French Abstract Impressionism and German Expressionism: Analytical Essay

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European film in the 1920s was at a standstill with its focus being narrative based objective cinema. Objective films were often an “omniscient point of view with no real emotional emphasis on character’s perspective” (Ratcliff). It was then questioned, is there any other way to do this? Any other way to tap into the audience emotions by travelling past imagery. It was then that subjectivity through the objective lens came forward originated. From this ideology, two different concepts towards subjective filmmaking arose: French Abstract Impressionism and German Expressionism. The approach of both countries was different, though they strived to express an identical message. This essay will investigate the beginnings and influence for both of these cinemas, their means of subjectivity, as well as their impact on cinema today.

To define French abstract, or avant-garde, Impressionism is to “Seek and explore the essence of character subjectivity” (Thoma, “Week 2”). Its purpose is to reveal the true essence of characters more like an artform such as poetry while focusing on the aesthetic experience and influence on the narrative story. Impressionist filmmakers used this artform to paint an experience which would lead to an emotional response from the audience, not by making direct statements but by evoking or suggesting them. These suggestions came about heavily through camera movement visual rhythm, and optical devices, such as POV shots, using mirrors to distort images. Although these effects are apparent in more than just French Impressionism, avant garde filmmakers of this era took it to the extreme with the concept of photogénie as “the purest expression of cinema” (Thoma, “Week 2”).

As described by Jean Epstein, Photogénie is “photogenic any aspect of things, beings, or souls whose moral character is enhanced by filmic reproduction” (314). It is the art of showing the true essence of an object, character, or space. The object must have some soul, as well as the person capturing this precise moment as the filmmaker has to realize the essence before they make the audience believe it. Tying it back with the Impressionists, they thought that “the cinema gives us access to a realm beyond everyday experience” (Thompson, 77).

Susan Hayward states, “expressionism means ‘squeezing out’, thus making the true sense essence of things and people emerge into a visible form” (189). This is quite the opposite of impressionism and the concept of photogénie, where they are illuminating the essence, and in Expressionism, where you have to force it out. This, and its anti-bourgeois aesthetic, defined German Expressionism to be more gothic and grotesque, “modernism without optimism. Expressionist style but anti-romantic and the anti-naturalist.” (Thoma, “Week 3”). This pushed the narratives, as well as the set and locations to be grand, dark, and distorted. The expressionism movement was more engrossed in showcasing the “darker” emotions from psychological perspectives of the characters. Filmmaker Reinhardt’s “use of high-contrast chiaroscuro lighting”, Italian for light and dark, “were later to become one of the major mise-en-scène strategies of German Expressionism” (Hayward, 190).

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The Expressionism movement in art lasted from 1905 to 1933. Originated in the atrocious trenches used in World War 1. As the war was won, large numbers of German soldiers were left traumatized and their minds in turmoil after such shocking events. At this time, the aftermaths of the World War and the troubled Weimar Republic overshadowed the films that were being made. The Weimar Republic had to deal with rampant inflation, strikes, armed revolt, and mass unemployment. Expressionism had the perfect start to create art based on the illusion of reality. Defined by Geltein, Expressionism is “a style where the artists subjective feelings take precedence over objective observation” (484). It sounds very similar to Impressionism, though in a way, it is. These movements sought to explore emotions in their pieces. The approach of Impressionism was to showcase an “impression” rather than a realistic representation while Expressionism wanted to “express” the feeling, which “gives permission to distort image or even dispense with image altogether, in order to better convey emotions” (Smith). For example, the film Metropolis, set in a futuristic dystopia, is locked inside a sealed frame; an inner world which implies to be an outside world. The monumentalism of this film creates claustrophobia, by showcasing gothic skyscrapers, and the society in this city or state. On one hand, you have the intellectuals who live an unbelievably comfortable life, and on the other you see the workers who live in the underground, working to serve the privileged. This scenario is exactly what Germany was going through, post war and was reflected in the art that was created.

Other than art, German Expressionism was most likely influenced by the war, and the impact it had on the country. Aufburch meaning, “departure from the shattered world of yesterday towards a tomorrow built on the grounds of revolutionary conceptions” (Kracauer, 38) was a common word used back then. German filmmakers wanted out with the old and new because of their failure in The Great War, as well as a feeling of “isolation” which emerged from the 1916 foreign film ban (Thompson, 87). This led to films such as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920). Unlike Impressionist films, who wanted to get away from over the top theatricals and were attracted to naturalistic acting, actors in this Expressionist film would “exhibit jerky or dancelike movements” (Thompson, 90) to further convey their message. It also moved further towards theatricals with highly “stylized sets”, such as canvas’ painted with “strange buildings” (Thompson, 90).

Due to rampant inflation, Germans were not able to save money and would spend it on entertainment. In Germany, films were becoming relatively cheap to produce as the labour was cheap. Many films were distributed abroad, bringing in foreign currency which were then transferred to studios. Thus, the modern labels provided funding for newer productions. The growing American cinema was a biggest influence. With American films dominating the film scene, domestically as well as internationally, other countries had to either catch up or go in a different direction. As Thompson states, “There was a continuous call for a distinctly French cinema” that would aid in them regaining some ground against the Americans, and “companies were willing to experiment” (72). This is where filmmakers emerge, such as Marcel Duchamp, Jean Epstein, and Louis Delluc. Abel Gance had one of the first films in the abstract Impressionism era, La Dixième Symphonie (1918), meaning The Tenth Symphony. Gance plays with a number of visual cues to enhance the viewer’s emotional connection. Gance would often place his characters with a symbolic object against a bare, black background, to focus on their thoughts. For example, a tiny bird, imprisoned in Fred’s hands, “is used to symbolise how he controls Eve's life” (La Dixième Symphonie [1918] [The Tenth Symphony]). Gance also explored crossfades between characters and symbolic objects, double exposure, and split screens, all while having a relatively “normal” narrative. These attempts made by Gance “to convey sensations and emotional ‘impressions’, would become central to the Impressionist movement” (Thompson, 76).

When the 1930s came around, both Impressionism and Expressionism cinemas started to waver. As the general population grew accustomed to it, and more filmmakers were adopting those ideas, it wasn’t fresh anymore. These “movements” originally changed cinema and was new, but when it’s not new anymore, it gets absorbed into the mainstream.

Overall, looking back at the two film “movements” of French abstract Impressionism and German Expressionism, they were similar but different. Impressionism and Expressionism are art movements born out of a basic human right: freedom of expression. They both strived for the same subjective cinema, but approached it in very different manners, and ultimately ended up at slightly different conclusions. Impressionism’s approach was more “natural” in different ways, and Expressionism was more grotesque and theatrical. However, both of these cinema’s did influence cinema today. Impressionism influenced French New Wave in some ways, as well as the concept of photogénie in many different films. Expressionism has also influenced plenty of gothic films. Most notably, Tim Burton’s films, such as Edwards Scissorhands (1990) and Dark Shadows (2012), which heavily relied on techniques from Expressionism, like gothic buildings and exaggerated expressive acting. Though these film “movements” have died out, the essence of their technique and storytelling lives on.

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French Abstract Impressionism and German Expressionism: Analytical Essay. (2022, December 27). Edubirdie. Retrieved April 20, 2024, from https://edubirdie.com/examples/french-abstract-impressionism-and-german-expressionism-analytical-essay/
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