Writing Reality: German Expressionism as a literary filter

28/06/2013 at 20:34 (Reviews, Writing, Writing Reality articles) (, , , , , , , , , )

Imagine, if you will, the Weimar Republic of Germany between the two world wars (1919-1933.) A country broken by the Treaty of Versailles – hit with hyperinflation, frozen out by the Allies’ trade blockades, and suffering beneath the chill mantle of winter with few provisions. A dark historical context, particularly when set against the fallout of the first war, with over two and half million Germans dead, four million wounded.

So it can be seen as admirable how, like lava placed under immense pressure to metamorphose into marble, the Weimar Republic still spawned some of the most influential art and science names and creations of modern history. Albert Einstein lived and taught in the capital Berlin; Bertolt Brecht’s plays were infamous as Marxist interpretations of society. Inevitably, with the rising Nazi tide, these pioneers of culture would find themselves in self-imposed exile from Germany for their own survival – by 1933, the spirited party had come to an end. This was to be Hollywood’s gain; it’s no coincidence that film noir had firmly established itself throughout the 40’s, with the arrival of those exiled film makers.

This article intends to highlight the features of that crucial and dark time, spearheaded by the Expressionist movement – and most importantly, what writers can learn from their methods.

“All human action is expressive; a gesture is an intentionally expressive action. All art is expressive – of its author and of the situation in which he works – but some art is intended to move us through visual gestures that transmit, and perhaps give release to, emotions and emotionally charged messages. Such art is expressionist.”
(Art historian Norbert Lynton)

How can this translate down to written text? How can characters become people by virtue of not only their speech, but their context, actions and reactions? More to the point – how can the world you put them in jump off the pages to grab your audience, and tug them in?

When writing my characters, I try to visualize them in my mind as actors/actresses on set. This has much to do with the film studies A Level course I took some years ago, which taught me how to break each scene down to a frame-by-frame flow. Naturally, it’s time-consuming: but it’s well worth the bother. When you actually imagine, say, the living room in which your characters are being written into, things start to leap out at you. The exquisite china set on the mantelpiece, which you’re at pains to describe – does it actually belong in their world? Are they the kind of people who’d feel the need to populate their interior decor with such quaint delicacies? Can they even afford such effects?

If you’re writing about a couple on the Dole – probably not. They’d most likely have sold such things by now. Nostalgia and sentiment, do not feed mouths. But their absence, can feed a scene. You might instead make note of the little round spaces where they once stood, among the dust.

Now imagine the precarious world of the German Expressionist director. Fritz Lang and Erich Pommer, for example, didn’t have much cash to flash when it came to the production of their films. But this wasn’t their greatest preoccupation; it was the conveyance of emotional expression to the audience, and by such darkly twisting means that are now synonymous with early German cinema. Such was the upheaval in their country at that time, they certainly weren’t lacking in emotional input, or inspiration.

Germany barely had enough to feed itself, left alone subsidize the creation of films. Imagine yourself in this position when writing to reach your audience. Their attention span, is your budget. It doesn’t have to become a countdown of words; your imagery doesn’t have become so sparse that they’re as a house without glass in the windows. (Unless you’re writing solely in the surreal sense to convey a house devoid of emotion and life, or after a concussive storm – in which case by all means, go ahead.)

The audience – and if you’re aiming for publication, a potential agent – will be looking for the unfamiliar, the exotic, the tantalizing. They don’t want to see the same hackneyed cliches, the same slipshod metaphors. To describe a large man as “beefy” or “fat”, is toppling off the unimaginative cliff. If, however, you take a leaf out of Erich Pommer’s book, with his fine representation of expressionism in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, you might describe your large man differently.

 photo CABINET_DES_DR_CALIGARI_01_zps3453aa2f.jpg

Note the skewed angles of the set, the warped perspective, the flimsiness of the paper misc-en-scene. Everything is off-kilter and surreal. Pommer doesn’t need to tell the audience that events are otherworldly, disturbing; they can see for themselves. It’s that wonderful phrase, Show don’t Tell, which can haunt many a writer’s days and nights. It’s speaking to the imagination of the audience; coming at them from a different angle than has been used before.

Your large man could be be described as “filling the doorway with his shoulders”; his hand could “envelop the glass handed to him.”

