German Expressionism Movement and Expressionist Film List
Most Active Years 1918 – 1932
Table of Contents
- What is German Expressionism
- Brief History of German Expressionism
- The Influences of German Expressionism
- Expressionist Film List
- Best Expressionist Directors
- Best Expressionist Films
- References and Further Reading
Introduction to German Expressionism
At the beginning of the 20th century, the First World War (1914-1918) changed all of Europe. European countries entered a process of change that will shape our day in terms of matters such as economy, sociology, science, trade, industry and art. Cinema, which was still in its early stages at the time, became one of the main art disciplines that underwent this change. Cinema was permanently burdened with the effects of the First World War. German Expressionism was one of the movements that best conveyed this change experienced in cinema.
What is German Expressionism
German Expressionism is a film movement that emerged with films that were subjectively interpreted and conveyed with extreme depictions by film directors in Germany, which were devastated in many ways by the First World War. Expressionist films have permanently determined the method for expressing emotions such as strangeness, weirdness and uncertainty that are difficult to describe.
Origin of the Term Expressionism
Expressionism originated primarily in Northern Europe in the field of poetry and painting in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Expressionist works present the world only from a subjective perspective of the artist with their modernist features.
Depictions are radically distorted to evoke feelings and ideas in the art lover. Artists’ ways of expressing the emotional experience they want to convey away from reality and objective approach, by using extremism have revealed the concept of expressionism.
Brief History of German Expressionism
At the beginning of the 20th century, German cinema first produced works within the Cinema of Attractions movement. Cinema of Attractions was a theory that emerged with the motivation of filmmakers to convey images that are not usually encountered in daily life in films in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Filmmakers made low-cost but remarkable films within this movement and made a profit.
Over time, German films moved away from the Cinema of Attractions and became closer to another French film movement, “Film d’Art”. With the Film d’Art movement, adaptations of theatrical productions and literary works were filmed. Film d’Art films belonged more to the theatre than the cinema, as they did not use the capabilities of the cinema. While the productions were copied from the theatre, the audience experience was also copied from the same source.
Although the Cinema of Attractions and Film d’Art movements were economically working models, Germany was going through a rapid change. German cinema lovers, filmmakers and directors were being driven away towards an area that was economically and psychologically not covered by these movements.
As the First World War approached, the German economy gradually contracted. Alongside the contraction of the economy, Germany became an increasingly isolated country. This affected the German people as well as the artists and filmmakers. The number of films shot gradually decreased. Interest in German further decreased.
“The Student of Prague“, shot in 1913 just before the First World War, was an important production for German cinema. The film was interesting with its story reminiscent of Faust. But more importantly, the feeling of helplessness, weirdness, being trapped, and the method of conveying these feelings was innovative. The powerful depiction of “The Student of Prague” at low costs was an important opportunity for German cinema to overcome the crisis of the time.
In 1913, “The Student of Prague“, directed by Paul Wegener and Stellan Rye, was one of the first steps towards the transition to expressionist films. With “The Student of Prague”, German cinema gave the most important signal of its exit from the Film d’Art hegemony.
The First World War Period
Cinemas of European countries filming during the First World War were hit by the destruction of their infrastructure and facilities. Furthermore, countries’ film crews and film equipment were deployed on and behind the front lines to document the war. German, British, French, Russian and Italian cinemas could not produce films independently of the state for a very long time.
In 1916, the German government started to impose an embargo on all foreign films due to the increased anti-Germanism. In 1917, German cinema was commissioned by the German government to document the war and to shoot propaganda films. All German cinema studios, crews and equipment entered into the service of the German Supreme Army Command. The new structure that would dominate the German film industry for a long time was named Universum Film-Aktien Gesellschaft (UFA).
With UFA, all studios, crews, equipment, filmmakers were centralized and turned into a single studio. UFA suddenly became the most important film producer in Europe due to its technical capabilities and continuous funding. While the number of films produced in Germany was 24 in 1914, this number increased to 130 in 1918 with the UFA. UFA’s high production capacity as well as the film shortage in the domestic market due to the embargo on foreign films had a significant effect on the increase in the number of films produced. After the war ended, UFA would become the world’s largest studio.
After the First World War
After Germany lost the war, the “The Weimar Republic” period, which would continue between 1918 and 1929, began. In this period, some new variables emerged that would trigger the German Expressionist films:
- Millions of dead, wounded and crippled people
- Psychologically broken society
- Infrastructure deficiencies
- Economic crisis, hyperinflation
- Conflict and disagreement with the countries that won the war, and embargoes
In such a chaotic environment, the UFA’s situation was very promising for German cinema. The UFA, which was centralized and financed for war, no longer had to produce for war. With the films shot during the war, the interest of the society in German films also increased. All of these factors allowed Expressionist film directors to go further beyond the boundaries in their films. Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau, Fritz Lang, Robert Wiene would take expressionist cinema to the highest level with their unusual narration methods and innovative visual designs. But what really triggered German Expressionism had not yet happened.
