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, before finding its way into various fields like theater, architecture, and notably cinema around the time of the First World War.

Origins of German Expressionism

German Expressionism originated in the early 20th century as an artistic movement in painting, theater, architecture, and literature. Artists such as Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Wassily Kandinsky, and Emil Nolde rejected naturalistic representation in favor of distorted forms, vivid colors, and exaggerated emotions. This artistic movement provided a visual language that would deeply influence Expressionist filmmakers. Additionally, they drew inspiration from the rich tradition of German Romanticism and Gothic literature, with its emphasis on the supernatural, the macabre, and the irrational.


The movement was born in the 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. This restriction forced German filmmakers to develop their own unique styles and narratives, leading to an explosion of creativity and innovation in the industry. Regardless of the cinematic boom of this period, it is undeniable that the German population was grappling with social, psychological, and economic challenges. Expressionist cinema emerged as a response to this turmoil.


The socio-political climate of the time, marked by instability and disillusionment, heavily influenced the themes and aesthetics of German Expressionist films. The horrors and traumas of the war, coupled with the uncertainty of the Weimar Republic era, were reflected in the stark, often grotesque imagery and themes of madness, betrayal, and existential dread. This era of film was not just an artistic endeavor but also a means for filmmakers to process and comment on the tumultuous reality around them.

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 was to evoke powerful emotions in the viewers while simultaneously narrating a tale or presenting a commentary on the societal backdrop of the period. This movement aimed to present a reality that was more emotional and psychological than literal.


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. Characters in Expressionist films often found themselves in surreal and oppressive environments that mirrored their internal struggles, blurring the lines between reality and hallucination.


The visual style of German Expressionist films is among its most defining features. The use of chiaroscuro, or the stark interplay of light and darkness, created a haunting and otherworldly atmosphere. German film critic Lotte Eisner favored the term “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.” This technique heightened the emotional impact of the scenes, adding a sense of mystery and unease. The exaggerated, angular set designs, with their sharp contrasts and skewed perspectives, contributed to a feeling of disorientation and emphasized the distorted reality that the characters inhabited.


The movement’s unique approach to set design and architecture played a crucial role in creating its distinctive aesthetic. Sets were often constructed in a manner that defied naturalistic representation, featuring jagged lines, twisted shapes, and an overall sense of instability. These elements were used to symbolize the fractured state of the world and the characters’ psyches. The use of painted shadows and stark contrasts further enhanced the surreal and nightmarish quality of these environments, making them integral to the storytelling process. German Expressionist films also employed innovative camera techniques and special effects to enhance their storytelling. Techniques such as double exposure, miniatures, and creative use of camera angles allowed filmmakers to create visually stunning and thematically rich scenes.

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

Important Filmmakers and Films

German Expressionism was a collaborative endeavor, propelled by visionary 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. His visual style had a great impact on the development of science fiction and thriller genres.


Another notable and influential figure was F.W. Murnau. His early film Nosferatu (1922), is a seminal work in the horror genre, showcasing his mastery of atmospheric lighting, innovative camera techniques, and psychological depth. Murnau is regarded as one of the greatest silent filmmakers.

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 classics of the Golden Age of Hollywood such as “Citizen Kane” (1941), and the whole Film Noir genre.


German Expressionist film 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 artistry of German Expressionism.

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

Refer to the Listed Films for the recommended works associated with the movement. Also, check out the rest of the Film Movements on our website.