I have to admit I was a bit surprised when a dear friend asked me to write about the
impact German Expressionism has had on the Gothic aesthetic. His exact words. It took
less than a moment for me to jump at the chance, as much of the mysterious
romanticism many Goths embody and cherish in music and film was fostered and nurtured by the shadowy, silent, dream-like imagery of early German films. Please allow me to explain.
However, before I do, indulge me a short caveat if you will. I do not write this as
any type of seasoned film critic or student of cinematic form or history. As a lover
of old music, old film and old photography, allow me to begin by pointing out the
obvious: there is something already innately supernatural about listening to old
recordings and watching old films and sharing one's living space with the visages and
voices of those who have been dead for decades. It becomes almost a passive form of
necromancy each time we bring James Stewart (Alfred Hitchcock), Max Schreck (F.W. Murnau) or Julian West (Carl Dreyer) back from the archives to escort us to the dark and sinister worlds created by those who directed them. One has to wonder.. Is it truly so easy to open that portal between the past and the present by simply clicking "Play" ? The truth.. Yes. And that being said, I press on.
The primary brilliant truth about early German Expressionist filmmaking lies in the
fact that their lack of Hollywood budgets moved their hands to more artistic means to
convey stories. The use of lighting, placement, actors' focused expressions and
drawn-out timing served to draw the audience in visually and cerebrally, engaging
their imaginations rather than spoonfeeding them the storyline through the use of
lavish sets and excessive dialogue. Sets could be completely unrealistic,
overexaggerated or out of scale which reminded the viewer that they were an observer
in another world. There was a brilliant lack of dialogue, requiring the viewer to
observe closely, taking account of the slightest details and nuances, as if standing
beside the characters, working out the same puzzles. Even the shaky frames of
handcrank cameras provided an illusion much like a flipbook of ragged old world
photos. A favourite method many of us remember from films like Nosferatu (1922), is
the dramatic use of the contracting and expanding iris of a camera lens to convey
transition between scenes or to imply a dark and grisly outcome through the illusion
of a blinking eye. The iris effect is used to different degrees in many of these
films, lending a darker, ominous effect to scenes filmed out of necessity during
daylight hours. These effects were the precursors to the film noir genre that would
take root in Hollywood and captivate countless generations to come.
So what does any of this have to do with the gothic aesthetic? I will attempt to
answer that in two parts: The Gothic Aesthetic, and the Victorian Gothic Aesthetic.
The Gothic Aesthetic: German Expressionism was one of the largest influences on
iconic directors such as Alfred Hitchcock, Otto Preminger and Orson Welles. Carl
Laemmle's Phantom of the Opera with Lon Chaney, set the groundwork for horror films, and branded the psyches of movie-goers around the world. The stark contrasts in black and white complemented and justified the melodramatic acting that would evoke a passionate reaction in viewers. The Gothic culture's ability to peer into the superstitions and dark psyches of antagonists and protagonists alike is fed by these films. One look at many Goth music videos illustrates perfectly just how deeply these old films have engrained themselves in the Gothic mentality with beautiful outcome.
The Gothic Victorian Aesthetic: In addition to the above, I have to reiterate the use
of surrealist sets (modern reference: Tim Burton), visual cues and storylines that
integrate a long, unflinching look into the very fine line between human beings as
civilized, somewhat-controlled beings and the feral beasts that lie just beneath the
skin's surface. These same themes are evident in the works of Victorian writers such
as our own hometown boy, E.A. Poe, Stoker and even Conan-Doyle. (Yes, Sherlock Holmes is an amazing study in the darker side of the civilized Victorian.. see: The Creeping Man)
In a not-so-small nutshell, German Expressionism's influence and impact on the Gothic
aesthetic was a form of dream-like visual storytelling that integrated imagination,
abstract thought, ancient superstition, and passionate acknowledgement of the duality
of mankind in such a way that intoxicates and haunts. It has created a lineage that
serves to both illustrate and inspire the mentality and sentiments of an entire
black-clad, joyfully-macabre, uber-realistic yet dreamy culture. Without these under
-budgeted, wonderfully-creative pioneers, who knows how the foundations of our
culture's own expressionism would appear.