German Expressionism

German Expressionism consisted of a number of related creative movements in Germany before the First World War that reached a peak in Berlin during the 1920s. These developments in Germany were part of a larger Expressionist movement in north and central European culture in fields such as architecture, dance, painting, sculpture, as well as cinema. This article deals primarily with developments in German Expressionist cinema before and immediately after World War I.


Among the first Expressionist films, The Student of Prague (1913), The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), From Morn to Midnight (1920), The Golem: How He Came into the World (1920), Destiny (1922), Nosferatu (1922), Phantom (1922), Schatten (1923), and The Last Laugh (1924) were highly symbolic and stylized.

The German Expressionist 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. 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. With inflation also on the rise, Germans were attending films more freely because they knew that their money’s value was constantly diminishing.

Besides the films’ popularity within Germany, by 1922 the international audience had begun to appreciate German cinema, in part due to a decreasing anti-German sentiment following the end of World War I. By the time the 1916 ban on imports was lifted, Germany had become a part of the international film industry.

Various European cultures of the 1920s embraced an ethic of change and a willingness to look to the future by experimenting with bold, new ideas and artistic styles. The first Expressionist films made up for a lack of lavish budgets by using set designs with wildly non-realistic, geometrically absurd angles, along with designs painted on walls and floors to represent lights, shadows, and objects. The plots and stories of the Expressionist films often dealt with madness, insanity, betrayal and other “intellectual” topics triggered by the experiences of World War I (as opposed to standard action-adventure and romantic films). Later films often categorized as part of the brief history of German Expressionism include Metropolis (1927) and M (1931), both directed by Fritz Lang. This trend was a direct reaction against realism. Its practitioners used extreme distortions in expression to show an inner emotional reality rather than what was on the surface.

The extreme anti-realism of Expressionism was short-lived, fading away after only a few years. However, the themes of Expressionism were integrated into later films of the 1920s and 1930s, resulting in an artistic control over the placement of scenery, light, etc. to enhance the mood of a film. This dark, moody school of film making was brought to the United States when the Nazis gained power and a number of German filmmakers emigrated to Hollywood. These German directors found U.S. movie studios willing to embrace them, and several German directors and cameramen flourished there, producing a repertoire of Hollywood films that had a profound effect on film as a whole. Nazi film theorist Fritz Hippler, though, was a supporter of expressionism. Two further films produced in Nazi Germany using the expressionist style were “Das Stahltier” (The Animal of Steel) in 1935 by Willy Zielke and “Michelangelo. Das Leben eines Titanen” (Michelangelo. The Life of a Titan) in 1940 by Curt Oertel.

Two genres that were especially influenced by Expressionism are horror film and film noir. Carl Laemmle and Universal Studios had made a name for themselves by producing such famous horror films of the silent era as Lon Chaney’s The Phantom of the Opera. German filmmakers such as Karl Freund (the cinematographer for Dracula in 1931) set the style and mood of the Universal monster movies of the 1930s with their dark and artistically designed sets, providing a model for later generations of horror films. Directors such as Fritz Lang, Billy Wilder, Otto Preminger, Alfred Hitchcock, Orson Welles, Carol Reed and Michael Curtiz introduced the Expressionist style to crime dramas of the 1940s, expanding Expressionism’s influence on modern filmmaking.

Influence and legacy
The German silent cinema was arguably far ahead of Hollywood during the same period. The cinema outside Germany benefited both from the emigration of German film makers and from German expressionist developments in style and technique that were apparent on the screen. The new look and techniques impressed other contemporary film makers, artists and cinematographers, and they began to incorporate the new style into their work.

In 1924, Alfred Hitchcock was sent by Gainsborough Pictures to work as an assistant director and art director at the UFA Babelsberg Studios in Berlin on the film The Blackguard. The immediate effect of the working environment in Germany can be seen in his expressionistic set designs for that film. Hitchcock later said, “I…acquired a strong German influence by working at the UFA studios Berlin”.