In 1920, Deutsche Eclair (Decla), an independent studio, shot “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” under the direction of Robert Wiene, using methods developed to overcome technical impossibilities. The movie was visually completely different from the films made until that day. The film succeeded in depictions made with make-up, light and shadows created with sharp border lines. In the film, 2-dimensional spaces and unreal perspectives were created by painting the decor with a light grey background with sharp lines in black. Again, with painting, light and shadows were created. With similar cinematographic by-passes, a masterpiece that changed the cinema was brought into being. “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” created reference points for the upcoming expressionist films with its allegorical story structure, set, decor, lighting, make-up, and costumes.
The number of Expressionist films increased in a very short time with the increase in society’s habit of going to movies, the funding of expressionist films by the UFA, and a reference film such as “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari”.
Some of the most prominent examples of German Expressionist films emerged under the production of UFA.
- Dr. Mabuse the Gambler (1922)
- Die Nibelungen (1924)
- The Last Laugh (1924)
- Metropolis (1927)
- Faust (1926)
The most important expressionist directors that UFA worked with in the early period were as follows: Ludwig Berger, Wilhelm Dieterle, Paul Czinner, Ewald André Dupont, Fritz Lang, Karl Grune, Ernst Lubitsch, Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau, Hanns Schwarz, Arthur Robison, Joe May, Paul L. Stein, Wilhelm Thiele.
During this period, Fritz Lang and Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau shaped German Expressionism and world cinema with their films, many of which were considered masterpieces.
End of German Expressionism
German cinema became even more known along with the atmosphere that normalized after the First World War. Expressionist directors made numerous films with their high productive abilities in the chaotic post-war environment. The recognition of Expressionist films and their directors peaked after the lifting of the embargoes on Germany.
Germany’s re-opening to foreign countries after the First World War caused critical disadvantages in important matters for German cinema.
The exchange rate was stabilized after the agreements made on a global scale in order to restructure and finance Germany after the war. The stabilized exchange rate made it less expensive to import films than to produce them.
After the lifting of the embargoes, Hollywood films became more popular than German films in the German cinema market. The market shares of German films shrank.
The increasing obligations of the UFA after the agreements signed with the American Paramount and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer caused the company to experience financial difficulties. The purpose of UFA’s agreements with American companies was to open up to the American market and the world, however, German cinema started to become American as a result of these agreements. Although it became one of the largest studios in the world after its merger with Decla, UFA’s film revenues did not meet expectations.
The economic independence and production capabilities of UFA, whose market share decreased, were negatively affected.
In the 1930s, German cinema, which survived the First World War with UFA, was tested with different dynamics this time. Along with UFA, the cinema industry also sank into an economic depression. Hollywood’s market shares in Germany expanded more than expected. The Nazi party, on the other hand, put pressure on the artists and tried to bring them into a new system of propaganda cinema.
In 1933, Adolf Hitler was appointed Chancellor of Germany. Joseph Goebbels was then brought to the 3rd Reich Ministry of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda (Reichsministerium für Volksaufklärung und Propaganda or Propagandaministerium). Goebbels and his team controlled all German media and art institutions, aiming to make their propaganda even stronger. The pressure that began to be exercised on filmmakers in the 1930s increased even more during this period. Many directors, writers, cinematographers, sound experts had to leave Germany due to pressure. Artists who left Germany preferred to go to Italy and France but mostly to America. During this period, famous names like Robert Siodmak, Billy Wilder, Otto Preminger, Paul Leni, F.W. Murnau left Germany. Fritz Lang immigrated to America and joined Paul Leni and F.W. Murnau.
German Cinema, which got stronger during the Weimar Period and did works beyond its age, lost its talented names. The shooting of expressionist films came to an end in a short time.
Characteristics of German Expressionism
The characteristics mentioned below form the framework of German Expressionism. There are not many films that could come close to “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari”, which offered all of these features together. For this reason, “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” is qualified as the reference film of German Expressionism.
