Expressionism was among the fundamental movements in the history of cinema. As in other arts, expressionism aimed to bring the emotions of the characters to the fore. Expressionism’s view of the world is extremely subjective, emotional and non-rational. The unconscious and its most ancestral fears come to life in the work.
Expressionism was born in Europe, in the early 1900s, which lasted until the end of the 1920s. Find the most fertile ground to take root in Germany, a country where an unhealthy atmosphere reigns at that time, while Nazism asserted itself. An atmosphere masterfully rendered by a partially expressionist film such as M, A City Searches for a Murderer, direct by Fritz Lang. In German cities one gets the impression of being able to meet “evil” around the corner: a feeling of omnipresent anguish.
What does expressionism mean? Expressionism, as the word itself says, is the opposite of impressionism. A way of expressing himself that brings the soul and the subjective feeling of the artist to the outside. The sets, the lights and the characters take on extremely unreal, distorted, hallucinatory and grotesque forms. The lights are sharp and contrasted.
The Subjective and Inner World
The objective world of impressionism and rationalism does not exist. Reality is the mirror of the unconscious of the author of the work of art, often of his deep fears. The unconscious creates reality.
In contemporary times we can see that the success of expressionism went beyond the movements that believed in the objectivity of reality. All new age movements, personal growth, life coaching are in some way related to the theories of expressionism. That is, they claim that objective reality does not exist. That we ourselves create the world around us and all the events and conditions in which our life flows.
German expressionism, however, was born in a dark period. Wars, famines, rationality and positivism that crushed the personalities of the individual, the rise to power of totalitarian regimes. The expressionism of the twenties and twenties is associated with dark, gloomy, gloomy images. Disturbing shadows crawling on the walls, as in Nosferatu by William Murnau, one of the major directors influenced by expressionist cinema.
The theoretical fathers of expressionism are deep psychologists like Freud and Jung, or the philosophers of inner time and consciousness like Henri Bergson. The exponents of expressionism were openly inspired by the themes of Romanticism. But even if they rejected symbolism, it is easy to see the influences that the symbols had on the movement.
Expressionism and Painting
Symbolist painters, with the use of strong colors, shapes and figures drawn in a sharp and sometimes violent way, wanted to express their subjectivity like the Expressionists. But their cultural references were not easily understood. A way of working that did not appeal to the expressionists who considered it too difficult to reach a non-elitist audience.
Among the forerunners of the expressionist movement were the painters Munch, Matisse, Van Gogh. Their radical expressiveness of the inner world characterized them through violent colors, the incisiveness of the sign and the use of disused wood engraving.
Among the painters of the school of German Expressionism we highlight the use of deformation of bodies and landscapes, the use of sharp lines and the refusal to use perspective to make the image realistic. The images are flat and fragmented by the lines. What interests them most is expressing the desperation and violent feelings of the subjects they represent. An often gloomy and pessimistic vision.
After painting, Expressionism involves all the arts: from literature to theater, from music to cinema.
Expressionism and Cinema
The most important expressionist films were mainly produced by the German film production house Ufa. The historical boundaries of expressionism are not precise because other related currents follow pure expressionism, such as kammerspiel and The new objectivity . Movement reaches the cinema especially between the 10s and the 20s of the twentieth century.
Many critics and historians agree that Robert Wiene’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is the only true expressionist film. But the films of Murnau, Lang and Pabst are also considered partially expressionist. Expressionist cinema has as its main characteristic that of distorting reality in a visionary and hallucinated universe with the help of special effects, and above all with light and shadows.
The stories revolve around the supernatural world, the mystery. They are full of dark and evil atmospheres with an exasperated and emotionally strong style. Ghost towns or dizzying architecture like Fritz Lang’s Metropolis are examples of this. Geometric scenographies with angular corners. Heavily made-up faces of demonic or persecuted characters. Painted or real scenography in which the characters move as if imprisoned in a labyrinth.
