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Film Movements 101: German Expressionism

Wiene, R. (1920). The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari [Photo].

Film history comprises of numerous film movements that have influenced each other over the years. Directors, actors, screenwriters and producers have been inspired by the cinematic achievements of their predecessors and followed in their footsteps to perfect the seventh art. The Film Movements 101 series proposes a brief but comprehensive look at historically and culturally relevant film movements, which have left an impact not only on their direct successors but on cinema itself.

This series is not intended to act as an exhaustive list of cinematic movements. It’s a presentation of well-known and recognized cinematic sensibilities, which heavily influenced the art form. The series includes German Expressionism, Italian Neorealism, French New Wave, New Hollywood, and Dogme 95 and will unfold in this order. The articles will include a contextual introduction, discussing historical issues regarding the movement, a presentation of the major characteristics, and a brief treatment of three key films. This approach is conceived in such a manner as to present the link between history and cinema and to pave the way for a better understanding of the seventh art.


German Expressionism refers to a collection of cinematic productions developed between the 1910s and early ’30s but peaked in the ’20s. Despite the dire economic situation in the post-World War period, the German filmmaking business flourished. This was due to excellent technical capabilities but mostly because of a 1916 national ban on most foreign films. This cinematic vacuum “led the number of producing companies to rise from 25 (1914) to 130 (1918)” (Thompson & Bordwell, 2002, p. 101). UFA (Universum Film Aktiengesellschaft) is recognized as the most relevant studio of the period before being assimilated by the Nazi Party in the ’30s.

Regardless of the cinematic boom of this period, there is no denial that socially and economically, the people of Germany were struggling. As the Allies declared their former enemy the sole instigator of the World War, they demanded Germany “to pay for all wartime damage to civilian property, in the form of money and goods” (Thompson & Bordwell, 2002, p. 102). These measures plunged the country’s financial system into ruin and caused hyperinflation. This internal strife found its way into the themes of Expressionist films and was reflected in the overtly bleak style of the movement. On the other hand, inflation aided cinematic development because “earners tended to spend their money while it was still worth something, and movies, unlike food or clothing, were readily available” (Thompson & Bordwell, 2002, p. 102).


Expressionism in cinema was not an isolated movement in Germany. It was developed around 1908, mostly in theater and painting, and presented itself as a manifestation against realistic art. “Its practitioners favored extreme distortion to express an inner emotional reality rather than surface appearances” (Thompson & Bordwell, 2002, p. 104).

When talking about how Expressionist films react against realism, one needs to start with the mise-en-scene. Filmmakers of the period preferred jagged and distorted sets, which were even more exaggerated with the use of stark lighting. These spaces, interior or otherwise, were made to almost reflect the anxious German psyche of the time. Moreover, these sets, along with carefully considered costumes, represented a type of stylized cinema that highlighted “the composition of individual shots to an exceptional degree” (Thompson & Bordwell, 2002, p. 106).

Lang, F. (1927) Metropolis screenshot [Photo].

At first glance, “performances in Expressionist films may look simply like extreme versions of silent film acting” (Thompson & Bordwell, 2002, p. 107). However, the actors represent just another exaggerated piece of the composition. They wear excessive makeup and move unnaturally, almost losing themselves in the performative art itself with more regard for the style of the image than the plot.

While the framing is somewhat regular for the period, the over-utilization of close-ups highlights the makeup of the actors and aids in the desired dramatic effect of their performance. When it comes to editing, Expressionist directors often use the juxtaposition and superimposition of two images to intensify the visual impact of their composition and, in some cases, to convey an eerie atmosphere to their films. While the first technique refers to the successive combination of two shots, the second one represents the placement of an image on top of an already existing frame.

Expressionist films dealt with themes of anxiety, madness, and confusion, which were being influenced by the German social situation at that time. When it comes to genres, filmmakers preferred to place their stories in a film noir context or even science-fiction. They also had an inclination for “narratives that were set in the past or in exotic locales or that involved elements of fantasy or horror” (Thompson & Bordwell, 2002, p. 109).