- Films conveying feelings of pessimism, weirdness, and deprivation to the audience
- Anti-hero or demonic characters being at the centre of the story
- Criticism and allegorical structure in their stories
- The subjecting perspective of the films towards the story being told
- Exaggerated depictions in narration
- The appearance of dementia, paranoia, obsession, insanity and hysterical cases in films
- Geometric shapes, perspective, reflections and the enabling frames, mirrors, rails and stairs all becoming a part of the composition
- Including sharp shadows and light transitions in the frame
- Camera movements
- Use of special effects
The Influences of German Expressionism
German Expressionism emerged and went out of existence at a critical time. Between the two world wars, it undertook all the economic crises, pessimism, polarized nature and social conflicts of the period. Extremely dark and absurd films were shot, which would later become known as cults and classics. This showed points where cinema’s narrative forms could expand. The talents of cinema were reinvented. Expressionism found itself a prominent place in Film Noir with the horror and thriller film genres.
Horror cinema or many techniques used today for scenes with an element of horror first appeared in German Expressionist films. Sharp lights and shadows, surreal characters, dementia, absurd camera angles and many more soon became indispensable elements of horror films.
With the effects of the Second World War, many filmmakers migrated from Europe, especially Germany, to America. Just as German Expressionism turned into a form of self-expression of German filmmakers during the First World War, it would also form the basis of Film Noir, the method of expressing the traumas that American filmmakers would experience after the Second World War.
Billy Wilder, Otto Preminger, Alfred Hitchcock, Orson Welles, Carol Reed, and Michael Curtiz are directors who best revealed the influence of expressionism with their noir films.
Although the UFA played an important role in the production of expressionist films, it was a structure under the control of the government. UFA was a monopoly; its establishment was realized by closing, merging and expropriating several companies. The UFA could put pressure on and censor the directors to make propaganda films.
Expressionist Film List
*Films sorted by release year, from newest to oldest.
- Vampyr (1932) Carl Theodor Dreyer
- M (1931) Fritz Lang
- The Man Who Laughs (1928) Paul Leni
- Metropolis (1927) Fritz Lang
- Faust (1926) F.W. Murnau
- Tartuffe (1925) F.W. Murnau
- Waxworks (1924) Leo Birinsky, Paul Leni
- The Hands of Orlac (1924) Robert Wiene
- The Last Laugh (1924) F.W. Murnau
- Die Nibelungen: Siegfried (1924) Fritz Lang
- Die Nibelungen: Kriemhild’s Revenge (1924) Fritz Lang
- Warning Shadows (1923) Arthur Robison
- Dr. Mabuse the Gambler (1922) Fritz Lang
- Nosferatu (1922) F.W. Murnau
- Phantom (1922) F.W. Murnau
- Destiny (1921) Fritz Lang
- The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) Robert Wiene
- The Golem (1920) Carl Boese, Paul Wegener
- Nerves (1919) Robert Reinert
- The Student of Prague (1913) Paul Wegener, Stellan Rye
Allan Gray arrives in the village of Courtempierre and settles in a small inn. In the night, an old man enters Gray’s room to tell him “she must not die”. One of the old man’s daughters, Leone, has been bitten by a vampire. To break the curse, Gray and Gisele…➝
The German police force can not solve child murders that take place one after the other. The underground world comes into play when the people are now desperate in the face of the ongoing murders. The whole city (police, public, underworld) goes after the killer.
M is one of the best examples of German expressionist cinema. The film stands out with its story, twisted ending, architectural design, use of sound, light and shadow designs. Fritz Lang receive many death threats while he was shooting the film. The Nazi party tried to prevent the film from shooting. M is also Fritz Lang's favorite movie in his filmography.
Lord Clancharlie was sentenced to death after refusing to kiss King James II’s hand. A permanent smile is left on Lord Clancharlie’s son’s face with surgery to embarrass his father. The boy named Gwynplaine attends carnivals and becomes famous as The Smiling Man.
The Man Who Laughs is an adaptation of Victor Hugo's novel of the same name. DC Comics would use Gwynplaine's smile and face type for the Joker character in the Batman series.
In a futuristic city sharply divided between the working class and the city planners, the son of the city’s creator falls in love with a working-class prophet who fights against the class differences.
Metropolis is one of the critical turning points in film history. The movie has been the reference point for many futuristic films. Atmospheres similar to Metropolis were created in many dystopian science fiction films by the filmmakers. Blade Runner (1982) is one of the movies that most refer to Metropolis.
Mephisto bets God on Earth. The winner of the bet will be determined by whether Faust, who has devoted himself to wisdom, will surrender his soul to Mephisto. Mephisto descends to reach his goal.
Adapted from Goethe's novel of the same name, Faust became one of the most important German Expressionist films produced by UFA. The movie was also the last film F. W. Murnau shot in Germany. After directing Faust, Murnau moved to the United States.
