german expressionism

est. 1913 – 1930

German Expressionism stands out as one of the most distinctive styles in the era of silent film. Expressionism, as an artistic movement, originally emerged in poetry and the visual arts during the early 20th century, before finding its way into various fields like theater, architecture, and notably cinema around First World War.

Origins of German Expressionism

The movement was born in the tumultuous aftermath of World War I and the Weimar Republic’s fragile democracy. Despite the dire economic situation in the post-World War period, the German filmmaking business flourished. This success was attributed to the industry’s outstanding technical prowess but was predominantly driven by a national ban on most foreign films instituted in 1916. Regardless of the cinematic boom of this period, it is undeniable that the German population was grappling with profound social and economic challenges.

The Student of Prague (1913) by Stellan Rye
The Student of Prague (1913) by Stellan Rye
German Expressionism - The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) by Robert Wiene
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) by Robert Wiene

Characteristics of German Expressionism

At its core, German Expressionism sought to convey the inner turmoil, anxieties, and societal discord of the post-World War I era felt in Europe. Through distorted sets, dramatic lighting, and nightmarish landscapes, it offered a subjective representation of the world. The purpose of employing these stylistic elements is to evoke powerful emotions in the viewers while simultaneously narrating a tale or imparting a commentary on the societal backdrop of the period.

 

One of the most significant contributions of German Expressionism to cinema was its study of the human psyche. These films frequently delved into the inner workings of characters’ minds, emphasizing the emotional turmoil and mental states of the protagonists. This psychological depth was groundbreaking and laid the foundation for future cinematic narratives.

 

While the Italian term “chiaroscuro” is often used to describe the stark interplay of light and darkness, German film critic Lotte Eisner favored a term from her own language: “Helldunkel”, which she defined as “a kind of twilight of the German soul, manifesting itself in shadowy and enigmatic interiors or misty and ethereal landscapes”.

Important Filmmakers and Films

German Expressionism was a collaborative endeavor, propelled by a visionary ensemble of directors, cinematographers, and designers. Among the most distinguished figures within this film movement was Robert Wiene, the creative force behind the iconic “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” (1920). Wiene’s film epitomizes Expressionist cinema, distinguished by its surreal, distorted sets and with a narrative that delves into the darkest corners of imagination.

 

Fritz Lang, the genius behind many famous films, among them “Metropolis” (1927), a cinematic masterpiece that resonates as both visual and thematic landmark of the movement. “Metropolis” embarked on a profound exploration of the consequences of industrialization and the dehumanizing effects of technology on society.

Metropolis (1927) by Friz Lang
Metropolis (1927) by Friz Lang

Legacy and Influence of German Expressionism

Influence of Expressionist films extended far beyond the borders of Germany. Many filmmakers who fled the political turmoil of Europe in the 1920s and 1930s, one of them being Fritz Lang, brought the aesthetic and storytelling techniques of Expressionist film with them to Hollywood. This migration of talent led to the creation of iconic films in American cinema, such as “Dracula” (1931) and “Frankenstein” (1931), which borrowed heavily from the German Expressionist tradition, as well as famous classic of the Golden Age of Hollywood such as “Citizen Kane” (1941), with the whole film noir genre.


German Expressionism remains a pivotal movement in the history of film. Its haunting visuals, psychological depth, and willingness to explore the darkest aspects of the human condition continue to captivate and inspire filmmakers and audiences alike. The movement’s impact on Hollywood and world cinema is immeasurable, and its legacy lives on in countless iconic films that owe their existence to the daring artistry of German Expressionism.

M (1931) by Friz Lang
M (1931) by Friz Lang

Please refer to the Listed Films for the recommended works associated with the film movement.