Expressionist Cinema: Films to Watch
Here is an essential selection of films from German Expressionist cinema, and beyond, that you absolutely must see.
The Student of Prague (1913)
“The Student of Prague” is a silent film directed by Stellan Rye in 1913. This film is considered one of the early examples of horror cinema and represents a milestone in the history of filmmaking.
The plot of the film is an adaptation of the famous Faust legend and tells the story of a young student, portrayed by Paul Wegener, who makes a pact with the devil to obtain a more perfect and charming version of himself. This film is known for its innovative camera techniques and for being one of the first examples of using special effects to create the illusion of double exposure and the duplication of the main character.
“The Student of Prague” was a significant contribution to German Expressionist cinema and is known for its gothic atmosphere and visually stunning style. This film has influenced many directors and is considered a classic of horror cinema and auteur filmmaking.
“Waxworks ” (“Das Wachsfigurenkabinett” in German) is a silent film directed by Paul Leni in 1924. This is an early example of German horror and fantasy cinema.
The film’s plot consists of several separate stories, each based on a character from a wax figure in a wax museum. The stories are connected by a common narrative thread involving the museum owner and his assistant. The film features gothic atmospheres and a series of horror and bizarre scenes.
“Waxworks ” is known for its visually stunning style and its eerie representations. Director Paul Leni was a pioneer in the horror film genre and contributed to defining some of its conventions. This film is considered an important contribution to the history of fantasy and horror cinema.
The Golem (1920)
“The Golem” (“Der Golem” in German) is a silent film directed by Paul Wegener and Carl Boese in 1920. It is a classic of German Expressionist cinema and is known for its contribution to the horror genre.
The film’s plot is inspired by Jewish folklore and centers around the creation of a clay monster, the Golem, by a rabbi in medieval Prague. Initially created to protect the Jewish community, the Golem ultimately becomes a destructive force when it goes out of control. The film explores themes of power, responsibility, and the consequences of playing with forces beyond one’s control.
“The Golem” is famous for its striking set design and visual effects, which were innovative for the time. Paul Wegener, who also played the title role, is recognized for his portrayal of the Golem. This film is regarded as a significant work in the history of horror cinema and has left a lasting impact on the genre.
“Genuine” is a silent film directed by Robert Wiene in 1920. Robert Wiene is the same director known for the famous film “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari,” and “Genuine” is another example of his contribution to German Expressionist cinema.
The plot of “Genuine” revolves around a mysterious woman whose charm has the power to seduce and corrupt men. The film explores themes of obsession and manipulation through the use of extravagant symbols and imagery typical of Expressionism.
Like many Expressionist films, “Genuine” is known for its unique and extravagant visual style. Wiene uses elaborate sets and intricate designs to create a surreal and eerie cinematic world. The film represents one of the many visual art pieces of the Expressionist era and contributes to its distinctive legacy in cinema.
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)
“The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” (German: “Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari”) is a German silent film directed by Robert Wiene and released in 1920. It is an iconic work of German Expressionist cinema and one of the most influential films in the history of cinema.
The story is set in a small German village and follows the protagonist, Francis, as he recounts his disturbing experience with Dr. Caligari. Dr. Caligari is a hypnotist who uses a sleepwalker named Cesare to commit a series of murders while asleep. The film is known for its fragmented and dreamlike narrative, creating a sense of madness and paranoia.
“The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” is widely regarded as one of the early examples of the Expressionist movement in cinema. The film’s visual style is characterized by distorted sets, extravagant use of light and shadow, and bold contrast to create a distorted and surreal world that reflects the mental state of the characters.
The film has had a lasting influence on generations of filmmakers. Its visual style and complex storytelling have inspired directors like Tim Burton, David Lynch, and Terry Gilliam, and its impact can be seen in many subsequent horror and thriller films.
