German expressionist cinema – a beginner’s guide

german expressionist cinema

Literati! Vampire-lovers! Silent movie temptresses! Stop whatever you’re doing and read our insanely awesome guide to German Expressionism NOW. Tim Burton loves it and so will you. Do it… or we will beat you with the culture stick.

That dark and twisted landscape wracked with tortured souls is not the latest Tim Burton film! It’s a masterpiece by Wiene, Murnau or Lang. German Expressionistic film began in 1920 and lasted until 1927/33 (depending on various points of view.) It has influenced many horror and noir films, and – you guessed it – director Tim Burton.

The year was 1918. The German government had just signed the Armistice, which called a halt to the First World War. The country suffered colossal damage physically, economically, psychologically and emotionally. The spirits of the people were low.

It was around this time that German Expressionism was most prolific. As an artistic movement it made use of an extreme visual style that influenced – amongst other things – cinema. But what was German Expressionism, and why was it so important? To the flipchart!

The conventions of Expressionism

Everyone is familiar with the formula of Tim Burton: Twisted landscapes, insane or evil characters and a more than morbid plot line. Copy and paste this back a century and you have the conventions of German Expressionism…

The conventions of German Expressionism

  • External representation of internal emotion – this means that if the main character is in a “dark place” emotionally, then the setting must reflect that
  • Insanity/Obsession
  • Evil/Insane/Obsessive characters
  • Crime or the criminal underworld
  • Urban settings
  • Jagged lines and banding – often created by painting designs on the set
  • Twisted architecture – such as spiral staircases and ominous arches
  • Chiaroscuro – extreme lighting that incorporates dark shadows and bright patches of light, typically associated with Film Noir
  • Silent – intertitles are used to fill in important dialogue. However, dialogue is secondary to behaviour of figure and the mise-en-scene
  • Shot purely within a studio – no expensive location shoots!

Sadly, these conventions in their purest form were but a flash in the pan of cinematic history. With the popularity of Hollywood cinema, Expressionism faded into arthouse obscurity. Fortunately, some of these conventions have survived in the form of Horror and Film Noir.

Nosferatu (F.W Murnau, 1922)

German Expressionism

German Expressionism

Although not pure Expressionism, (Murnau included aspects of Romanticism and broke the golden rule of studio location) Nosferatu is one of the biggest vampire films of all time. Move over sparkly, pansy Edward Cullen… Count Orlok is here and he certainly does not want to mollycoddle his “love interest”.

The plotline is a rip-off from Bram Stoker’s “Dracula” – Stoker’s widow refused Murnau the rights to the novel – but this does nothing to detract from the stunning cinematography or the bone-chilling and iconic climax of the film.

Watch Nosferatu – the full movie

See F. W. Murnau’s 1920s masterpiece starring Max Schreck as the vampire Count Orlok on YouTube or watch below.

Buy Nosferatu (Definitive Fully-restored version with original score) [Masters of Cinema] [1921] [DVD] on Amazon

NOTE: In the Intertitles the character names are from Dracula. In actual fact, the names are thus:

    • Dracula – Count Orlok
    • Jonathon Harker – Thomas Hutter
    • Nina – Ellen
    • Renfield – Knock

Other films to look out for by Murnau

Faust (1926)

Sunrise (1927)

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (Robert Wiene, 1920)

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This is possibly the quintessential Expressionist film. It was recently rumoured that Tim Burton was going to direct a re-make, but why re- make it when it is already perfect? The studio set of Caligari, a tale of madness and obsession, is turned into a nightmare landscape with jagged light painting and twisted trees. Although the characters are 2D, and the plot seemingly very uncomplicated, this film is one of my favourites. The simple “police-chase” narrative belies the film’s complexity and fantastically jaw-dropping conclusion.

Watch The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919) – Full Movie

Buy The Cabinet of Dr Caligari [DVD] [1919] on Amazon

NOTE: In the original the intertitles are designed to fit in with the design of the set, but in this version they are made so it is easier to read.

Metropolis (Fritz Lang, 1927)

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Buy Metropolis — Two Disc Special Edition [DVD] [1927]

Often considered the swan song of German Expressionism, Metropolis is an epic tale of love, jealousy, betrayal, debauchery, rebellion and machine men, all set in a buzzing Art Deco metropolis (see what I did there?).

When watching this film it is hard to remember that it was made only seven years after The Cabinet of Dr Caligari. Technology had advanced at an alarming rate, and the days of locked off camera were at an end. Indeed, the camera plays a big role in many of the sequences, adding meaning and significance to the narrative.

Metropolis is a biggie in film history. After its premiere in Berlin it was cut substantially to make it a suitable length for British and American audiences. However, as the years went on, more and more of the film was lost. In 2008 a copy of the film was discovered in Buenos Aires, the most complete version to date. According to Wikipedia, two more copies were discovered in Australia and New Zealand that included different missing scenes. After a year of restoration the film is now at its most complete, running at 145 minutes. Some key scenes are still missing, but those are filled in with a black screen and intertitles informing the audience of what is meant to be happening.

Other films to look out for by Fritz Lang

“M” (1931)

Dr. Mabuse the Gambler (1922)

Further Reading

Well, obviously you haven’t got nearly enough German Expressionism under your belt. You crave more. What sensible person wouldn’t? We shall feed your lust, as is our wont.

What is German Expressionism?

What Wikipedia has to say about German Expressionism (chatty beast, isn’t it?)

Wikipedia goes on to whisper gently in your ear about Romanticism

Glossary of terms

    • Intertitles-text in a silent film that informs the audience of dialogue or items that are being read. They are often look like part of the mise-en-scene of the film setting/world
    • Mise-en-scene- The overall look and feel of a film world. The aspects of mise-en-scene are behaviour of figure, costume, lighting and setting
    • Behaviour of figure – the way in which a character behaves to convey personality and intent
    • Locked off camera – when a camera doesn’t move. Kind of like watching a play from the stalls of a theatre