The political tumult of 1920s Germany helped give rise to a new genre of cinema called Expressionism. Weimar-era Expressionists like Fritz Lang developed and embraced new methods of film-making, the influence of which continues today.
Prior to World War I, European film production was dominated by the French and Italians. Cinema was also beginning to take hold in Germany, which had an estimated 1,500 movie theatres by 1914. The social and economic devastation of the war caused European cinema production to slump.
This slump allowed the United States to dominate movie-making during the 1920s. American film studios, the vast majority based in Hollywood, California, churned out around 800 movies a year during this period.
American films of this era were usually more concerned with volume and profit than art or style. Most were lightweight features like slapstick comedies, romantic dramas or swashbuckling adventure movies. They were enormously popular with audiences but did little to challenge the artistic boundaries of the medium.
Post-war German film
Weimar Germany’s political and social instability, as well as its economic shortages, had a profound impact on post-war German culture. A new cultural movement emerged, later described as German Expressionism.
This Expressionism was most obvious on film. German cinema recovered quickly in the 1920s as ordinary people sought cheap entertainment and escapism from the decade’s political and economic woes.
Unable to afford the huge sets, lavish costumes and extensive props of Hollywood, German film-makers looked for new ways to convey atmosphere, mood and emotion. They also explored much darker themes than Hollywood: crime, immorality, social decay and the destructive powers of money and technology.
As a consequence, German expressionism gave birth to two new cinematic genres: the Gothic horror movie and film noir (crime thrillers which explore the darker aspects of human behaviour).
Some of the best known German expressionist films were:
The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari (1920)
One of the earliest horror films in history, The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari tells of a performing mystic and his stage sidekick, a sleepwalking man who can predict the future.
Directed by Robert Wiene, the son of a Jewish actor, The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari made extensive use of light, shadow and expressionist styles in its sets and backdrops. It also featured a ‘twist’ ending, one of the first in movie history, with the entire story revealed to be the delusional flashback of a mental patient.
Sub-titled Eine Symphonie des Grauens (‘A symphony of terror’), Nosferatu was the first film of a now-common genre: the vampire movie. It is ostensibly a retelling of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, though the characters’ names were changed.
Nosferatu was directed by F. W. Murnau. Operating on a limited budget with only one camera, Murnau used light, shadow, time, movement and suspense to portray horror, rather than complex sets or special effects. The main character, the vampire Orlok, is a repulsive rat-like creature, rather than the well-spoken aristocratic vampires of future films.
Nosferatu has become one of the most famous horror films of all time. Along with Metropolis, it is considered the showpiece of German cinematic expressionism and some of its scenes – such as Orlock’s silhouette ascending a staircase – have become iconic moments in cinema history.
Another F.W. Murnau creation, the 1922 film Phantom was not as commercially successful, as critically acclaimed nor as well-known as Nosferatu.
In Phantom, main character Lorenz’s life is irrevocably changed by the glimpse of a woman and the destructive lure of money. Lorenz begins searching for the woman, a course that leads to big-spending, debt, crime and murder.
Told in flashback, Phantom uses expressionist techniques (such as double-exposure) to convey Lorenz’s confusion and collapsing emotions. In its most memorable scene, buildings appear to tilt in on Lorenz, smothering him and threatening to topple.
The Last Laugh (1924)
Another Murnau film, The Last Laugh (released in German as The Last Man) contains little in the way of plot or action, preferring to focus on the emotions of its characters.
The main character is a doorman at the Atlantic Hotel. After years of service to the hotel, he is demoted to the menial role of bathroom attendant. Embarrassed at the loss of his prestigious position, he hides the news from family and friends. They find out, however, and subject him to ridicule.
Murnau’s film made innovative use of camera angles and movement in The Last Laugh. Early shots are filmed from low perspectives, making both the hotel and its doorman appear large and important. Later, the camera is mounted on a swing and seems to float through the air. The story was also conveyed entirely through the vision and with title cards, captions or narration, a rarity in silent films to that point.
The Last Laugh became enormously popular among directors in Hollywood, many of whom utilised its techniques in future films. Alfred Hitchcock was reportedly impressed by it and travelled to Berlin to collaborate with Murnau.
Probably the best-known German expressionist film, Metropolis is part-science fiction and part-social allegory. It depicts a future society where citizens have been split into two distinct classes: the elite, who enjoy lives of leisure in the sun, and the workers, who toil monotonously beneath the ground.
The plot centres on two women: the compassionate Maria, who wants to reconcile the workers with the ruling class; and the robotic Hel, who is programmed to destroy the city.
Metropolis was an incredibly ambitious project for its time. It cost around five million marks, took several months to film and employed up to 300 extras. It proved unpopular with movie-goers but was critically applauded and is considered a forerunner to modern science-fiction movies.
Also directed by Fritz Lang, M had an extraordinarily dark storyline for its time, focusing on the activities of a child murderer and the criminal underclass.
Hans Beckert (played by Peter Lorre) is a paedophile and child killer, pursued by both police and the Berlin underworld. He is caught first by the city’s crooks and given a mock trial. Confronting his captors, Beckert explains what drives him to commit his crimes, asking: “Who knows what it’s like to be me?”
M not only made use of expressionist styles but also introduced cinematic techniques still used in crime movies today.
German expressionist cinema would influence film-making around the world – including studios and individuals in the more-lucrative United States.
In 1923, Hollywood’s Universal Studios produced its first acclaimed horror film, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, starring Lon Chaney as Quasimodo. The director, Wallace Worsley, had previously churned out dozens of dramas and lightweight comedies – but he came to admire and borrow heavily from German directors, particularly Murnau.
Future Hollywood films also utilised expressionist themes and techniques, including Phantom of the Opera (1925) The Monster (1925) and the vampire movies London after Midnight (1927) and Dracula (1931).
Some German directors would cross the Atlantic and make their mark in Hollywood. Paul Leni travelled to the US in 1927 at the invitation of Universal Studios, for whom he made several movies. The best of these, The Cat and the Canary (1927) combined the high contrast and style of German expressionism with American movie conventions.
Fritz Lang, the director of Metropolis, fled Germany in 1934 (Lang was part-Jewish and some of his films were not popular with the Nazi hierarchy). He eventually landed in Hollywood, where he became an American citizen and directed a further 21 films.
1. The social disruptions and economic shortages of the Weimar Republic gave rise to new techniques and styles in German film-making dubbed Expressionism.
2. Unable to afford large casts or sets, directors looked for different cinematic and production techniques to render style, character and emotion.
3. Expressionist film-makers like F. W. Murnau and Fritz Lang were also concerned with darker storylines and themes, including horror and crime.
4. Expressionist directors developed innovative techniques, such as new uses for light, contrast, camera angles and movement.
5. These directors and their innovations came to influence the wealthier and more prolific film studios in Hollywood.