Some critics have interpreted the film as a critique of social conformity and the manipulation of power. Dr. Caligari represents authority and control, while Cesare the sleepwalker can be seen as an individual devoid of free will, compelled to commit violent acts.
The film is also known for its unexpected twist ending, which challenges audience expectations and raises questions about the nature of reality within the story.
“The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” is considered a masterpiece of silent cinema and one of the most significant films in cinematic history. Its influence on cinema, especially in the horror and psychological thriller genres, still endures today, and its distinctive visual style continues to inspire visual artists worldwide.
Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler (1922)
“Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler” (“Dr. Mabuse, der Spieler” in German) is a silent film directed by Fritz Lang in 1922. This is one of the early significant films in Lang’s career and is considered a classic of German cinema.
The film’s plot revolves around Dr. Mabuse, a brilliant criminal and gambler who uses tricks and deception to manipulate and exploit people. The film follows his criminal activities and the detective who tries to stop him. “Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler” is known for its intricate plot and the characterization of its enigmatic protagonist.
This film was a major success in Germany at the time and established Fritz Lang as one of the leading directors of his generation. It is known for its deep psychological and societal themes and its distinctive visual style, which influenced many later directors. “Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler” is a significant contribution to German Expressionist cinema and the crime film genre.
Nosferatu, a Symphony of Horror (1922)
“Nosferatu, a Symphony of Horror” (“Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens” in German) is a silent film directed by Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau in 1922. It is one of the early significant films to adapt Bram Stoker’s Dracula story, albeit without permission from the author, leading to legal controversies.
The film’s plot follows the story of a real estate agent, Hutter, who is sent to Transylvania to negotiate the sale of a house to Nosferatu, a vampire. The film is known for its portrayal of the vampire, played by Max Schreck, characterized by a terrifying and iconic appearance.
“Nosferatu” is considered one of the early vampire movies and a masterpiece of German Expressionist cinema. It is known for its use of light and shadow, gothic atmosphere, and Schreck’s portrayal as one of the most frightening vampires in the history of cinema. Despite the legal controversy, the film has left an indelible mark on cinematic culture and remains an icon of horror cinema to this day.
The Street (1923)
“The Street” (Die Straße) is a 1923 German silent film directed by Karl Grune. This film is recognized as an example of German Expressionist cinema and is based on a story by Heinrich Zille.
The film’s plot follows a young mother, Maria, and her young son as they struggle to survive in the dark and grimy streets of an unnamed city. As they try to escape poverty, they encounter a range of characters, some compassionate and others ruthless, as they seek to find a better life.
“The Street” is notable for its portrayal of alienation and despair in urban society at the time. It utilizes expressionistic aesthetics to emphasize the bleak and oppressive atmosphere of the city streets. The film is considered a classic of German silent cinema and is appreciated for its contribution to the Expressionist genre.
“Faust” is a 1926 film directed by Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau. This film is an adaptation of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s famous play “Faust,” one of the most celebrated works in German literature.
The film’s plot follows the story of Faust, a disillusioned doctor eager to uncover the secrets of the universe. Faust makes a pact with the devil, Mephistopheles, in which he trades his soul for power and youth. The film explores themes of temptation, redemption, and the struggle between good and evil.
“Faust” is known for its extraordinary cinematography and innovative use of special effects for its time. Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau was an influential director in the cinema of that era and is also known for his work on “Nosferatu the Vampire” (1922). “Faust” is considered one of his masterpieces and one of the most significant films in German silent cinema.
“Destiny” (Schicksal) is a silent film from 1921-1922 directed by Fritz Lang. This film is an adaptation of the novel “Destiny” (Der Regisseur) written by Hans Müller-Einigen.
The film’s plot follows the story of a theater director who faces various personal and professional challenges as he tries to run his theater company. The film explores themes of destiny, passion, and human conflicts.
“Destiny” is one of Fritz Lang’s early works before his fame with films like “Metropolis” (1927) and “M – The Monster of Düsseldorf” (1931). It’s not as well-known as some of his later films but still showcases Lang’s early directorial skills and provides an interesting glimpse into his evolving career.