German Expressionism would continue to influence Hitchcock throughout his career. In his third film, The Lodger, Hitchcock introduced expressionist set designs, lighting techniques, and trick camera work to the British public against the wishes of his studio. His visual experimentation included the use of an image of a man walking across a glass floor shot from below, a concept representing someone pacing upstairs. This influence continued through the highly successful movie Psycho in 1960, wherein Norman Bates’ blurred image, seen through a shower curtain, is reminiscent of Nosferatu shown through his shadow. Hitchcock’s film-making in turn influenced many other film makers, and so has been one of the vehicles that propelled the continued use of German expressionist techniques, albeit less frequently.

Werner Herzog’s 1979 film Nosferatu: Phantom der Nacht was a tribute to F. W. Murnau’s 1922 film. The film uses expressionist techniques of highly symbolic acting and symbolic events to tell its story. The 1998 film Dark City used stark contrast, rigid movements, and fantastic elements.

Stylistic elements taken from German Expressionism are common today in films that need not reference contemporary realism, such as science fiction films (for example, Ridley Scott’s 1982 film Blade Runner, which was itself influenced by Metropolis). Woody Allen’s 1991 film Shadows and Fog is an homage to German expressionist filmmakers Fritz Lang, Georg Wilhelm Pabst and F. W. Murnau.

Ambitious adaptations of the style are depicted throughout the contemporary filmography of director Tim Burton. His 1992 film Batman Returns is often cited as a modern attempt to capture the essence of German expressionism. The angular building designs and severe-looking city squares of Gotham City evoke the loom and menace present in Lang’s Metropolis. Burton’s expressionistic influences are most apparent in the fairy-tale suburban landscape of Edward Scissorhands. The appearance of the titular Edward Scissorhands (not accidentally) reflects Caligari’s somnambulist servant. Burton casts unease in his candy-colored suburb, and the tension is visually unmasked through Edward and his Gothic castle, a last holdout from the past at the end of a suburban street. Burton subverts the Caligari nightmare with an inspired narrative, casting Edward, the outsider, as the hero, and the villagers as the villains. Similarly, Dr. Caligari was the inspiration for the grotesque, bird-like appearance of the Penguin in Burton’s 1992 film Batman Returns. The familiar look of Caligari’s main character can also be seen in the movie The Crow. With the tight, black outfit, white make-up and darkened eyes, Brandon Lee’s character is a close relative to both Cesare, and to Burton’s film Edward Scissorhands. Burton was also reportedly influenced by silent films and German Expressionism for his film adaptation of the musical Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, describing the musical as a “silent film with music”.

Cinema and architecture
Many critics see a direct tie between cinema and architecture of the time, stating that the sets and scene artwork of Expressionist films often reveal buildings of sharp angles, great heights, and crowded environments, such as the frequently shown Tower of Babel in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis.

Strong elements of monumentalism and modernism appear throughout the canon of German Expressionism. An excellent example of this is Metropolis, as evidenced by the enormous power plant and glimpses of the massive yet pristine “upper” city.

German Expressionist painters rejected the naturalistic depiction of objective reality, often portraying distorted figures, buildings, and landscapes in a disorienting manner that disregarded the conventions of perspective and proportion. This approach, combined with jagged, stylized shapes and harsh, unnatural colors, were used to convey subjective emotions.

A number of artists and craftsmen working in the Berlin theater brought the Expressionist visual style to the design of stage sets. This, in turn, had an eventual influence on films dealing with fantasy and horror.

The prime example is Robert Wiene’s dream-like film The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) which is universally recognized as an early classic of Expressionist cinema. Hermann Warm, the film’s art director, worked with painters and stage designers Walter Reimann and Walter Röhrig to create fantastic, nightmarish sets with twisted structures and landscapes with sharp-pointed forms and oblique, curving lines. Some of these designs were constructions, others were painted directly onto canvases.

German Expressionist films produced in the Weimar Republic immediately following the First World War not only encapsulate the sociopolitical contexts in which they were created, but also rework the intrinsically modern problems of self-reflexivity, spectacle and identity.

