German expressionism is one of the most recognisable styles of silent cinema, although it can sometimes be slippery to define. Expressionism is an artistic mode that first appeared in poetry and the visual arts at the beginning of the 20th century, before moving into fields such as theatre, architecture and cinema following the First World War. Offering a subjective representation of the world, expressionism descends partly from German Romanticism and reveals the angst of its human figures through their distorted, nightmarish surroundings.
In cinema it is most particularly associated with tilting, impossible sets, high angles and deep shadows. The Italian term chiaroscuro is often used to describe the high-contrast arrangement of light and darkness, but German film critic Lotte Eisner preferred a term from her own language: Helldunkel, which she defined as “a sort of twilight of the German soul, expressing itself in shadowy, enigmatic interiors, or in misty, insubstantial landscapes”.
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German expressionist cinema flourished after the battlefield horrors of the war, and the economic devastation caused by its aftermath. There are a few films that can be described as pure German expressionism, such as the landmark The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), but while the movement thrived during the Weimar years, it became diluted and intermixed with other styles, including the ‘Neue Sachlichkeit’ (new objectivity) of realist street films. This variation would endure for decades in the sharp angles and pooling shadows of classic film noir.
Fritz Lang’s Destiny (1921), for example, re-released in cinemas on 9 June, contains many distinct expressionist elements, but as Eisner herself argues, it adds in many other styles too, becoming at one point a parody of the form itself. If you want to experience the breadth of German expressionist silents, there are a few classic examples made by the artists who called themselves “apocalyptic adolescents” and whose dark visions continue to haunt the cinema.
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)
Director: Robert Wiene
Undoubtedly one of the most iconic and influential films of all time, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is justly famed for the skewed, anxiety-inducing angles of its painted backdrops, and for the nightmarish tension of its macabre storyline, in which Francis (Friedrich Feher) attempts to solve a series of murders that he suspects to be the work of an insane carnival hypnotist, Dr Caligari (Werner Krauss), and his somnambulist sideshow attraction, Cesare (Conrad Veidt).
The film has often been read as an allegorical response to the First World War, with Cesare representing the innocent soldiers who were driven to murder under the instructions of an abusive authoritarian government (represented by Caligari), though the film’s unsympathetic portrayal of all its figures of authority, including the ineffective police and rude town clerk, perhaps points towards a wider, less specific social critique of the postwar world.
From Morn to Midnight (1920)
Director: Karl Heinz Martin
Still shocking even today, From Morn to Midnight remains one of the boldest examples of German expressionist cinema. Based on a play by one of the era’s most respected expressionist writers, Georg Kaiser, the story centres on a bank cashier (Ernst Deutsch) who steals money after becoming enraptured by an elegant customer (Erna Morena). Driven by lust, he begs the customer to come away with him, but she laughs in his face. Distraught at having to return home to his drab family life, the cashier goes on the run, determined to seek out the pleasure and passion he has been missing. But he is continually haunted by visions of death, and his relationship with the stolen money soon sours.
Martin had previously directed the text on stage, where he had attempted to disconnect the work from reality – something he took even further with the film, using a minimalist, sketch-like style to move it towards the subjective emotions of the cashier’s point of view.
The Golem: How He Came into the World (1920)
Directors: Paul Wegener and Carl Boese
The third and only surviving part of Paul Wegener’s Golem trilogy, the 16th-century-set The Golem: How He Came into the World was a prequel to the previous, contemporary-set instalments and, as such, cleaves more closely to the traditional Jewish legend. In the Prague ghetto, Rabbi Löw (Albert Steinrück) moulds a Golem (Wegener) from clay, intent on protecting his community from a terrible tragedy that he has seen foretold in the stars. Löw then summons forth the spirit Astaroth, desperate to learn from him the magic word that will bring the Golem to life.
Much like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, The Golem was to leave a lasting impact. In its innovative depiction of Astaroth’s invocation, and in its portrayal of the peaceful interaction between the ‘monster’ and a young girl, the film anticipates a number of later works, including both Weimar-era classics like F.W. Murnau’s Faust (1926) and future Hollywood productions like James Whale’s Frankenstein (1931).
Director: F.W. Murnau
Something of an anomaly within expressionist cinema, Nosferatu makes extensive use of real-world locations, rather than recreating its world solely within a studio. As such, it harks back to expressionism’s roots in German Romanticism, and there is a lyrical, pastoral beauty to its early scenes. But, as the film progresses, the images become increasingly tinged with dread, and Murnau makes the familiar seem strange, imbuing his real-life locations with eerie expressionist touches and slowly moving us from reality to nightmare.
An unauthorised adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Nosferatu relocates the novel’s action from 1890s London to 1830s Germany, and transforms the eponymous vampire into a rat-toothed embodiment of a preternatural force that symbolises the inevitability and inescapability of death. Stoker’s widow sued over the unlawful use of the text, and the courts decreed that all prints of the film should be destroyed – but, thankfully, copies had already spread far and wide, and the film survived its attempted annihilation.
