German Expressionism’s Influence on the Work of Alfred Hitchcock

Image by Kate Fisher

Alfred Hitchcock is internationally renowned as The Master of Suspense, whilst this is a fair designation for the man that brought into the world such masterpieces as, Rope (1948), Strangers on a Train (1951), Rear Window (1954), Vertigo (1958) and Psycho (1960), it understates Hitchcock’s mastery over a visual narrative where his characters show us the world they live in, and where his style of filming deeply affects the emotions and mood of the audience. This essay will argue that German Expressionism, a purely visual style of storytelling, has influenced some of Hitchcock’s greatest films. This essay will examine Hitchcock’s time and experience in Germany working in co-productions with Gainsborough Pictures and Universum Film-Aktien Gesellschaft (UFA), and how this began his film career. Secondly, how Hitchcock’s film Vertigo tells the story through character’s view of the world, a major trope of German Expressionist films. Lastly, how Hitchcock uses startling imagery and chiaroscuro to express inner turmoil in his most famous film, Psycho.

From humble beginnings in advertising, Hitchcock eventually found his way into his first job in the film industry at Famous Players-Lasky. This led to Hitchcock becoming a writer, designer and assistant director with Gainsborough Pictures, a new production company started by Michael Balcon. In 1924, Hitchcock went to Berlin to work on a German and British co-production of The Black Guard (1925) financed by the UFA production company. The UFA studios at the time were ‘the best equipped and most modern in the world’ (Encyclopaedia Britannica 1998), and it is at this time that Hitchcock observed F.W Murnau making The Last Laugh (1924) which not only introduced him to innovations in filmmaking he had never seen in Britain, but to the Director Murnau, where they discussed filmmaking (Krohn 2010, p. 7). Hitchcock’s roots in the silent era of cinema have had an obvious influence over his style, however his exposure to the pioneering techniques of Germany’s finest filmmakers, pushed Hitchcock to think more creatively about filmmaking. Taylor (1996) explains, while shooting The Black Guard Hitchcock used a (human) forced perspective to give the impression of an infinite crowd of angels, by using tall actors, midgets and dolls. This he learned from observing the making of Murnau’s The Last Laugh and heeding Murnau’s lesson ‘What you can see on the set does not matter, the only truth that counts is what you see on screen’ (Taylor 1996). Prior to his journey to Germany, Hitchcock had not thought of directing as a career path, but to his surprise Balcon asked Hitchcock to direct two co-productions in Germany, The Pleasure Garden (1925) and The Mountain Eagle (1925). While, these where Hitchcock’s first films as a director, Hitchcock himself said his first ‘true Hitchcock movie’ (Truffaut 1984, p. 43) was The Lodger (1927). This film was made directly after his time in Germany, so it is no wonder it is heavily influenced by the German Expressionist style of the time. The Lodger may be the first film Hitchcock was able to express his own style of storytelling, with influence from the German expressionists, but it would not be his last nor his most famous.

Secondly, Hitchcock did not stop exercising what he learnt from the German Expressionists after The Lodger. Many of his films carry the shadow of this influence, in particular, his 1958 film Vertigo. A common trope used in German Expressionist films is storytelling from the character’s view of the world, a strange world created through a purely subjective eye (Knudsen 2016). This trope is employed by Hitchcock in Vertigo to tell the story of retired detective John ‘Scottie’ Ferguson (James Stewart). The world of the film is seen through the eyes of Scottie, but the film is far from a love story; in true Hitchcock style nothing is as it seems. The audience’s perception of the world being portrayed subjectively through the character’s eyes echoes the themes of Robert Weine’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920). Through the view of the male protagonists the audience experiences the love, obsession and madness in Vertigo and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. ‘Our viewing of Vertigo is channelled through Scottie’s ‘gazing’ at Madeleine (Kim Novak)’ (Klevan 2014), which mirrors Francis’ (Friedrich Fehér) obsession with Jane (Lil Dagover) in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Both Hitchcock and Wiene unfold a story of twists and falsity, expressed through their protagonist’s view. In The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari Francis tells the story of his love Jane while horrible murders are committed by an unknown man. As Francis investigates the murder of his best friend and how Dr. Caligari is involved, Wiene shows us clues through Francis’ skewed view of the world revealing that none of what happened in the story was true, only a figment of a mad man’s mind. In Vertigo, Scottie takes a case for a friend whose wife is either insane or possessed by a spirit. Hitchcock manipulates the audience’s interpretation of this through the now obsessed and infatuated Scottie’s version of events; it appears that Madeleine is indeed possessed by a spirit and commits suicide. Scottie is sent to a hospital due to mental illness caused by the loss of Madeleine, as we see his own madness unfold through nightmares reflecting Madeleine’s own supposed possession. It is finally revealed that Madeleine never existed, and it was all the sinister plot of Scottie’s old friend to kill his wife. Both Hitchcock and Wiene manipulate the audience using the protagonist’s perception of the world in a visually striking way, that exposes the façade of their world.