Following the esteemed critiques of Siegfried Kracauer and Lotte Eisner, these films are now viewed as a kind of collective consciousness, so inherently tied are they to their social milieu. Briefly mentioned by J. P. Telotte in his analysis of German film, “German Expressionism: A Cinematic/ Cultural Problem”, expressionism focuses on the “power of spectacles” and offers audiences “a kind of metonymic image of their own situation”.

This film movement paralleled Expressionist painting and theater in rejecting realism. The creators in the Weimar Period sought to convey inner, subjective experience through external, objective means. Their films were characterized by highly stylized sets and acting; they used a new visual style which embodied high contrast and simple editing. The films were shot in studios where they could employ deliberately exaggerated and dramatic lighting and camera angles to emphasize some particular affect – fear, horror, pain. Aspects of Expressionist techniques were later adapted by such directors as Alfred Hitchcock and Orson Welles and were incorporated into many American gangster and horror films. Some of the major filmmakers of this time were F. W. Murnau, Erich Pommer, and Fritz Lang. The movement ended after the currency stabilized, making it cheaper to buy movies abroad. The UFA financially collapsed and German studios began to deal with Italian studios which led to their influence in style of horror and films noir. The American influence on the film industry would also lead some film makers to continue their career in the US. The UFA’s last film was Der Blaue Engel (1930), considered a masterpiece of German Expressionism.

Two works about the era are Lotte Eisner’s The Haunted Screen and Sigfried Kracauer’s From Caligari to Hitler. Kracauer examines German cinema from the Silent/Golden Era and eventually concludes that German films made prior to Hitler’s takeover and the rise of the Third Reich all hint at the inevitability of Nazi Germany. For Eisner, German Expressionist cinema is a visual manifestation of Romantic ideals. She closely examines staging, cinematography, acting, scenarios, and other cinematic elements in films by Pabst, Lubitsch, Lang (her obvious favorite), Riefenstahl, Harbou, and Murnau. More recent German Expressionist scholars examine historical elements of German Expressionism, such as inflation/economics, UFA, Erich Pommer, Nordisk, and Hollywood.

Expressionism film
The Expressionist film was mainly written in Germany, especially in its “film capital” Berlin, in the silent era of the first half of the 1920s. This is why people often speak of German Expressionism. But even in the years before the first expressionist elements appeared in Austrian productions – the so-called “pre-expressionist” films, which developed from the much-loved popular film adaptations.

German Expressionist Cinema is the name given to a group of film productions with certain aspects in common. This style of cinema has its correspondence with the current expressionist, named in contrast to the current impressionist of the nineteenth century in painting, that is, with that kind of painting in which premium “subjective expression” on the representation of objectivity. This painting resorted to hurtful colors and very strong linear rhythms. It basically took root in Germany, where the Die Brücke movement (the bridge) was born, founded in 1905 by architecture students.

It is on the budget of criticism and opposition to positivism that many of the lines of force of the Expressionists are projected. For these, reality was something that had to be experienced from the deepest interiority, and thus appealed to the body and emotional experiences of the world rather than its capture by the eye. The expressionist artist tried to represent emotional experience in its most complete form, without worrying about external reality but about its internal nature.

The cinema arrives, belatedly and occurs in part, as a result of the organizational measures adopted by the German authorities. The origin of these measures can be assigned to two observations: First, the German people become aware of the influence exercised by anti-German films in foreign countries. Second, they recognize the insufficiency of local production and to satisfy that demand, productions of inferior quality, in relation to foreign countries, flood the market.

Aware of this dangerous situation, the German authorities intervened directly in the film production. In 1916, the government, with the support of associations that promoted cultural, political and economic objectives, founded the Deulig (Deutsche Liehtspiel Gesellsehaft), a film company that, through appropriate documentary films, would dedicate itself to the publicity of the country. abroad as in Germany itself.

At the beginning of 1917, the Bufa Foundation (Bild- und Filmamt) continued; founded as a simple government agency, it supplied the troops, on the battle fronts, with projection rooms, and was also in charge of the task of providing documentaries that recorded military activities.

The number of companies rose from just 28 in 1913 to 245 in 1919, a few years in which a powerful industry was consolidated.