Warning Shadows (1923)
Director: Arthur Robison
In Arthur Robison’s 1923 film, an illusionist uses the famed revelatory shadows of German expressionism to create a morality play for a gathering of rich friends in a manor house. The count (Fritz Kortner), who has invited the dinner guests, is subsumed with jealousy over his beautiful young wife, and with good reason – the shadow-play acts as a warning about the consequences of adultery and possessiveness. Kortner’s bulging eyes and twisted features are facets of a classic expressionist performance style, as his unnatural feelings contort his face and body into something that appears other than human.
Presented without intertitles, the film, just like the play within it, constructs its story purely from shadows. The guests watch in horror as the puppeteer commandeers their shadows and their hidden, basest selves are projected on the wall. The truth is found in the darkness: at one point the count’s shadow falls below a hunting trophy, so that his doppelganger assumes the horns of a cuckold.
The Hands of Orlac (1924)
Director: Robert Wiene
In this traumatic body-horror tale, a concert pianist called Paul Orlac is given a hand transplant after he is caught in a train accident. The revelation that his new hands once belonged to a killer called Vasseur destroys his life. As well as no longer being able to play the piano, he fears that he will be drawn to violence, and he is too terrified to caress his wife.
Conrad Veidt gives a riveting performance as the traumatised pianist, in the tormented, monstrous expressionist mode, as a man frightened of his own capacity for evil, while a leering Fritz Kortner plays Nera, a threatening associate of Vasseur’s from the criminal underworld, and memorably appears as a disembodied head looming over Orlac’s bed. Günther Krampf’s Helldunkel photography enhances the atmosphere of moral murk as an innocent man absorbs the guilt of a murderer. The Hands of Orlac has been remade twice and inspired even more films, though few can match its mood of sustained menace and self-disgust.
Director: Paul Leni
Following the pattern set by the likes of Destiny, Waxworks is an anthology of three tales occurring in different times and countries, framed by the story of a young poet (William Dieterle) who answers an advertisement for an “imaginative writer for publicity work in a waxworks exhibition”. On reaching the exhibition, the poet attempts to woo the owner’s daughter by creating outlandish backstories for wax exhibits of Harun al-Rashid (Emil Jannings), Ivan the Terrible (Conrad Veidt) and Jack the Ripper (Werner Krauss).
Before moving into directing, Leni had worked as an artist and designer, and here he gives each section a distinctive style to match their varied tones: Harun al-Rashid’s story is marked by bulbous curves to emphasise its lustful playfulness, while the cramped spaces of Ivan the Terrible’s story accentuate the Czar’s sense of paranoia and persecution. The double exposures of the Jack the Ripper section, meanwhile, highlight its fever-dream, nightmarish quality.
Director: E.A. Dupont
Described in the opening credits as “the tragedy of an acrobat”, Variety is a melodrama with expressionist touches, far removed from the Grand Guignol flavouring of the expressionist horror cycle. In a story somewhat reminiscent of From Morn to Midnight, former acrobat Boss (Jannings) abandons his wife and child after succumbing to the seductive advances of a younger woman, Berta-Marie (Lya De Putti). Driven both by lust and the desire to reclaim his former glory, Boss quickly develops a trapeze routine with his new flame, but their relationship is complicated when their act – and Berta-Marie in particular – catches the attention of professional acrobat Artinelli (Warwick Ward).
Today, the film is perhaps most famous for perfecting the dazzling ‘unchained’ camera movement that cinematographer Karl Freund had pioneered a year earlier on Murnau’s The Last Laugh (1924) – but the film never becomes style over substance, and the virtuoso camerawork is always used to support the emotional underpinning of the film’s gripping and involving story.
The Student of Prague (1926)
Director: Henrik Galeen
Henrik Galeen’s take on the Faust legend is a remake of the 1913 film of the same name, based on an Edgar Allen Poe story. With sets designed by Hermann Warm and ethereal cinematography by Günther Krampf, The Student of Prague typifies the expressionist look in cinema, and the film once more reunites two of the actors most associated with the movement: Werner Krauss and Conrad Veidt. Veidt plays Balduin, a student who signs on for a loan from a mysterious stranger (Krauss) who takes his reflection in return – the implication being that the hero has lost his soul in the bargain. Balduin’s doppelganger, which haunts him throughout the film, is both an illustration of his conflicted self and a harbinger of his own death.
In The Student of Prague’s design, the exterior world, including stormy skies and blasted trees, reflects Balduin’s interior struggles, with the Stimmung (or atmosphere of dread) mounting in intensity until Balduin’s – and the film’s – final crisis.
Director: Fritz Lang
One of the most famous of all German silent films, Metropolis mingles traces of expressionist style with gothic style and a futurist aesthetic that is frequently echoed in contemporary science-fiction cinema. Its extreme vision of a society utterly riven by class, with the rich breathing the fresh air in the bright light at the top of the city and the workers toiling below in the dark, is an expressionist rendering of the economic imbalances in Weimar Germany, following hyperinflation and the industrial disputes of the early 1920s. The use of Helldunkel here expresses not just emotional angst but also social critique.
In Metropolis the crowd itself is a key part of the film’s expressionist design. The workers move in symmetrical, jerky patterns, as mechanical as the giant machines they serve, and the mob follows the robot Maria as helplessly as Cesare sleepwalks at the command of Caligari.
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