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German Expressionism in Cinema Research Paper

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Updated: Oct 22nd, 2020


German expressionism refers to a combination of multiple movements that were started in Germany in the 1920’s with the aim of promoting creative arts. The advent of the movements was greatly inspired by a similar course that was being promoted across northern and central Europe called expressionism. The main disciplines supported by the movement were sculpture, painting, cinema, architecture, and dancing (Roberts 17). This movement took a short time spreading to major cities across Germany. Berlin gave the movement its most vibrant and noticeable reception. Its theme was to promote creativity by rejecting western conventions about art, which entailed depicting real events in a distorted manner in order to create emotional effects (Eisner 101).

The expressionists were also opposed to the use of extras such as bright colors in paintings and movies because they made it hard for the audience to be in touch with reality. They believed that the real value of creative arts was embodied in the ability of the viewer to connect with the world rather than the aesthetic satisfaction. Studies have established that expressionists were greatly influenced by the artwork of Vincent van Gogh, El Greco, and Edvard Munch among others (Brockmann 300). The film industry was one of the areas of the German culture on which the movement had a considerable impact. Germany is considered a home to expressionist movies owing to the fact that during the few years that preceded the World War I, the government was isolated from the rest of the world and eventually banned any foreign films from being shown across the country.


Many analysts argue that the internal challenges Germany was dealing with and the decision to engage in World War I were the major factors that influenced the birth of the German expressionism. At the time, the government sought ways of restoring the country from serious economic woes and poor relations with other countries (Brockmann 309). In addition, the borders were closed, thus leaving the citizens with little choice other than searching for locally produced films. This led to the idea of creating a movement that would empower people through promotion of art. Following the launch of the movement, many studios, theatres, and production houses were set up across the country in a bid to tap the existing talent (Eisner 128). Since the government had banned foreign films, the demand for expressionist movies grew at a high rate, as the global audience wanted to savor the highly popularized experience.

The impact was also felt by filmmakers across Europe, as they easily fell to the temptation of trying out the style used in the films. The universal style of expressionist films was the manner in which the audience connected and related with the inner experiences of the characters (Eisner 133). The German expressionism movement started a revolution in the global film industry that was characterized by a change of films from just a pure narration of reality to representation of the character’s emotions using a variety of themes. The producers used altered feelings of characters to create a specific mood that would reflect the reality told in each story (Roberts 25). It is important to note that the expressionism movement also sought to produce movies that would suit the needs and demands of the audience. This means that the films were produced using stories that the viewers would easily understand and relate to on a broader scope.

Most of the initial expressionism movies told the stories of the World War I and challenges that the Germans were experiencing because of their government’s involvement in the war (Brockmann 331). In addition, the horrifying experiences that the people involved in the war went through formed a good basis for producing horror movies. Some of the notable expressionist films that impressed most of the viewers included the 1927 Metropolis by Fritz Lang and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari produced in 1920 by Robert Wiene. According to the producers of these movies, their biggest motivation was the ability to provide their audience with interesting and interactive stories without changing their reality. Along with other famous filmmakers such as Tim Burton and Werner Herzog, they effectively shared the experiences of Germans during the World War I in films that are still being shown in cinemas across the world several years after they were released (Roberts 41). Most of the people that watch the films for the first time, often appreciate the manner in which the state of societies at the time was clearly showcased. In addition, the aspect of an historical time captured and told through the camera also intrigues the imaginations of most viewers (Donahue 116). The films showed the various ways that the people used to interact, communicate, and entertain themselves.

Expressionism in cinema

The concept of expressionism in cinema was developed out of the need to use film as a way of communicating with the world through art. Some of the common German expressionists, who played a pivotal role in creating and popularizing the concept, include August Macke, Alfred Kubin, Otto Dix, and Emil Nolde among others (Brockmann 357). One of the characteristic elements of German expressionist films was the contrasting effect of light and darkness. Most of the films had a dark theme, which created room for other features such as asymmetrical camera angles to be applied effectively. One of the common film genres that developed out of the expressionist nature of German cinema is horror (Roberts 200). This genre was influenced by the numerous shocking cases of cruelty and inhuman events of the World War I that were shown and highlighted in various films. One of the famous horror films released during and after the war is The Golem and The Dancing Girl. The film became very popular with audiences across Europe as soon as it was released with most of them relating closely with the events depicted in the story. In addition, the film also played a major role in popularizing the horror genre (Donahue 120).

