German Expressionism

Categories: German

German expressionism is one of the most fundamental movements of early cinema. With its basic foundation stemming from the creation of the Universum Film AG in 1917 by the German government, expressionism found a happy home in Germany until, arguably the late 1920s (Wolf). Expressionism changed the canvas of cinema with its technical innovations as well as its impact on Hollywood, not only with its borrowing of ideas, but with the emigration of German actors, writers, and directors to Hollywood, such as Murnau and his creation of Sunrise (Welsh, 98).

American films at the same time as this movement in Germany were based in realism, with very distinct ideas of good and bad, comedy, and aesthetics. German film was seen as highly compound, with thick, perplexing stories that were more solicitous instead of being superficial. The notable works from this movement have been time tested references to the rise of cinema, and have been looked upon for reference in film genres in later years not only because of the innovation and place in history, but also for the overt artistic styling that has been difficult to match since.

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It seems as though German cinema, almost all together must be discussed in its own category. Just as French cinema, historically speaking, Germany has seemed to keep at least a somewhat independent cinema culture from that of Hollywood and its beginnings are either independent from Hollywood or influencing for the most part. Although its beginnings were earlier, “…the period roughly between 1897 and 1908, motion pictures in Germany had graduated from a side-show novelty to a fast developing form, if not of art, then certainly of popular entertainment” (Figge, 308).

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By 1909, however, hundreds of new cinemas were offering longer and more cohesive programs”, which laid the groundwork for the progressive technical explosion that was the Expressionist movement (Figgins, 308). Germany reached a height in silent cinema in the 1920s, the time after World War I (Wexman 38). This was a national time of crisis with most of the culpability of the Great War being put on Germany not only politically, but more enduringly and impactfully, economically; this created discord in the sociopolitical environment.

Due to such social upheaval, film as seen as an expression of “counter activity” to the state of affairs in Germany (Wexman, 38). German expressionism is one of the more major film movements which helped mold the face of early cinema, and has had enduring impacts on the horror genre, film noir and is even seen trickling into modern day cinema. The innovations that came along with this movement are astounding, especially given the modicum of improvement in physical film itself, which one could argue, were brought about by the mass creative and artistic movement expressionism fundamentally is.

Some of these technical aspects include a highly subjective and dynamic camera, design innovations including staging and set designs, and being the first movement to actually implement scripting of films (Dilman). Telltale signs of expressionism are the use of backlighting to create a sense of dimensionality and montage, and splicing the film together to make the story be more seamless and continuous, which was also a style used by the Soviet film movement (Figge, 313). Some of the indications of expressionism seem to be the anti-heroism, the complex philosophical and psychological plots and primarily urban settings.

The scenes are intentionally shot to look staged, creating an alternate reality on screen with its highly geometric scapes, tilted stages, clashing vertical and horizontal lines and overshadowing. Indeed as Warm said, Expressionist film is art come to life (Wexman). Historical and mythological themes are very telling of this movement, as are abstract story lines that seem philosophically or psychologically provoking, fantastic ideas, and “careful visual patterns” (Wexman 40).

Mythology obviously had an influence on Metropolis, as the machine in the film turns from robot into a pagan god, demanding the sacrifice of the workers. This constructs the notion that the machine is more important than the lives of the machinists, the way urban culture existed in the moment, machine is more important than man; progress is the most important idea in society, replacing a sense of community and order of nature. This idea of a crisis of modernity influenced many films in Germany throughout the 1920s.

The idea of urban life being pitted against rural life is the subject of Sunrise, giving the audience the choice between the naive and desirable maternal figure in opposition to the fast, dark, evil “Vamp” woman from the city, embodying urban culture and its certain destruction of current livelihood. This again reiterates the theme of the unavoidable but unwanted nature of modern, urban life in opposition to the much-desired rural, complacently comfortable setting that was more trusting. The Cabinet of Dr.

