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Art Movements in Silent Horror Films
Stephen F. Austin State University
Silent horror films were made by filmmakers that were influenced by previous and contemporary art movements. Many of the filmmakers hired artists to help design sets as well as used lighting techniques that can be directly traced back to the old master painters. Since silent horror films were made concurrently with many modern art movements, both had influences on each other. Cross-pollination of style and techniques can be witness as the silent horror film genre developed. German Expressionism, Dadaism and Surrealism are art movements that helped silent films take their audiences to places they had never been before outside of their fears and nightmares.
Art Movements in Silent Horror Films
Think back to the first time you saw a horror film. Then think back to the first time you saw a silent horror film. Was it Nosferatu, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, The Hands of Orlac, The Cabinet of Caligari, The Phantom of the Opera or Metropolis? Did these films have a greater effect on you? Was it because there was a better story? Could it be that even though modern films have fancy special effects, Computer-generated imagery (CGI), and millions of dollars that major Hollywood films use today, these modern films can not compare to art masterpiece films like Metropolis, The Cabinet of Caligari, The Phantom of the Opera and Nosferatu, made in the 1910’s and 1920’s.
Why is that? What is it about these films that are special as compared to modern horror films? Could it be that visually you are drawn into them because they relate to previous art movements? Cinematography combined all of the arts: writing, acting, music, and visual arts. All of the arts work together to make a film a total artwork. What is it about horror that makes this genre popular in many creative endeavors?
Horror has always been honourable coinage in the currency of the arts. In literature its presence is obvious. It also has its place in painting, from the infernos of Hieronymous Bosch to Fuseli’s nightmares, the silent-screaming faces of Munch, and the terrifying figures depicted and dissected by Francis Bacon. (Butler, 1970, p.8)
Edvard Munch’s The Scream (1893)
Visual art, literature, music as well as film all have works that use horror and mystery which help audiences relate to the events outside of reality. In many ways, horror can take the viewer out of reality. Silent horror films took the audience even more out of the real world since you had to read the dialogue instead of just hearing it like you world in reality.
Silent horror films were more dreamlike, because the audience could see people talk and you did not hear them speak. You only see the actors mouthing words. The audience would have to read the intertitles to understand what there were saying. Reality was burred with the surreal images projected on the silver screen. Silent horror films were full of surrealism, mystery and horror, which the audience would clearly understand a difference between the dream like images they saw on the screen and after the film was over, what was real.
They argue that because of these characteristics silent film has an uncanny, dreamlike quality. Its representations are ghostly, an uncomfortable reminder of human mortality, and carry with them a kind of psychological shock. (Kalinak, 1992, p. 44-45)
Silent films were visually two-dimensional, mostly black and white, at times with some tinting and toning, moving pictures. Since this was still a relatively new visual medium, audiences looked to what they knew and could relate to, dreams. Horror was something that most audiences would not want to experience in the real world, however watching these images on the silver screen was an escape from some of the horror that they may have encountered in their day to day lives.
Since film has been around for over hundred years, are the films today better then those of the past? With the high definition cameras and computer graphics, which can make any character come to life, are these film too realistic? Does 3D make a film better or is it just a fad?
Perhaps today modern films lack the art, creativity and even the emotion of these early films. Making a modern film almost always goes back to making a profit. Early filmmakers obviously wanted to make money as well, however when they are viewed today, there appears to be another agenda, making art. This is especially true in many of the European films. Nosferatu and The Cabinet of Caligari relied heavily on the art style of Germany Expressionism.
German expressionist painters used distorted color as well as scale and space to convey their feelings about what they saw. The Great War, World War I, scarred many of these artists for good. After World War I, German expressionism also became a protest movement as well as a style of art, which influenced Nosferatu and The Cabinet of Caligari. (Collins, 2011)
Frame from Robert Wiene’s Hands of Orlac
In The Hands of Orlac, the lost of hands is symbolic for the lost of limbs as well as life in World War I, German expressionism is used in an antiwar statement through out the film as well as the use of lighting and shadows that adds to this dark story. In The Cabinet of Caligari, the use of lighting, shadows and sets captures the visual elements of the German expressionism.
