The Euphoria of Expressionism

I haven’t watched the HBO series Euphoria but I keep seeing raves about it on social media. It is an American adaptation of the Israeli show of the same name. The second season hit this year. The reviews I had seen initially described it as a “teen” show since it follows a troubled 17-year-old who is “a drug addict just out of rehab and likely to end up back in rehab, and her high school friends.

It gets a majority of positive reviews, with praise for its cinematography, plot, score, and performances. The subject matter is mature and somewhat controversial for its nudity and sexual content. Some critics found the nudity and sexual content excessive considering the characters’ ages.

From the German Expressionist silent film The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)

What caught my attention this past week was the video (below) discussing the visual style of German Expressionism and its influence on later films and TV including Euphoria.

German Expressionism in films was a movement that used distorted sets and sharp contrasts of light and dark. The movement was initially confined to Germany due to the isolation the country experienced during World War I. In 1916, the government had banned foreign films so with supply down, demand went up for german films. . The demand from theaters to generate films led to an increase in domestic film production from 24 films in 1914 to 130 films in 1918. In American films, it was influential in what in a later movement we call “film noir.” In all instances, it is highly stylized, sometimes surreal, and not a style we often see used today. (Though there are “neo-noir” films.)

Many film historians consider German silent cinema to be far ahead of Hollywood films of that time when it comes to innovations and style. Alfred Hitchcock was influenced by the movement from the very beginning. In 1924, he worked as an assistant director and art director at Babelsberg Studios near Berlin on the film The Blackguard. His set designs for that film are expressionistic. It is also seen in his directing, especially in some of his early, less well-known films. In his third film, The Lodger, Hitchcock used styles that the studio did not want used, such as Expressionist set designs, high contrast lighting, and trick camera work. One example of the latter is a shot of a man walking across a glass floor that is shot from below,

Another classic German Expressionist film is Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror (German: Nosferatu – Eine Symphonie des Grauens), an early vampire film that is an unauthorized and unofficial adaptation of Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula. This 1922 silent horror film is directed by F. W. Murnau.

Count Orlok’s shadow on a staircase in Nosferatu

Though not all Expressionist films are horror, most have at least elements of the thriller and suspense, either physical or mental. One later American example is The Night of the Hunter. This 1955 American thriller film is directed by Charles Laughton. The critical reaction to the film at its release was so strong that it is the only film Laughton directed. It stars Robert Mitchum, Shelley Winters, and Lillian Gish. It is the story of a corrupt minister-turned-serial killer who attempts to charm an unsuspecting widow and steal money hidden by her executed husband.

Expressionist lighting by Laughton puts Gish in silhouette and Mitchum lit in the background

It is a dark film based on a real serial killer. It was a commercial and critical flop at its release, but in the decades since its release, the film has been listed as one of the best American films. It often makes the list close to Citizen Kane, another classic that has an Expressionist style in many ways. The director of photography on The Night of the Hunter was Stanley Cortez, who also shot Orson Welles’ followup to Kane, the 1942 film The Magnificent Ambersons.

Euphoria is not the only example we see today. The new Joel Coen interpretation of The Tragedy of Macbeth and Guillermo del Toro’s Nightmare Alley have definite Expressionist elements.

Euphoria is Expressionist in its style of sets and cinematography, but not in its plot.

Here is the short video that inspired me to look back on Expressionism. And it might get me to check out Euphoria.

A short film by Thomas Flight that shows Expressionist influences

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Ken

A lifelong educator on and off the Internet. Random by design and predictably irrational. It's turtles all the way down. Dolce far niente.

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