Key Films

Probably the quintessential Expressionist film, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) tells the story of an unstable hypnotist who forces a somnambulist into committing murders. When first released, Robert Wiene’s silent film left an impact on the audience with its use of “stylized sets, with strange, distorted buildings painted on canvas backdrops and flats in a theatrical manner” (Thompson & Bordwell, 2002, p. 103). Moreover, the story stunned the viewer with then-impressive devices such as a cinematic framing (story within story) and a plot twist.

The film presented themes of madness, authority, and twisted subconscious through overly dramatic performances and jagged confusing sets. At the time, it seemed to accurately capture the anxious morale of a war-devastated Germany. In his 2009 review, critic Roger Ebert argues that after the First World War, a realist style of art was difficult to stomach, which gave birth to stylized movements such as Dada, Surrealism, and Expressionism. Wiene’s film is a perfect example of artistic sensibility turned towards a distorted esthetic in an era in which war “upset decades of relative tranquility and order” (Ebert, 2009).

Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror (1922) represents one of the first cinematic adaptations of Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula. In F.W. Murnau’s silent film, the action focuses on Count Orlok’s (Max Schreck) passion for an estate agent’s wife. Similar to Caligari, some secondary but essential information is given through frame stories. Characters read books to learn about vampire behavior “and entries in the log of the ship that carries Count Orlak to Bremen recount additional action” (Thompson & Bordwell, 2002, p. 109).

While the film represents a slight departure from the visual elements of Wiene’s exaggerated visual compositions, it still retains the jagged, anxiety-inducing sets of Expressionism. Another key element is Schreck’s makeup, which is grotesque and still represents one of the most iconic vampire images. However, Murnau’s mastery lies in the camera work, editing, and lighting.

Murnau, F.W. (1922). Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror screenshot [Photo].

To give the film an eerie feeling, the director created a subtle contrast of shadows and more than often used what would in that period be considered special effects. For example, he employed clever cuts to make it look that the vampire could close the doors without touching them and used negative images to increase the uncanny aspect of the Count’s domain. Murnau’s cinematic eye and his sensibility for gothic visuals influenced many horror films and are still praised by modern critics. In a 2013 review, writer Peter Bradshaw highlighted the effectiveness of the film’s simple editing by focusing on a secondary but significant scene: “There is pure expressionist inspiration in Murnau's juxtaposition of the malign wolves and the terrified old women: a poetry of fear” (Bradshaw, 2013).

Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927) is one of the most influential science-fiction films ever made. Its action is placed in a dystopian future in which workers are controlled by the rich city planners. When the son of the city’s master planner falls in love with a working-class activist, a story of struggle and power starts unfolding. The film’s colossal urban landscapes amazed the period’s critics and viewers. The art direction combines elements from Bauhaus and Cubism with classic Expressionist components to create one of the most striking and prominent futuristic sets in sci-fi.

The film’s themes of strife and revolution represent a fitting reflection of the ’20s in Germany. The workers are constantly surrounded by anxiety and aggressive authority and the bleak imagery only heightens the sense of tension between the ruling and the working class. The twisted visual compositions of Lang still to this day inspire filmmakers to visually explore the darker side of society. In his 1998 review, Roger Ebert discusses the timelessness of Metropolis and concludes by saying that the 1927 movie “does what many films do, creating a time, place and characters so striking that they become part of our arsenal of images for imagining the world” (Ebert, 1998).

The nightmarish images of German Expressionism represent the psyche of a broken nation and act as proof of stunning creativity in times of hardship. The sets, characters, and stories created by this movement have constantly haunted the imagination of filmmakers over the years. From mainstream figures like Tim Burton to sci-fi masters like Ridley Scott and eclectic directors such as Werner Herzog, Expressionist cineastes have inspired countless filmmakers with their striking visual compositions and their dark treatment of reality.


  • Thompson, K., & Bordwell, D. (2002). Film History: An Introduction (2nd ed.). McGraw-Hill Humanities/Social Sciences/Languages.

  • Ebert, R. (2009, June 3). A world slanted at sharp angles.

  • Bradshaw, P. (2013, October 24). Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror – review. The Guardian.

  • Ebert, R. (1998, March 28). Metropolis.


Author Photo

Sergiu Inizian

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