A young man shows his millionaire grandfather a film based on Molière’s Tartuffe, in order to expose the old man’s hypocritical governess who covets his own inheritance.
William Dieterle accepts a job from a waxworks proprietor to write stories about the exhibits of Caliph of Baghdad, Ivan the Terrible and Jack the Ripper to boost waxwork business.
This film would be director Paul Leni's last film made in Germany. After directing Waxworks, Leni moved to the United States.
World-famous pianist Paul Orlac loses his hands after a tragic accident. To play the piano again, Orlac needs someone else’s hands. These new hands will cause Orlac to fight himself.
The Hands of Orlac is one of the best examples of personality conflict subject in the early stages of cinema. The atmosphere created by German Expressionism and the story fit together perfectly. These two elements will be used by Tim Burton in Edward Scissorhands years later, very similar to the original.
When an aging doorman for a prestigious hotel is demoted, his shame leads him to conceal the truth. But when the truth is discovered, he is ridiculed by his friends, neighbors and family.
Siegfried, son of King Sigmund, hears of the beautiful sister of Gunter, Kriemhild. On his way to reach Kriemhild, Siegfried hunts a dragon, finds an invisibility mask and he discovers hidden treasure. Siegfried has everything to get Kriemhild. Except for Gunter’s friendship.
Die Nibelungen can also be classified as a series of two films Die Nibelungen: Siegfried (1924) and Die Nibelungen: Kriemhild's Revenge (1924). Die Nibelungen film is based on The Song of the Nibelungs, a German poem around 1200 AD. Film is the most important epic fantasy film in German expressionist films and early cinema.
After her lover, Siegfried’s dead, Kriemhild marries Atilla, the great King of the Huns. She gives birth to a boy and invites her brothers for a party with the help of Atilla. It’s time for revenge.
A wealthy man invites the local wealthy bachelors over for a puppet show about men who covet another man’s wife. The puppeteer is a witch and she gives the men nightmares regarding her puppet show.
Dr. Mabuse is a mind-controlled psychoanalyst. He uses this ability in illegitimate ways such as removing wealth in casinos and speculating on the stock market. But not everything goes smoothly. Dr. Mabuse’s rapid rise sparks the suspicion of Attorney General Von Wenk.
Wisbourg based estate agent Knock commissions his associate, Hutter, to Count Orlok’s castle in Transylvania. Count Orlok wants to purchase an isolated house across the way from Hutter’s own home in Wisbourg Germany.
Nosferatu is the most critical reference film for the horror genre. F. W. Murnau has created the horror element of the film with a dull main character, slow movements, shadow-light design, and sharp camera angles. F. W. Murnau has faced legal troubles because the Nosferatu is an unauthorized adaptation of Bram Stoker's Dracula.
Lorenz Lubota is a city official with no purpose in life. On his way to work, he is crushed by a woman driving a carriage. Lorenz becomes obsessed with the female rider.
As a young couple stops and rests in a small village inn, the man is abducted by Death and imprisoned behind a doorless, windowless wall. The woman finds a mystic door to enter the wall and she meets Death. She starts to negotiate with Death to save her lover.
The catastrophic atmosphere and great story make Fritz Lang's Destiny one of the best German Expressionist films. Destiny is Fritz Lang's early masterpiece, with its special effects, set design, and storytelling.
At a carnival in Germany, Francis and his friend Alan encounter the crazed Dr. Caligari. The men see Caligari showing off his somnambulist, Cesare a hypnotized man who the doctor claims can see into the future. Cesare sees the future. What will happen in the future is death.
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari includes all the reference points of German Expressionist films. Dark characters, sharp lights and shadows, absurd camera angles, geometric shapes, allegoric story structure and a world that makes you feel insecure.
In 16th-century Prague, a rabbi creates the Golem – a giant creature made of clay. Using sorcery, he brings the creature to life in order to protect the Jews of Prague from persecution.
Factory owner Roloff loses his mind because of catastrophes and social disturbances in Germany. Roloff starts an unfair fight against the teacher Lehrer Johannes who turns into a radical revolutionary with the support of the masses. Lehrer Johannes also feels a secret love for Roloff’s sister.
Nerves reveals the effects of the Germany of the period, the class differences, the turbulent period of society and individuals.
A poor student rescues a beautiful countess and soon becomes obsessed with her. A sorcerer makes a deal with the young man to give him fabulous wealth and anything he wants
Best Expressionist Directors
- Fritz Lang
- Carl Theodor Dreyer
- Robert Reinert
- Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau
- Paul Wegener ve Stellan Rye