“Metropolis” is a groundbreaking silent film directed by Fritz Lang in 1927. It’s a science fiction masterpiece and one of the most iconic films in the history of cinema.
The plot of “Metropolis” is set in a dystopian future where society is divided into two classes: the wealthy elite who live in luxury above ground and the oppressed workers who toil in harsh conditions below ground. The story follows the son of the city’s ruler who discovers the plight of the workers and seeks to bridge the gap between the classes.
Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis” is renowned for its innovative special effects, stunning set design, and visionary storytelling. It has had a profound influence on the science fiction genre and remains a classic in cinematic history. The film’s themes of social inequality and human resilience continue to be relevant today.
“M” (M – Eine Stadt sucht einen Mörder) is a film directed by Fritz Lang in 1931. This is an important German film and is known as one of the early sound films.
The film’s plot follows the hunt for a serial killer terrorizing the city of Düsseldorf, Germany. The criminal, portrayed by Peter Lorre, is a child molester and murderer. The community decides to capture the criminal on their own, leading to a manhunt involving both the police and the city’s criminals.
“M” is an influential film that helped establish Fritz Lang as one of the great directors of cinema. It is known for its dark atmosphere and exploration of themes of social alienation and justice. Peter Lorre’s performance in the role of the criminal is particularly acclaimed. The film is a classic of world cinema and is considered one of the greatest films ever made.
The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (1933)
“The Testament of Dr. Mabuse” (Das Testament des Dr. Mabuse) is a film directed by Fritz Lang in 1933. This film is the sequel to Lang’s famous 1922 silent film, “Dr. Mabuse the Gambler.”
The plot of the film follows the police investigation to stop a criminal organization led by an enigmatic mastermind, Dr. Mabuse. This character is a criminal genius who plans and orchestrates a series of complex criminal acts. The story explores themes of madness, mind control, and the conflict between good and evil.
“The Testament of Dr. Mabuse” is notable for being made during the emerging era of sound cinema and for its creative use of sound and visual effects. It is considered a classic of German cinema and an important example of the psychological thriller genre. Fritz Lang created a film that continues to influence film noir and suspense cinema to this day.
“Frankenstein” is a film directed by James Whale in 1931 and is one of the most iconic productions in horror cinema. This film is one of the earliest and most influential cinematic adaptations of Mary Shelley’s novel, “Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus.”
The plot follows Dr. Henry Frankenstein, portrayed by Colin Clive, as he attempts to create a human creature through scientific experiments and the procurement of body parts from cadavers. The creature, portrayed by Boris Karloff, comes to life but becomes a destructive force.
James Whale’s film “Frankenstein” is known for its dark atmosphere, Boris Karloff’s extraordinary performance as the creature, and its exploration of themes such as scientific ethics, responsibility, and alienation. It is considered a classic of horror cinema and has helped define the iconic image of the Frankenstein monster. This film was pivotal in the history of cinema and continues to be a milestone in the horror genre.
The Blue Angel (1930)
“The Blue Angel” (Der blaue Engel) is a film directed by Josef von Sternberg in 1930. This film is renowned for being the first German sound film and is one of the masterpieces of German cinema and director Josef von Sternberg.
The plot of the film revolves around a respected high school professor, portrayed by Emil Jannings, who falls in love with a burlesque dancer named Lola, played by Marlene Dietrich, who performs at the Blue Angel, a decadent nightclub. The professor becomes ensnared in his passion for Lola and gradually loses his status and dignity, ending up performing alongside her at the club.
“The Blue Angel” is known for launching Marlene Dietrich’s career and for its decadent and dark atmosphere. It is a film that explores themes of loss of dignity, obsession, and moral decay. Dietrich’s performance was acclaimed and helped make her an internationally renowned star. The film is a classic of German Expressionist cinema.