Finally, Hitchcock’s use of character perspective is not the only influence German Expressionism had on his film style. In his most famous work, Psycho, Hitchcock uses light and shadow, and striking imagery to express the tone of the film and the mood of its characters. Barsacq (cited in Burns 2016, p. 65) explains that ‘premeditation’ is a term that can be used to describe all expressionist directors. Murnau, also in his most famous contribution to cinema Nosferatu (1922) maintained control of every aspect of what was captured on film, ‘every aspect of nature, every house front, every view of the castle (all seen at a certain angle), is calculated to evoke anguish and terror’ (Burns 2016). Hitchcock, who learnt from Murnau in 1924, also held great control over all the details in the production of his films by working closely with his trusted collaborators and shooting in a studio as much as possible. Hitchcock exhibits this mastery over mise-en-scene and lighting throughout Psycho. Firstly, as Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) and Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) talk in his office, the conversation takes a dark turn on the subject of Norman’s mother. The audience gets a sense of the darkness within Norman, not through the awkward dialogue, but from the brilliantly designed set and lighting. Stuffed birds and pictures adorn the walls of the office, with elongated shadows cast across the wall and Norman’s face as if he is part of the Bates Motel itself. The most affecting of these shots is a large stuffed owl preparing to strike looming over Norman’s head, giving the audience a sense of unease about him, and a glimpse at the struggle within him. This shot is similar to another Murnau film Faust (1926), where the demon Mephisto in his demonic form stretches his black wings over Faust’s town as he tempts him to choose the side of evil. In both films, these images represent a dark and evil presence affecting the character.

The shower sequence in Psycho… It’s also referred to again and again because of the way it was made – a series of shots, cut together very scientifically to obtain this ground-breaking effect that gave the illusion that the actress was actually being stabbed, so that you saw more than there was on the screen. (Bouzereau 2010, p. 130)

Hitchcock uses light and shadow throughout the infamous shower scene and inconsistent camera angles to put the audience off balance. Marion takes a shower after days of travelling, the room is well lit and a seemingly safe place. This all changes when the camera angle shifts to where the bathroom wall should be, breaking the 180-degree rule (the scene starts with the shower head on the left of frame and Marion is on the right) as the bathroom door swings open to reveal a menacing figure. In this scene the murderer remains shrouded in shadow as they stab Marion to death, along with the rapid cuts of the attack Hitchcock implants the panic and terror Marion is feeling into the audience. Hitchcock’s Psycho is masterfully directed in expressing each character’s inner feelings using lighting and extreme imagery.

In conclusion, this essay has explored the influence German Expressionism had on the work of Alfred Hitchcock. It has found that with the filmmaking techniques and lessons he learnt in Germany, Hitchcock began his directing career with strong influences of German Expressionism, whilst honing his own style of filmmaking. In addition, Hitchcock used his character’s perspective to show the audience the world of the film and to unfold the story, this is most prevalent in his film Vertigo, where the way the story is told from the protagonist’s skewed version of the world mirrors the themes of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Finally, in Psycho, Hitchcock’s mastery over light and shadow, in combination with shocking and startling images express the character’s inner feelings to the audience with intensity. Hitchcock made a lasting impact not only on the film industry, but film audiences around the world. Hitchcock’s love for the art of filmmaking existed before his trip to Germany nearly 100 years ago, but it was the expressionists that made a lasting impact on his own work. Hitchcock witnessed film innovation and new ways to express ideas in Germany, that he carried on throughout his career using the visual narrative to tell his stories and intrigue or terrify his audience.


Reference List

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