This was something, but not enough. After the entrance of the United States to the war, the films of this country expanded all over the world, inculcating with incompatible force the hatred to Germany, as much in the neutral ones, as in the enemies. The German leaders came to the conclusion that only a huge organization could counterattack that campaign. The Gerenal Ludendorff took the initiative, recommending the union of the main film companies so that their energies, previously disseminated, could be channeled in the national interest. His suggestions were orders. Through a resolution of the German High Command of November 1917, in close contact with prominent financiers, industrialists and ship owners, theMesster Film, the Union of Davidson and the companies controlled by Nordisk – with the support of a group of banks – merged into a new company: Ufa (Universum Film AG).

The official task of the Ufa was to make propaganda in favor of Germany, in accordance with government guidelines. This organization served as a springboard for the success on German soil of German filmmakers such as Ernst Lubitsch, Fritz Lang, Robert Wiene, Friedrich Murnau, among others, some of whom were part of the expressionist movement that had a great relationship in aesthetics and theme with the work graphic and pictorial work proposed by its founders before and after the war, an event that left Germany bankrupt, and that influenced the Expressionists, who externalized their emotions and psychology, in addition to distorting reality and showing symbolism to add more depth to the films.

Contemporary trends
In the 1920s, the dada movement provoked a revolution in the artistic world, and the different European cultures advocated a change and the desire to consider the future by experimenting with new and revolutionary ideas and styles. Expressionism is also contemporary with surrealism in France.

Influence of cinematic expressionism
Two genres were particularly influenced by expressionism: the film noir and the horror film. Carl Laemmle and Universal Studios made a name for themselves by producing famous horror films during the dumb era, such as The Phantom of the Opera (Lon Chaney, 1925). German emigrants inspired the style and atmosphere of Universal Studios’ monster films in the 1930s, with very dark artistic backgrounds, and thus became a reference for subsequent generations of horror films.

After Fritz Lang (Fury) in the 1930s, other directors of Germanic origin such as Otto Preminger (Laura), Robert Siodmak (The Killers) or Billy Wilder (Insurance on Death) introduced the expressionist style in the police films of 1940s and influenced subsequent generations of filmmakers, thus making Expressionism survive.

“The postwar cinema seemed to insist on accentuating its enigmatic, macabre, sinister, morbid character. It reflects the process of retreat “in the depth of the soul” carried out by the population during this period of uncertainty, “says Sigfried Kracauer, specialist in the German period.

The origins of this cinematographic movement, which had its best moment in the decade of the 20s, go back to the beginning of the 20th century, when expressionism emerged as a reflection of reality. Some directors assimilated the theories and proposals of this artistic phenomenon. One of the pioneering films was Doctor Caligari’s Cabinet, a film inspired by a series of crimes that took place in Hamburg, Germany. It narrated the shocking crimes committed by Cesare, under the hypnotic orders of Dr. Caligari, who toured the fairs of the German cities exhibiting his sleepwalker. The idea of the writers was to denounce the performance of the German state during the war.

But Robert Wiene, who will direct it, will add two new scenes to the script, one at the beginning and one at the end, which will change the whole sense of the story, because it becomes the imaginary story of a madman who believes he sees the director of the psychiatric hospital in which the terrible Dr. Caligari is found.

The main attraction of the film lies in its scenographic abnormality, with oblique chimneys, cubist reminiscences and arrow-shaped windows, all with a merely dramatic and psychological function, and not as something decorative. It is true that chance will contribute to enhance that drama, because, due to the limited lighting in the studio where it was shot, it was decided to paint the sets with lights and shadows.

Another feature to highlight will be the makeup of the actors and their interpretation. Doctor Caligari’s cabinet will obtain great success. It will be, next to the character of Charlot, the first great myth of the history of cinema. French critics coined the word caligarismo to designate the German films of the new aesthetic. Wiene will direct several more works in successive years, but he will never achieve Caligari’s success or artistic quality. With the arrival of the Nazis to power, he decided to go into exile and died in Paris in 1938.