The Dada movement had an influence in silent horror films since it was a reaction to and a protest against the barbarism and horror of World War I. Art is now anti-art. Le Retour A La Raison (1923) by Man Ray as well as Rhythmus 21 (1921-1924) by Hans Richter are some examples of Dadaism in film.
Surrealism is used in early silent horrors films. Entr'acte (1924) by René Clair and Un Chien Andalou (1929) by the Spanish director Luis Buñuel and artist Salvador Dalí show elements of surrealism that will be used in silent horror films.
If you go back to the beginnings of films, magicians used this new technology in their stage acts. One of the earliest silent horror films is Georges Méliès Le Manoir Du diable (The Manor of the Devil) made in 1896. Magicians have always found uses for new technology to improve their magic routines. Since mystery is a major part of magic, it would make sense that the first magic films had horror elements.
The history of special effects begins even before the invention of the camera itself. During the 1700s, magicians utilized many techniques to perform optical illusions and astound their audiences. These techniques formed the foundations of special effects. One of the most used effects in magic shows during this period was the summoning of the dead - spiritism. A small box with a light source and a semi-transparent slide was used to project images of historical figures onto columns of smoke or billowing cloth. This gave a ghostly motion to the image, frightening audiences to the point that several magicians were jailed for their satanic work. (Carrera, 2003)
Since many of these early magicians’ films dealt with many horror themes, magicians use art techniques, which follow some of the major art movements. Surrealism and magic share the same spirit in many ways. Mystery and juxtaposition of objects are common in any magic show as it is in Surrealism art.
Once the film genre became popular, no expense would be spared to encourage movie audiences to purchase a ticket. Movies and the movie theaters and palaces they were shown at grew larger and larger and grander and grander to aid the film’s escapism. This would lead to Hollywood’s golden era.
In the golden days of Hollywood, movie theaters were nothing short of grand palaces. Attending a movie was a chance for audiences to escape dreary reality, nestled in the luxury of velvet seats and tapestries, ornate walls, and soaring ceilings.
"To go to a movie in those days is really like an event," says Bruce Carwood, who owns Metropolitan Theaters in Los Angeles. "It was a Saturday night out. And you would go out for dinner. And you would go to this big glorious cathedral. (Hattori, 1998)
Surrealism art was an escape from the realism that many art movements embraced. Looking at art that was not based on reality was a change of pace for audiences. When films, especially silent horror films came to the silver screen across towns all over the world, the viewer could step away from their world for a few minutes to enter their nightmares.
It is difficult to define Surrealism. Surrealism is a style of art and literature developed in the early twentieth century, focusing on the subconscious and non-rational significance of imagery using automatism, chance effects with unexpected juxtapositions. Breton wrote the Surrealist Manifesto in 1924, he defined Surrealism as:
SURREALISM, n. Psychic automatism in its pure state, by which one proposes to express -- verbally, by means of the written word, or in any other manner -- the actual functioning of thought. Dictated by the thought, in the absence of any control exercised by reason, exempt from any aesthetic or moral concern.
ENCYCLOPEDIA. Philosophy. Surrealism is based on the belief in the superior reality of certain forms of previously neglected associations, in the omnipotence of dream, in the disinterested play of thought. It tends to ruin once and for all all other psychic mechanisms and to substitute itself for them in solving all the principal problems of life. The following have performed acts of ABSOLUTE SURREALISM: Messrs. Aragon, Baron, Boiffard, Breton, Carrive, Crevel, Delteil, Desnos, Eluard, Gérard, Limbour, Malkine, Morise, Naville, Noll, Péret, Picon, Soupault, Vitrac. (Breton, 1924)
André Breton’s Surrealist Manifesto defines Surrealism. Surrealism and dreamlike images are natural in horror and mystery cinema. Other artist, writers and filmmakers adopted Surrealism and Surrealism techniques in their own art.
