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German Expressionism refers to a number of related creative movements in Germanymarker 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 art. This article deals with the cinematic part of said movement.


German Expressionism as a movement spanned many media, including theatre, architecture, music, painting, printmaking and sculpture. This article deals with German Expressionist Cinema.

For a general guide to the wider Expressionist movement including German Expressionism see the article Expressionism. For Theatre see Expressionist theatre. For Architecture see Expressionist architecture. For music see Expressionism .

During the period of recovery following World War I, the German film industry was booming. However, because of the hard economic times, filmmakers found it difficult to create movies that could compare with the lush, extravagant features coming from Hollywoodmarker. The filmmakers of the German Universum Film AG studio developed their own style by using symbolism and mise en scène to add mood and deeper meaning to a movie, concentrating on the dark fringes of human experience.


The first Expressionist films, The Student of Prague, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), The Golem (1920), Destiny (1921), Nosferatu (1922), Phantom (1922), Schatten (1923), and The Last Laugh (1924), were highly symbolic and stylized.

Various European cultures of the 1920s had 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 sets, 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 (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.

The extreme non-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 America when the Nazis gained power and a number of German filmmakers emigrated to Hollywoodmarker. These German directors found American 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.

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, and Michael Curtiz introduced the Expressionist style to crime dramas of the 1940s, expanding Expressionism's influence on modern film making.

Interpretation of German Expressionism

The first two seminal works on 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.

Influence and legacy

German silent cinema was arguably far ahead of cinema in Hollywood. As well as the direct influence of film makers who moved from Germany to Hollywood developments in style and technique which were developed through Expressionism in Germany impressed contemporary film makers from elsewhere and were incorporated into their work and so into the body of international cinema from the 1930s onward.

A good example of this process can be found in the career of Alfred Hitchcock. In 1924, Hitchcock was sent by his film company to work as an assistant director and art director at the UFA Babelsberg Studiosmarker in Berlin on the film The Blackguard. An immediate effect of the working environment there can be seen in his expressionistic set designs for The Blackguard.

The influence can also be seen though out the rest of Hitchcock's career. In his third film, The Lodger, Expressionism's influence extends to set designs, lighting techniques, and trick camera work to the British public against the wishes of his studio. In his later films, this influence continued through his visual experimentation. For example, in the shower scene from Psycho, Norman Bates' blurred image seen through a shower curtain is reminiscent of Nosferatu shown through his shadow. The development of these themes and techniques are not coincidental. Hitchcock said, "I have acquired a strong German influence by working at the UFA studios Berlin". Hitchcock's film making has in its turn influenced many other film makers and so has been one of the vehicles which have propelled German Expressionist techniques into the present day.

Expressionism has also had an influence on contemporary films. For example Dark City is influenced by German Expressionism's stark contrast, rigid movements, and fantastic elements.

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. Notably it links the vampire myth with the black death through the use of black rats. One may even notice the link between the evil character of the vampire portrayed by Klaus Kinski, and Nosferatu's star, Max Schreck.

Stylistic elements taken from German Expressionism are common today in films that do not need reference to real places such as science fiction films (especially Ridley Scott's 1982 film Blade Runner and the many films influenced by it).

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 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. Burton subverts the Caligari nightmare with an inspired narrative branding, casting the garish somnambulist as the hero and the villagers as the villains.

The familiar look of Caligari's main character can also be seen in the movie The Crow. With the tight, black outfit, white makeup, and darkened eyes, Brandon Lee's character is obviously a close relative 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 on this is Metropolis, as evidenced by the enormous power plant and glimpses of the massive yet pristine 'upper' city.


  1. "Paul Merton Looks at Alfred Hitchcock", BBC Television 2009, Broadcast- 28th Feb 2009
  2. "Paul Merton Looks at Alfred Hitchcock", BBC Television 2009, Broadcast- 28th Feb 2009 and Wikipedia Alfred Hitchcock page
  3. such as the image of a man walking across a glass floor shot from below, a concept representing someone pacing upstairs

See also


  1. "Paul Merton Looks at Alfred Hitchcock", BBC Television 2009, Broadcast- 28th Feb 2009
  2. "Paul Merton Looks at Alfred Hitchcock", BBC Television 2009, Broadcast- 28th Feb 2009 and Wikipedia Alfred Hitchcock page
  3. such as the image of a man walking across a glass floor shot from below, a concept representing someone pacing upstairs

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