German Expressionist Cinema

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The first radical experiments with cinematic style occurred in Germany in the 1920s, as part of the Expressionist movement. Expressionism was a cultural movement that originated in Germany in the early 20th-century and spanned art, design and cinema.

Keywords: German Expressionist, German Expressionism, Otto Dix, George Grosz, Wassily Kandinsky, Erich Mendelsohn, Einstein Observatory, Universum Film AG, Ufa, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Robert Wiener, Nosferatu, F.W. Murnau, Fritz Lang, Metropolis The first radical experiments with cinematic style occurred in Germany in the 1920s, as part of the Expressionist movement. Expressionism was a cultural movement that originated in Germany in the early 20th-century and spanned art, design and cinema. Expressionist painting tried to express emotional and psychological experience rather than physical reality; it distorted reality for an emotional effect. The leading Expressionist painters were Otto Dix, George Grosz and Wassily Kandinsky.

This is a painting by George Grosz called Metropolis (19280, a scabrous portrayal of Berlin between the wars. The streets are full of rich capitalists, wounded soldiers and prostitutes. This period was turbulent and chaotic; Berlin society was debauched and decadent. Revelry was a way of dealing with Germany’s defeat in the war and the financial catastrophe that followed. Grosz depicted the wounded and disfigured veterans, who were a common sight on Berlin streets in the 1920s. He unveiled the ugly side of war and forced people to contemplate its human consequences. Expressionists aimed capture vivid emotions through powerful colours and dynamic compositions.

George Grosz was extremely critical of German society and often dwelled on what the Germans called Lustmord, or sexual murder. This is The Suicide by Dix. The body of a suicide is lying on a roof and the street scene below is a confusion of distorted angles. A prostitue is visible across the street. This crystallizes the lurid atmosphere of Berlin in the 20s. It is defiantly non-realist, and the distortion suggests the chaos of the city.

Expressionism also occurred in architecture. Erich Mendelsohn designed the Einstein Observatory in Potsdam (1921). This has a distorted form, but it is not angular like Expressionist painting. Instead, it is fluid and plastic in form, composed of undulating curves. This is actually an attempt to visualise Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, which states that energy and matter are interchangeable. The building tries to suggest this in architectonic and sculptural form: it is an image of matter shedding energy.

Expressionism produced several interesting works in architecture. Bruno Taut's Glass Pavilion is identified as Expressionist. This was built for the Cologne Werkbund Exhibition of 1914. Hans Poelzig designed a theatre in Berlin, the Grosse Schauspielhaus, which features an Expressionist interior. This was commissioned by Max Reinhardt. However, the architectural historian Sigfried Giedion wrote an influential book entitled Space, Time and Architecture (1941), which dismisses Expressionist architecture as a side show in the development of Modernism.

It was in the new medium of cinema that Expressionist influence was really felt. By the end of the First World War, wealthy industrialists were beginning to invest in film production companies. In December 1917, the Universum Film AG (Ufa) was set up to make German films with foreign markets in mind. One third of Ufa’s finance came from the state; the rest was from big business. Ufa became the leading production company in Germany and attracted foreign filmmakers such as Alfred Hitchcock.

Ufa discouraged exterior filming and this stimulated experimentation in set design. German Expressionist films were characterised by extreme stylisation of the mise-en-scène. The style is made up of chiaroscuro lighting and surrealistic sets, creating a fantasy world separate from everyday reality, a word marked by paranoia, angst and neurosis. German Expressionism is preoccupied with the irrational, that which cannot be rationally explained. This ‘other’ world often functions as a critisicm of bougeois society. As in painting, then, German Expressionist film contained an element of social satire.

The first Expressionist film was The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), directed by Robert Wiener. The film was designed by Walter Reimann and Walter Röhrig. Caligari is about the evil director of an insane asylum who manipulates a somnambulist (or sleepwalker) into committing murders. This is Werner Kraus as Caligari and Conrad Veidt as the sleepwalker Cesare (Veidt later played the Nazi major in Casablanca). The bourgeois doctor has a top-hat and cane. This can be seen as a criticism of the privileged upper class who marched the working classes to their deaths in World War I.

Germany society between the wars was intensely politicized, with Communism and Fascism arising in this period. The idea of the bourgeois doctor using mind control to manipulate the sleepwalker echoes the way that ideology was being used to control the weak-minded. Of course, Hitler eventually came to power using a persuasive ideology. Thus, the film is a parable about the abuse of power. Siegfried Krakower wrote an influential book on German Expressionism called From Caliagi to Hitler, in which he argues that these films anticipate the rise of Nazism.

The film’s poster emulates this visual style. Crucially, it looks exactly like an Expressionist painting, which reminds us that German Expressionist cinema was influenced by avant-garde art.

This is a typical composition. The film used chiaroscuro lighting, a deep contrast between light and dark. It had wildly non-realistic, geometrically absurd sets, along with designs painted on walls and floors to represent lights, shadows, and objects. The plots of the Expressionist films often dealt with madness. Here you can see Werner Kraus as Dr. Caligari. The image uses highly exaggerated lighting to create vivid shadows. The distorted imagery suggests the psychological derrangement of the characters. Caligari demonstrated that set design could support a film’s narrative and participate stylistically in contemporary artistic debates.

The next major Expressionist film was Nosferatu by the great director F.W. Murnau. It was based on Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula (1897), but Murnau used the text without permission. The names had to be changed, so Count Dracula became Count Orlok. Bram Stoker was dead by then, but his widow sued Murnau for plagiarism and tried to have every print of the film destroyed. She almost succeeded and the film was nearly lost.

The set design is Expressionistic, but the film has a strong element of the Gothic, because of the source material. It conjures up the gloom of medieval cathedrals and ruined abbeys. This film uses shadows in an incredibly vivid way – they move up walls to suggest the presence of the vampire. This is a supernatural use of shadows – they represent an evil spirit rather than the shadow of a living creature.

Count Orlok was played by Max Shrek, who wore innovative prosthetic make-up that made him look like a rat. This suggests that the vampire is a plague-carrier. In fact, ‘Nosferatu’ comes from the Greek work nosferos, which means plague-bearer.

The climax of the Expressionist movement was Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1926). This was the most expensive film ever made in Germany, but it was a financial disaster and bankrupted the studio. It was a response to the Modern Movement in architecture and it used sets and special effects to create a visionary city of the future, a dystopian nightmare. This was a warning of where modern architecture was heading.

For more information on Nosferatu, see:

Ken Adam, the production designer of James Bond movies, was influenced by German Expressionism:


Ileen Zovluck
Posted on Aug 28, 2010
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