The manifesto quickly acquired the status of an independent text, delineating the goals and challenges of surrealism, even if its insistence on the supremacy of the poetic image was due to its originally intended application. (Durozoi, 2002)
Silent horror films are filled with dreamlike, fantasy, unexpected juxtaposed images as well as bizarre visuals since the first films were made. Going back to Thomas Edison’s Frankenstein (1910) to even earlier with the Georges Méliès Le Manoir Du diable (1896), audiences saw images that they had only previously saw in dreams and the occasional nightmare.
The revolt against realism can take an opposite direction, that of surrealism, and that surrealism and retinal or sensory art are indeed opposite directions was clear even in the twenties; surrealism was never friendly to purely abstract or nonrepresentational painting. That the familiar and prefabricated perceptual reality is not the final horizon in which men must live can be shown best not by removing the conditions for all genuine perception, and thereby plunging the spirit into pure sensation…. (Earle, 1987, p. 35)
In Georges Méliès Le Manoir Du diable (1896) there are surreal images of the devil. Up to that point in history, audiences would have had to look at some macabre painting or print, like the work of Francisco Goya, to see these grim images.
Frame from Georges Méliès Le Manoir Du diable (1896)
The frame from Georges Méliès Le Manoir Du diable (1896), there is Mephistopheles on the screen. This image is not on a flat piece of paper, it is moving on a screen. The first audiences that saw these short films by Méliès must have been hunted by the moving images and seeing Mephistopheles doing magical motions. Going from never seeing a motion picture to witnessing the Mephistopheles behaving in demonic manner surely was breath taking back in 1896!
Frame from Thomas Edison’s Frankenstein (1910)
Thomas Edison’s Frankenstein (1910) is one of the first Silent Horror films to have a monster. The sight of Edison’s Frankenstein, was disturbing American audiences. Perhaps some images are better left to the minds eye while reading a novel for the American public in 1910. Horror would have to foster in Europe before American audiences grew to accept horror on the silver screen.
Dadaism is the next part of experimental films that lead to the path of to silent horror films. The Dada movement that began in Zurich, Switzerland, grew from the horrors of World War I. Death, disfigurement, fighting in mud holes over small patches of land and the terrifying use of mustard gas, led artists to question what was art and the meaning of art. The Dada movement concentrated its anti-war politics through a rejection of the previous art movements by creating anti-art. Nothing makes any sense so art should not make any sense as well. The Dada artist wanted to ridicule the notion of what art is to show the worthlessness of the modern day. Here is the first part of the Hugo Ball’s Dada Manifesto, which defines Dada:
Dada is a new tendency in art. One can tell this from the fact that until now nobody knew anything about it, and tomorrow everyone in Zurich will be talking about it. Dada comes from the dictionary. It is terribly simple. In French it means "hobby horse". In German it means "good-bye", "Get off my back", "Be seeing you sometime". In Romanian: "Yes, indeed, you are right, that's it. But of course, yes, definitely, right". And so forth. (Ball, 1916)
Dada was art without art. Events that were going on effected Dadaism. “Dada world war without end, dada revolution without beginning, dada, you friends and also-poets, esteemed sirs, manufacturers, and evangelists.” (Ball, 1916) Question everything and everyone. The world was falling apart, so should art.
Frame from Man Ray’s Le Retour A La Raison (1923)
Man Ray’s Le Retour A La Raison (1923), a short Dada film, uses animated textures, Rayographs and a nude female torso shown at random times, without a narrative story. How does this Dada film relate to silent horror films? It goes back to the political statement of the horror of war. In war there are no monsters, save the human ones that are against you. The enemy could be clear or hidden. Maybe no enemy at all would come, perhaps it would strike you down when you fell asleep in a trench breathing in mustard gas. Life and horror are unknown, random like this Dada film.
Frame from Hans Richter’s Rhythmus 21 (1921-1924)
Hans Richter’s Rhythmus 21(1921-1924) is a short Dada film that uses geometric shapes appearing in and out of frame. This film is very abstract. Like what the terror in the mind’s eye sees when thinking about some monster about to chase you into a corner.