Caligari is seen as the height of expressionism (Welsh, 98). Without exaggerating, it is impossible to discuss expressionism without discussing Caligari, not just for the film advancements, but because it seems to be one of the most artistically set films of the time as well as being one of the truly first expressionist films to be made (although it is not the first), Caligari was, in an important sense, a blind alley for German films of this period, because it sought its identity outside the inherent possibilities of the film medium.

In spite of the use of irises, medium shots, and crosscutting, it remains essentially theatrical…The point is significant, because at this time the question was being asked, ‘What can the movies do that the theatre can not do? ’ Caligari provided no clear answer to this challenge. (Figgins, 310-311) All of the characters are highly psychological, some being downright neurotic.

This can be evidenced by the blurring of the lines of good and evil, the questioning of sanity and the feeling of helplessness of the main characters in the film, most notably, the Somnambulist who has absolutely no control over his doing. By being out of control, he can be seen as evading all of his worldly responsibilities, one can excuse his behavior (read: murdering of innocent townspeople) because it is not he who has the intention, but rather is being compelled into this anti-social behavior.

With this in mind, it is easy to see expressionism being a symptomatic artistic release, emerging out of a post-war world turned upside down, where one must question their morals due to justification of war (especially because Germany was involved with unrestricted submarine warfare during World War I), and coming to terms with shouldering the majority of the responsibility for the casualties.

Themes of expressionism carried over into Hollywood’s birth of the American horror genre of the 1930s, with it’s expressionist camera angles, movements, overly dramatic makeup and lighting, fantastic subjects and the feeling of chaos, a sense that the world in spinning out of control. Many of these themes have seemed to have lasting impacts, and were characteristic of many Alfred Hitchcock films.

While Hitchcock favored tight scenes, he still preferred to give the audience a sense of unease with his camera movements, creatures, and most definitely, chaos. However, it is certain that Hitchcock is more characteristically modernist, with his angles and restoration of the disharmony of his films. Film Noir is another genre that seemingly stemmed out of expressionism. The use of stark contrasts of shadows and the obscurity of faces and landscapes is showing of expressionist qualities.

The disorientation brought on by the camera direction style also echoes the disorientation, which was popular in the movement. The protagonists seem to be flawed, which is also a mirrored quality, exemplified by the main character in Sunrise, who has no issue initially with his infidelity or thoughts of murdering his wife to be able to be with the Vamp from the city. The urban settings of Noir films also seem to be reminiscent of German film themes of the 1920s (Naremore 12, 26).

In fact, one might argue that Film Noir is basically expressionism revisited, keeping in line with most of the expressionist qualities, save the more stark landscapes and police themed-ness of the melodramas. Modern day directors still use themes and techniques associated with the Expressionist movement. Most notably and obviously would be the ever famous Tim Burton, where commonalities and homage exist heavily. For instance, it can be argued that Gotham City in Burton’s creation of Batman was modeled after the city in Metropolis, and his theme of the corrupt city is reminiscent of Sunrise.

It is hard not to see the similarities of the character Edward from Edward Scissorhands and the somnambulist from The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari from the inception of the character on the screen, in the major aspects. Most likely, expressionism will seep into cinema either subtly or overtly for many years to come. German expressionism can be seen as being the influencer of genres, groundbreaking creator of overly artistic production, and arguably the art of horror film.

This movement itself has helped spawn the rise of other genres and movements, and has been looked upon for stylistic and creative (admittedly sometimes hyper-creative) reference in film genres in later years due to the innovation and canvas that was created in service of the period. Indeed, German expressionism is a major film movement which helped mold the face of early cinema, but one cannot contain the ideas and art that came from this movement into the years of the 1920s and 1930s as the impact it left is seen in many later genres and generations, the horror genre, film noir and modern day cinema.

Updated: Jul 29, 2020
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German Expressionism. (2017, Jan 26). Retrieved from

German Expressionism essay
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