Expressionism will evolve with a new current replacing the fabrics painted by the sets, giving way to a more complex lighting as an expressive medium. This gives origin to a new current that will be known like Kammerspielfilm or Camera Theater, that owns its origin in the realistic experiences of the camera theater of Max Reinhardt, famous theater director of the time.

This proposal was driven, to a great extent, by the work of screenwriter Carl Mayer, whose dramas were sometimes simplistic and somewhat theatrical. Important directors were attracted by this current, in which they contributed to German cinema some of their greatest cinematographic works.

Characteristic are the grotesquely distorted backdrops strongly influenced by Expressionist painting and the contrasting lighting, which was further enhanced by painted shadows. A surrealistic and symbolic mise-en-scène creates strong moods and deeper levels of meaning.

In addition, it is above all the emphasized exaggerated gestural style of the actors, which characterizes the expressionist of this film flow. It is borrowed from the artistic precursor, the stage expressionism.

The aesthetics of the Kammerspielfilm abandons the fantastic themes and the expressionist sets, to try an approach to the daily drama of simple characters, extracted from real life, immersed in a small space, the modest dwelling, which, without further attributes, acquires here a claustrophobic character. It is based on a respect, although not total, of the units of time, place and action, in a great linearity and argumentative simplicity, which makes the insertion of explanatory labels unnecessary, and in interpretive sobriety. The dramatic simplicity and the respect for the units allow to create closed and oppressive atmospheres, in which the protagonists will move. The trajectory of this current appears dominated mainly by three filmmakers:

Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau
Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau founded his own production company in 1919, beginning to direct films in which he will try to express his subjectivity with the utmost respect for the real forms of the world. Nosferatu (1922) is an example of this, a film that tells the myth of the vampire and will be one of his masterpieces. To shoot it, it will resort to natural scenarios, facing the expressionist preference of filming the scenes in the studio. With the introduction of real elements in a fantastic story, it manages to enhance its veracity. It will also make use of the accelerated and idle, and the use of negative film to mark the passage from the real world to the ultrareal.

After Nosferatu, he will direct El último (Der letze Mann), the story of the doorman of a luxury hotel that is transferred from a job due to his age. The man is not satisfied with the loss of his uniform and steals it every day to return with him to his house, until he is discovered. This work represents the clear transition from expressionism to social realism, although it is narrated in a plastic language full of expressionist prototypes. To give agility to the story, Murnau and his operator, Karl Freund, will use a very dynamic camera, tied to the chest of the latter, to make travellings subjective circular, and mimic the movements of a crane, placing the camera at the end of a fire escape.

Murnau will make several more works, always with a high technical quality, in successive years, such as the adaptations of Faust and Moliere Tartufo, to end accepting a tempting contract in Hollywood, where he will win an Oscar and die in a traffic accident in 1931.

Fritz Lang
Along with Murnau, the Austrian Fritz Lang is another teacher of the Expressionist school. The oldest surviving film of his long career is Die Spinnen from 1919, but he achieved success and recognition with Der müde Tod (The Tired Death or The Three Lights), in 1921, which narrates the struggle between love and death. This work will cause a very important impact, and it will be the one that decides the vocation of the Spanish director Luis Buñuel. In his next work, Los nibelungos, you will have the chance to demonstrate all your maturity. This Aryan exaltation, in which the Huns are presented as beings of inferior race, seems premonitory of the times to come.

Metropolis, 1927, will be his definitive work. In it, play with spaces, volumes and chiaroscuro. In Metropolis Lang will get images that will go down in the history of cinema and that the spectator will not be able to forget: his oppressive underground world, the shift of the workers, the flood, the panic in the city, etc. Metropolis will represent the apogee of the expressionism of architectural order, as Caligari was in the pictorial.

In 1933, Lang will make The testament of Dr. Mabuse, a film that was banned in Germany at the time. A little later he will flee to the United States where he will continue with his work and pass away in 1976.