Frame from Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí’s Un Chien Andalou (1929)
Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí’s Un Chien Andalou (1929) is a Surrealist short film. Un Chien Andalou has one of the most horrific scenes captured on film, in the film you see a man using a razor blade to slice on a female’s eyeball. Happily it was only a goat’s or lamb’s eye, and not a human eye, however with the power of editing, it looks real. This film has horror elements that are still shocking to this day to view.
From the frame of Un Chien Andalou, there is a hand with ants coming out the skin. Surely these images have only appeared in the dreams and nightmares of the Parisian audiences that saw this film in 1929. Horror in a visceral form materializes on the silver screen.
Frame from René Clair’s Entr'acte (1924)
René Clair’s Entr'acte (1924) is a short twenty-minute Surrealist film. Unrelated images in a dream like manner, using imagery that is both fascinating and disturbing. Inanimate objects spring to life as well as images of a ballerina from the feet up are surreal from beginning to end. These Surreal films remove you from reality, as does the terror in the minds of the silent horror film audiences.
The frame of Entr'acte, we see upside down eyes juxtapose with another image. Mystery and the unknown are paramount to silent horror films. Silent horror films that used elements of surrealism could increase the horror that audience saw on screen.
Hollywood films that had horror elements tended to be based more on theatrical works or literature. They also were more likely to have comedic elements as well. By using mystery and comedy together, audiences would not get too terrified and they could sell more movie tickets.
European horror films could be more shocking. World War I and all of the horrors that are associated with any war, influenced the Dada and Surrealism art movements. Since Germany was affected more than other European countries, it makes sense that expressionism would come from this war torn country.
More than any other national movement in the history of film, German Expressionism was an answer to the grim reality of daily life. But it was not so much a direct relay of life to art. Rather, it was more of a filter; a way of assembling the clutter of post-war Germany to coherence on the screen. It was a way to represent and bring across the reality few could imagine. Sex murders, depression, veterans ghoulishly mangled in the war, the loss of innocence and complete rejection of the past were the things the German people dealt with during the post-war years of 1919 – 1929 (commonly called the Weimar Period in film history). The films produced in Germany during those years captured the cry of a broken nation and a people horrified by the every-day. (Kolar, 2011)
Germany Expressionism was part of a larger Expressionist movement in north and central European culture. Germany was poor and had to face an unstable government and economy. Since filmmakers did not have large sums of money, they used symbolic metaphors and lighting techniques in their films.
The first Expressionist films ‘Kammerspielfilm’ were created between the wars. Films like The Golem (1920), Destiny (1921), and The Last Laugh (1924), were highly symbolic and deliberately surrealistic portrayals of filmed stories. The first Expressionist films made up for a lack of lavish budgets by using set designs with wildly non-realistic, geometrically absurd sets, along with designs painted on walls and floors to represent lights, shadows, and objects. The plots and stories often dealt with madness, insanity, betrayal, and other "intellectual" topics. Later films like Metropolis (1927) and M (1931), by Fritz Lang films, are often categorized as part of the brief history of German Expressionist. (Rampage, 2007)
Frame from F. W. Murnau’s Nosferatu
F. W. Murnau’s Nosferatu uses the shadows and lighting techniques that classic Germany Expressionism films are known for today. From the frame of Nosferatu, there is a monster creeping in the shadows in silhouette. Instead of seeing the regular image of Nosferatu, the choice of showing the vampire in shadow is so much more frightening.
Frame from Robert Wiene’s Hands of Orlac
Robert Wiene’s Hands of Orlac uses many Germany Expressionism techniques. From the frame of Hands of Orlac, there are ominous and shadowy interiors and exteriors. The low-key lighting and the use of shadows show visual elements of Germany Expressionism.
The story deals with madness, supernatural, dream sequence as well as the disfigurement of protagonist leading to his insanity. Having a killer’s hand sewed on and not being in control of one’s body relates to the how the Germany Expressionist art form developed. Life was full of madness, insanity, and betrayal, put that into art.
