Weimar cinema

The political tumult of 1920s Germany helped give rise to a new genre of film-makers: the expressionists of Weimar cinema. Europe’s fledgeling film industry was devastated by World War I, allowing the United States to dominate post-war movie production. But post-war American films were more concerned with volume and profit than with art or style. Hollywood churned out around 800 movies a year through the 1920s, mostly lightweight features like slapstick comedies, romantic dramas or swashbuckling adventure movies. They were enormously popular with movie-going audiences, but they did little to test the boundaries of the medium.

Film-makers in Germany took a different path, largely by necessity. Weimar Germany’s political and social instability, not to mention its economic shortages, had a profound impact on post-war German culture. A new cultural movement emerged, later described as German expressionism. It was most obvious in the cinema, which recovered quickly in the 1920s, as ordinary Germans sought escapism and cheap entertainment. Unable to afford the huge sets, lavish costumes and extensive props of Hollywood films, 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. 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. The film made extensive use of light, shadow and expressionist artistic styles in its sets and backdrops. It also featured a ‘twist’ ending, perhaps the first in movie history, with the entire story revealed to be the delusional flashback of a mental patient.

Nosferatu (1922). Sub-titled Eine Symphonie des Grauens (‘A symphony of terror’), Nosferatu was the first film of a genre that today is quite common: the vampire movie. Nosferatu is ostensibly a retelling of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, though the characters’ names were changed (director F.W. Murnau did not own the rights). Shot on a limited budget with only one camera, Nosferatu uses light, shadow, time, movement and suspense to portray horror, rather than complex sets or special effects. The main character, the vampire Orlok, is shown as a repulsive rat-like creature, rather than the well-spoken aristocratic vampires of future films.

Phantom (1922). Another F.W. Murnau film, Phantom was not as successful 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 the most memorable scene, buildings appear to tilt in on Lorenz, smothering him and threatening to topple.

The Last Laugh (1924). Another Murnau film, the main character of The Last Laugh is a doorman at the Atlantic Hotel, who after years of service is demoted to the menial role of bathroom attendant. Embarrassed at the loss of a prestigious position, he hides the news from family and friends. They find out, however, and subject him to ridicule. Murnau made creative use of camera angles and movement in The Last Laugh. Early shots are filmed from low perspectives, making both the hotel and its doorman seem large and important. Later, the camera is mounted on a swing and seems to float through the air. The story is also told entirely without title cards, the first time this was done in a silent film.

Metropolis (1927). 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.

M (1931). Also directed by Fritz Lang, M had an extraordinary storyline for its time. 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, it also introduced cinematic techniques which are still used in crime movies today.

German expressionist cinema would influence film-making around the world – including in the US. 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 crossed the Atlantic and made 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 Weimar gave rise to expressionism in German film-making.
2. Unable to afford large casts or sets, directors looked for different techniques to render style, character and emotion.
3. Expressionist film-makers were concerned with darker storylines and themes, including horror and crime.
4. Expressionist directors also manipulated technical components, like light, contrast, camera angles and movement.
5. These directors and their innovations came to influence the wealthier and more prolific film studios in Hollywood.

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This page was written by Jennifer Llewellyn, Jim Southey and Steve Thompson. To reference this page, use the following citation:
J. Llewellyn et al, “Weimar cinema”, Alpha History, 2014, accessed [today’s date], http://alphahistory.com/weimarrepublic/weimar-cinema/.