After the war, many parts of Europe were badly damaged and people had the task of restoring the lost glory (Eisner 213). The filmmakers took the opportunity and captured the situation through cameras as part of sharing the reality of the time with the world, as well as creating a point of reference for future generations. In particular, Germany was greatly affected by the war in terms of its financial situation and national cohesion. The stories were told in a real manner without the temptation of creating emotions. The expressionist nature of the films was also influenced by the resentments expressed by the Germans over the decision made by their government to engage in the war without informing them of the impending consequences (Roberts 224). This phenomenon made the filmmakers choose not to alter the stories because they would erode the real experiences and feelings of the characters involved. This aspect gave German films a competitive edge in the market at the time over other emerging industries such as Hollywood. During the 1920’s, expressionism managed to introduce several techniques in the global film industry, most of which are still being applied albeit with a few improvements.

Expression of architecture in cinema

Expressionist films have been closely linked with the growth and development experienced in the architecture industry across Europe and other parts of the world. In the films, many buildings with different architectural designs are often showcased. The architectural industry has benefited a lot from expressionist films, which highlight some of the strongest elements of the field such as height, sharp angles, and the ability to create monuments (Lewis 136). In addition, the refusal by filmmakers to give a naturalistic depiction of reality influenced architects to come up with better and modern housing designs. It is important to note that the first filmmakers in Berlin used the existing architecture to design stage sets for their plays in theatre and for filming purposes.

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is a good example of a film that gave a good expression of the relationship between cinema and architecture. The producer of the film engaged the services of painters and architects who helped in designing the stage. The most notable elements of the stage used in shooting the film, included buildings with twisted designs and curving lines that emphasized on height (Lewis 148). These elements played a major role in conveying the message of the story in the most realistic way possible. For example, lighting was used variably in scenes where the real experience was scary or even thrilling. In horror films, the producers often designed the set using the architectural designs that depicted a dark and scary environment. It is important to note that the portrayal of architecture in expressionist films played a pivotal role in the development of new housing designs, as the different camera angles used by producers influenced more creativity (Brockmann 402).

Development of the film industry in other parts

Studies have established that the element of expressing inner feelings through a distorted rendition of reality as applied in the films slowly spread to the United States and made a huge impact on the development of Hollywood (Wallis 30). At the time, Hollywood movies had not developed a technique of using various architectural designs to great effect in films. Due to increased collaboration and exchange programs with German filmmakers, other countries managed to build their own industries that produced films with high influence of German expressionism. However, this development later on resulted in a negative impact on the German film industry, especially after the local currency had stabilized in the global market (Lewis 202).

Most people in the country started getting movies from other parts of Europe and the United States because they were cost effective compared to those produced locally. In addition, most of the films were applying the concept of expressionism, thus the audience did not find them any much different from the ones they were used to watching. This marked the end to the careers of many German film producers who slowly found it hard competing with the rest of the world and relocated to more stable industries across the world (Wallis 34). Research has established that a number of them moved to Hollywood. This is evidenced by the fact that horror is one of the popular film genres produced in Hollywood that have direct influence from the German expressionism (Lewis 229). Over the years, the universal studios have managed to cut a niche for its self in the film industry as one of the best producers of horror films in the world. Lon Chaney is one of the most successful producers, and is behind the famous film called the Phantom of the Opera.


German expressionism was an artistic movement started in the early 20th Century. The philosophy of the movement emphasized on the artist’s subjective expression of inner experiences. In films, the concept applied in a manner that an inner feeling was expressed through a distorted rendition of reality. The first German expressionist films were produced in the 1920’s, at a time when the country was in great need of entertainment sourced locally. Since then, the movement has become a huge force in the global film industry as evidenced in the way producers across Europe and from the United States have adopted the concept of expressionism in their films. Research has established that German expressionism had the greatest influence on the development of two film genres, namely horror and noir. Noir refers to movies marked with moods of pessimism, fatalism, menace, and cynical characters, while horror refers to intense movies characterized by profound fear.

Works Cited

Brockmann, Stephen. A Critical History of German Film. Camden House, 2010.

Donahue, Neil. A Companion to the Literature of German Expressionism. Camden House, 2005.

Eisner, Lotte. The Haunted Screen: Expressionism in the German Cinema and the Influence of Max Reinhardt. University of California Press, 2008.

Lewis, Jon. Essential Cinema: An Introduction to Film Analysis. Cengage Learning, 2013.

Roberts, Ian. German Expressionist Cinema: The World of Light and Shadow. Wallflower Press, 2008.

Wallis, Tom. Film: A Critical Introduction. Laurence King Publishing, 2005.

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