Frame from Robert Wiene’s The Cabinet of Caligari
Robert Wiene’s The Cabinet of Caligari uses painted sets, harsh lighting, shadows and non-standard camera angles. The sets were painted in a way that only one camera angle could be used to captured the long shadows. The Cabinet of Caligari was an experimental film that used Germany Expressionism techniques to help tell the story in a unique way.
The Cabinet of Caligari influenced films and filmmaking all over the world. Not only in the technical manner also in the non-linear story. Visually The Cabinet of Caligari is groundbreaking, however the cleaver manner in which the story is told and the ambiguous ending, help make this film a masterpiece using Germany Expressionism techniques.
A Page of Madness directed by Teinosuke Kinugasa (1926) is one of the rare silent horror films to survive from Japan. The Kanto earthquake 1923, the Pacific War bombing raids of Tokyo during World War II, and the humidity of Japan on the inflammable and unstable nitrate film, most of Japan’s 7000 silent films have been lost. (Sharp and Arnold, 2002)
Frame from Teinosuke Kinugasa’s A Page of Madness (1926)
A Page of Madness is compared to The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, due to the surrealistic, expressionistic and avant-garde nature of the films. Kinugasa mentions seeing The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and being influenced by this German Expressionism film. Both films deal with mental illness and staged in a mental facility and are non-linear. In the frame of A Page of Madness, the use of lighting and sets are reminiscent of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. It is interesting that a German Expressionism film could cross over and be appreciated in another culture as far away as Japan. Perhaps horror themes are universal whether in Japan or Germany.
Frame from Fritz Lang’s Metropolis
Fritz Lang’s Metropolis is a masterpiece of cinema whether in Science fiction or any other genre. In Metropolis there are many different forms of art in addition to German Expressionism. Futurism, Modernism, Art Deco as well as elements of the Weimar Republic are all used in Metropolis.
In the frame from Metropolis elements of German Expressionism used are shadows and the use of light to give a depth to the Maschinenmensch. The frame also has a stark set. The Maschinenmensch is the robot that influenced many other robot films in future sci-fi films from around the world, especially in Japan.
German Expressionism masterpieces like Metropolis and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari influence Hollywood films. Many German Expressionist directors immigrate to America once the Nazi party takes control of Germany. These directors brought German Expressionism techniques to the films they made in the USA. This style would later influence the Film noir and other film genres.
The story lines of German expressionist films matched the visuals in terms of darkness and disillusionment. Often sombre in mood and featuring characters from a corrupt underworld of crime, the films’ dramatic effects produced motifs of claustrophobia and paranoia. The same words could be used to describe 1940’s Hollywood film noir, a genre hugely influenced by German expressionism. Film noir is typified by Bogart and Bacall in films such as The Big Sleep. Fritz Lang himself also went on to make notable film noirs such as Fury and You Only Live Once. (Kolar, 2011)
Frame from Wallace Worsley’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame
In the frame from Wallace Worsley’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame, there are elements of German Expressionism. The large looming hallway, the use of shadows and the ominous shadowy interiors and exteriors all are part of the style of German Expressionism. Even through this was a Hollywood film, which did quite well in the box office, the visuals of German Expressionism are there. This film helps make Lon Chaney a star.
Frame from Rupert Julian’s The Phantom of the Opera
In the frame from Rupert Julian’s The Phantom of the Opera, there are elements that are similar to Nosferatu. Lon Chaney once again shows how he is a man of a thousands faces, and with the use of some lighting techniques from of German Expressionism as well as shadows, helps makes Erik frightening. It would be hard to imagine the look and feel of The Phantom of the Opera if Nosferatu was never made.
In conclusion silent horror films were influence by various art movements. Surrealism, Dadaism and German Expressionism all were important to the birth of this genre as well as some early magicians’ films. Experimental films from Surrealism, Dadaism and German Expressionism helped give silent horror films a language that could frighten and haunt their audiences. Once Silent Horror films started to gain popularity, these films would influence other films and genres around the world. This would lead viewers of silent horror films to face images, which before movies, were only in their nightmares.
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