Georg Wilhelm Pabst
The last major producer of German expressionist aesthetics was Georg Wilhelm Pabst. After debuting as a theater actor, he founded his own film production company, in which he made his first film in 1923, a minor work called Der Schat. He became known until two years later with the film Under the Mask of Pleasure, a drama of misery, played by Greta Garbo, located in a historical and real moment. Of a purely realistic style, this work was shot entirely in studio, which makes it lose part of its strength due to the falseness of its sets, but its merit lies in presenting for the first time the situation of the bourgeoisie German after the war, ruined and in crisis.

Pabst was the first filmmaker to incorporate psychoanalysis in one of his films, assisted by two disciples of Sigmund Freud, conducting a study on impotence in 1926. His following works addressed the problems of female psychology in a trilogy: Abwege, La caja of Pandora and Three Pages of a Diary, where through the life of its female protagonists it made a bitter criticism of the Germany of its time. Those were the two motors that moved Pabst’s work: the feelings and the social reality of his country.

Pabst put German cinema on the path of social realism, and the female trilogy followed films that were more socially and politically engaged, which were banned in 1933 after the rise to power of National Socialism. He fled to France, where he continued with his work, to return to his country, where he filmed in the decade of the 50s an allegation against Nazism. He died in Vienna in 1967.

Important Movies
The Student of Prague (1913, director: Stellan Rye)
The Serpent of Passion (1918, directed by Jakob and Luise Fleck)
Opium (1919, directed by Robert Reinert)
Nerves (1919, directed by Robert Reinert)
The Cabinet of Dr. Ing. Caligari (1920, director: Robert Wiene)
From morning to midnight (1920, director: Karlheinz Martin)
Genuine (1920, Director: Robert Wiene)
Algol (1920, director: Hans Werckmeister)
The Golem, How He Entered the World (1920, Director: Paul Wegener)
The Tired Death (1921, directed by Fritz Lang)
The Mountain Cat (1921, Director: Ernst Lubitsch – Expressionism parody)
Dr. Mabuse, the Player (1922, Director: Fritz Lang)
Nosferatu, a symphony of horror (1922, director: Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau)
Vanina (1922, director: Arthur von Gerlach)
Phantom (1922, director: Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau)
Shadow (1923, Director: Arthur Robison)
Raskolnikov (1923, director: Robert Wiene)
The Street (1923, directed by Karl Grune)
Aelita (1924, director: Yakov Protasanov)
Orlac’s Hands (1924, Director: Robert Wiene)
The city without Jews (1924, director: Hans Karl Breslauer)
The Wax Museum (1924, Director: Paul Leni)
The Last Man (1924, Director: Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau)
On the Chronicle of Grieshuus (1925, directed by Arthur von Gerlach)
Faust – a German folk legend (1926, director: Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau)
The Coat (1926, directed by Grigori Kosinzew and Leonid Trauberg)
Metropolis (1927, director: Fritz Lang)
M (1931, director: Fritz Lang)

The short epoch of expressionist film was already over in the mid-1920s. When, after the seizure of power by the Nazis in 1933, many of the former protagonists left Germany for Hollywood, only after-effects could be felt there. Especially two genres were influenced by it and can be considered as “heirs” of the film expressionism: the horror film and the film noir.

Today, the work of David Lynch seems to be inspired by the expressionist (Fritz Lang: M) as well as the surrealistic film (Luis Buñuel, Salvador Dalí: An Andalusian Dog). Werner Herzog turned in 1979 as a tribute to a Nosferatu remake with Klaus Kinski in the lead role. Likewise a remake with sound of a famous expressionistic silent film, the American director David Lee Fisher shot 2006 with the likewise black-and-white shot The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, where today’s actors act on the bluescreen in front of the scenes of the original film.

Tim Burton often builds bizarre scenes in his films. For example, the backdrops in the spirit world at Beetlejuice, or “Halloweentown” in Nightmare Before Christmas, and the scenes in the film Corpse Bride – Wedding with a Dead Body are very much influenced by the Expressionist models. Lemony Snicket – Enigmatic events, the filming of Lemony Snickets A series of sad events, based strongly on these films Burton and is therefore also strongly based on the expressionist style.

Source from Wikipedia