Earlier this year, Michel Hazanavicius’s The Artist swept awards season, winning Best Actor, Best Director, Best Score, Best Costume Design and Best Picture at the Academy Awards. It is also a silent film. The Artist is the second silent film in history to win Best Picture at the Oscars. The first, Wings, came out over eighty years prior, in 1927. A critical and commercial success, The Artist has proven that films without sound can still draw in a crowd. It may not have revitalized the silent film, but it has been a welcome reminder of our cinematic origins.
Considering that film has been around now for over a century, the silent era occupies a surprisingly small part of cinema history. The first ‘talkie’, The Jazz Singer, revolutionized pretty much the whole deal in 1927 and cinema was never the same again. But films were made during the short reign of the silent era that would help to mould cinema as we know it today. Arguably the most influential movement of the silent era was German Expressionism and F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu (or Nosferatu: eine Symphonie des Grauens), which remains one of the most significant works of that time.
Prana Films was founded in 1921 by Enrico Dieckmann and Albin Grau. Nosferatu remains the one and only production the company ever made. The idea for a film about the undead was initially planted in Grau’s mind after an incident during the war in which he met a Serbian farmer claiming to have a vampire for a father. Unable to acquire the rights to Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula, Dieckmann and Grau gave Henrik Galeen the task of writing a screenplay as similar to Stoker’s original novel as possible without breaching copyright.
Galeen was a veteran of gothic horror, having already worked on earlier Expressionist films such as Der Golem, wie er in der Welt kam (1920) and Der Student von Prag (1913). Ultimately, Stoker’s widow somehow noticed the extreme similarities between her deceased husband’s renowned novel and Murnau’s film, sued Grau and Dieckmann, and forced the production company to shut down.
The German Expressionist movement began before the First World War and refers to a change in a number of creative mediums, including film, art and architecture. The movement peaked during the mid to late 1920s, around the time Fritz Lang released his momentous epic Metropolis (1927). The impact of that film alone warrants interest in early German cinema, with films as varied as Star Wars (1977), Dark City (1998), Alphaville (1965) and even Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey (1991) revealing the influence of Lang’s film.
The films of German Expressionism are marked by a heightened sense of style. Mise-en-scène was paramount, and shaped with preference to emotion rather than reality. Painters of the era avoided subtle changes in color, preferring stark visual contrast. Filmmakers followed suit. Hard lighting and gothic scenery dominate the screen. Sets and buildings in the films have sharp angles and reach imposing heights. German Expressionist films dealt with madness and paranoia, perfect compliments to Murnau’s gothic horror Nosferatu.