Now, I’ll admit right now that I’m not a dialogue writer. Witty banter doesn’t flow from my fingers; my penchant is the abstract, the inferred. Metaphors and similes are at once my playthings, and the anchors that chain down the sentences I write, when overused. I’ve referenced this before.
Often, characters will stand with arms akimbo and feet tapping, as they wait for me to find *that* spark, the right words that will convey all I mean to say through their dialogue and actions, with as little clunky interference to the narrative flow as possible.

From studying the Expressionist films in particular, I’ve learned to pare things right down. To put myself in the position of the actor/actress, on set with limited funds for a retake; in the shoes of the character they play, with often shocking (or at least disturbing) circumstances unfolding around them. Take poor Maria, of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, for example –

Chased through the catacombs, she is port-holed in shadow. The focus is entirely on her, on the weakly flickering light of her candle. The misc-en-scene is that of death and minimal chance of escape – skulls line the walls, rubble is strewn before her every footfall. When the hand flashes on-screen to stub out her candle, it’s as surely an ominous premonition of what may be to come – her own life snuffed, just as quickly – as a knife to the throat. But it’s more interesting to watch.

The sweep of the spotlight over the skeletons, over her increasing terror, is that of control. Your light, your life, in the hands of another. The Doctor, all wild hair and framed by skulls, that awful seeking light, doesn’t need to say a word to get his message across.

The hunt through the tunnel, is a pure depiction of raw terror. Her limbs flail, her body ricochets off of walls; you see the pain and panic on her face, which is washed out by that ever-seeking light. The hunting shadow crawls along the wall behind her, another premonition of relentless Death, or something worse.

When the tunnel reveals itself seemingly a dead end, her trauma is made clear in the shadow thrown to the wall – stretched fingers, upraised arms. Her movements are stark. Maria’s wide eyes and mouth, tell us more than words ever could.

This is the immediateness I aim for, when a character’s status quo is thrown so out of whack; when the regular procession of their thoughts – wit, humour, intelligence – are marginalized by the intensity of feelings. We’ve all been there before; when that punchy one-liner just wouldn’t come, and your tongue felt like a dead fish, but hours later the words flowed smooth as silk and you only wished for a rehash of the situation. Too often, words let us down. It’s then that actions and symbolism, may take their place. Maria wouldn’t have had time to sum up her situation in pretty phrases of description. Her language – mirrored in her staccato movements – would be sharp and jagged as her breathing.

F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu, is an excellent example of such Show don’t Tell. The vampire has no need for speech in this scene; his living shadow is evocative enough a presence, creeping across the wall in stark lines of black, trailing seductive fingers up the helpless body of Ellen before him. No need for nakedness. There’s enough symbolism there to reference what may or may not come – the unease, the lack of control, of safe passage out of this dire situation.

In another scene, the vampire stands framed in a doorway. Not so interesting when written plainly thus: now, notice how said doorway is shaped like a coffin…

Notice also, the blue and yellow filters – the cankerous light, the pale sheen of death. The thick shadows laid either side of the frame.

This kind of symbolism can be a useful inlay for your writing. Take note of what your characters are likely to experience sensually in each scene. For example, smells that evoke past memories, can in turn colour the aura of a present situation – a girl sifting through pears laid out on a market stall, may recall sadly her late grandmother’s fondness of the fruit. Her memory will be turned to bittersweet thoughts, represented by the flavour; this can become a recurring theme of the story, with the pears making an innocuous appearance whenever a scene is likely to convey such emotions.

More often than not, your characters won’t have the time or inclination to funnel your own personal ideas and/or beliefs. And why should they? You want them to live their own lives, to breathe and speak, use body language and that of the tongue. Let their actions, homes and relationships, sensory perceptions and reactions to whichever situation you place them in, shine through as forms of pure expressionism.


  1. Don’t Just Read More, Watch More | Drew Chial said,

    […] inspired by a piece on my friend Rachel’s website celenagaia.wordpress.com. Check it out here. Follow her on Twitter […]

  2. Simon Lavery said,

    Fascinating clips & stills, good analysis & tips – thanks. The point at the end reminds me of the concept of synaesthesia: experiencing something sensual through another sense (like sounds as colours); also puts me in mind of the famous use of madeleines at the start of Proust’s A la Recherche

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