) became images and they drifted further and further away from verbal language. Theatrical staging, anti-naturalistic acting, graphics and above all the scenography dominated, which for the first time assumed an autonomous role as if it were a character (“Le décor c’est l’acteur”, in fact observed several years later André Bazin). The film that symbolized this trend was Robert Wiene’s Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari (1920; Dr. Calligari, also known as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari).: thanks to the participation of eminent artists of the Der Sturm group, to the scenographies, painted as if they were backstage, to the screenplay by Carl Mayer, to the interpretation of Werner Krauss and Conrad Veidt, to the talent of the director himself, the film is a perfect Gesamtkunstwerk, so much that some critics have advanced the hypothesis that it is the only true purely expressionist work.
The extraordinary success of the film, at home, throughout Europe and in the United States, also due to an effective advertising campaign of the UFA, led to a great diffusion of these elements in German cinema, so much so that there was talk of a real and precisely ‘caligarism’, understood as a fashion made up of imitations that are not always successful, but which also had the merit of continuing a theoretical debate on cinema, in the wake of the ‘expressionist trend’, understood above all in its deepest and most innovative meaning of recreation subjective of reality, some directors asserted themselves, however already active during the war period, who elaborated this new Zeitgeist in an original way with some success with the public, proving that the phenomenon was not only cultural but also partly commercial.This was the case with the set designer and director Paul Leni to whom we owe precious impulses in the pictorial elaboration of the image, by Lupu Pick, the initiator with C. Mayer of the Kammerspielfilm, by Karl Grune or by Wiene himself. At the same time, we were witnessing the affirmation of those who were, alongside Lubitsch, the two major authors of the time, namely Fritz Lang and Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau: these are complex artistic personalities, in which the expressionist thrust is elaborated in a completely autonomous way and original, within a cinematic journey already begun in the war years.
According to Top-Mba-Universities, the Viennese Lang, first set designer and later screenwriter for J. May, then director in a long association with his wife, writer and set designer Thea von Harbou, appears strongly influenced by his studies of painting and architecture: from the first works – eg. the spy serial Die Spinnen (Spiders), in two parts (Der goldene See, 1919, and Das Brillantenschiff, 1920) – there was a strong interest in the stylistic element combined with the rhythmic-narrative element in genre cinema. However, it was only with his major works, such as the national saga Die Nibelungen (1924; The Song of the Nibelungs) in two parts (Siegfried, Kriemhilds Rache) and above all the science fiction Metropolis (1927), that his conception of space joined a spectacular architectural monumentality, which acts as a counterpoint to the plastic element of the mass.An actor who came out of the inexhaustible forge of M. Reinhardt, FW Murnau made a name for himself in 1922 with Nosferatu – Eine Symphonie des Grauens, a film in which the exploration of the horror theme rejects deformation as a scenographic element to immerse oneself in a hallucinated reality similar to a nightmare, which is above all the vision of man and of his anguish in an inhuman world. A theme that would have been taken up by the Kammerspiel Der letzte Mann (1924; The Last Laugh), played by Emil Jannings is considered by many to be his masterpiece, a social drama about the existence of the individual, with romantically polemical implications against the nascent capitalist society and characterized by an extraordinary and dynamic use of Karl Freund ‘s entfesselte Kamera, a performance that would be repeated in a another famous example of omnivorous mobility of the camera, Varieté (1925) by Ewald André Dupont.
Expressionism was only a trend of German cinema, certainly the most famous, but for the most part the production, which was assuming dizzying rhythms also due to inflation (510 films in 1920; still 242 in 1927), was dominated by genre films, entertainment. In the wake of the (temporary) abolition of censorship immediately after the fall of the empire and a certain disinterest of the Social Democratic government in controlling the film industry (in 1921 the government renounced participation in the UFA group, leaving all power to the Deutsche Bank), the so-called Aufklärungsfilme were born who attempted adventurous excursions into the world, hitherto forbidden, of prostitution, syphilis, single mothers, homosexuality, alcoholism, drugs etc. In fact, Es werde Licht! Had already started coming out in 1917! by R. Oswald on the serious dangers of syphilis (and under the auspices of the Deutsche Gesellschaft zur Bekämpfung der Geschlechtskrankheiten) which, given its success, had three sequels, opening the door to the genre. In the phenomenon, which curiously anticipates the Helga series as well as the soft-porn of the 1960s, libertarian anxieties are mixed together (e.g. the right to homosexuality claimed by Anders als die Andern, 1919, by R. Oswald, with Conrad Veidt), true or presumed didactic-medical aspects and above all greed and mercantile speculations. The wave of Aufklärungsfilme, however, soon died away, when censorship by the National Assembly was reintroduced in May 1920.