So What Exactly Was German Expressionism?

You run into it time and time again when reading about film history: “German Expressionism, German Expressionism.” It pops up even more than “French New Wave,” another term that tends to make people’s eyes glaze over. Silent newbies and casual fans probably wonder: just what exactly was this movement that all the film historians go nuts for?

To answer that, we have to glance through a little art history, learn a bit of theater history, reflect on WWI and Germany, and get acquainted with how “the ghosts which haunted the German Romantics had revived, like the shades of Hades after draughts of blood.”

From Morn to Midnight skeleton


Or something like that. Bear with me, for there’s a lot of pieces to put together to get a good picture of German Expressionism.

Let’s remember that the first few decades of 20th century had unveiled many great inventions, discoveries, and technologies. The pace of life had to start running to catch up. Thanks to this rapid “modernization” there came a hearty interest in everything new and unique–and modern art started to make its mark, especially in Europe.

Much of modern art involved punting traditional art clean out the window and drawing upon emotion and psychology for inspiration instead (with varied results). Themes like madness, violence, and alienation were not uncommon. Many modern artists were also intellectuals, trying to figure out mankind’s place in this new industrial world. With anti-bourgeois witticisms at ready and somber Manifestos in hand, some banded together and created movements: Cubism, Fauvism, Futurism, Surrealism, a few other Isms, and our area of interest, Expressionism.

You may have seen this example of it.

While Expressionism did start in Germany, it’s harder to define than, say, Futurism, which helped us out by published handy manifestos declaring things like, “Except in struggle, there is no more beauty.” (Futurists were…different.) It even went beyond art–there was Expressionist literature, too. In 1910 Czech art historian Antonin Matějček gave this incredibly simple explanation of the movement:

An Expressionist wishes, above all, to express himself… [an Expressionist rejects] immediate perception and builds on more complex psychic structures… Impressions and mental images that pass through mental people’s soul as through a filter which rids them of all substantial accretions to produce their clear essence […and] are assimilated and condense into more general forms, into types, which he transcribes through simple short-hand formulae and symbols.


Image result for confused man looking at computer

In other words, that Sharpie drawing on your wall of a wobbly girl towering over a purple tree, courtesy of your 6-year-old, conveyed the emotions of happiness and purpleness without resorting to traditional representations of a girl or a tree. It is quite Expressionist (and face it, you sure felt emotional when you discovered it, hey?).

So this is all well and good, but what about German Expressionism?

Its official beginning was in 1905, when four architecture students from Dresden, Germany formed a group called Die Brücke (The Bridge). They wanted to create art that was extremely emotional and influenced by both the past and present (thus connecting them–like a bridge!). Their tastes were pretty eclectic–not only did they like those slightly creepy old German woodcuts, but tribal art from Africa and Oceania too, and of course modern art. Put all those together and the result was…early German Expressionism. Influences = G. Express

Die Brücke gets credit for getting the ball rolling on those unusual angles and bold lighting that would pop up in classics like NosferatuOther German artists started exploring similar styles of painting, resulting in…well, work like this:

Image result for german expressionist art ernst kirchner

“Why yes, that’s…interesting.”

Now, around this same time theater was also getting artsy, trying out daring new styles in set design, music, choreography, writing, etc. Keep in mind that at this point theater was still king (as it had been for hundreds of years). It was the go-to entertainment. Film still had some maturing to do–while being strongly influenced by the theater.

One of the biggest figures of the theater scene in Europe was Max Reinhardt, owner of the prestigious Deutsches Theater in Berlin.

“Gutan tag.”

He was involved in every detail of his stage productions. He used dramatic lighting techniques (like having a darkened stage with a single beam of light falling on a face) and introduced the very latest in set designs.

Reinhardt's 1909 stage production of Hamlet. (Image from The Haunted Screen by Lotte H. Eisner)

Reinhardt’s 1909 stage production of Hamlet, showing dramatic lighting. (Image from The Haunted Screen by Lotte H. Eisner.)

The Deutsches Theater was the place to be in Berlin–some people attended several times a week. Reinhardt was a massive influence on German entertainment, is what we’re saying here.

So to quickly recap, in the early 20th century there was:

  • Rapid changeover from old ways of life to new
  • Growth of modern art
  • New styles being used in the theater
  • Growing interest in expressing emotion in art in new ways, especially in Germany.
  • New, new, newness.

It wouldn’t take long for film to start soaking up these influences like a sponge. In 1913 the first German film that’s just a little bit German Expressionist was released: The Student of Prague. It’s one of the earliest horror films, telling the strange story of a student who is promised infinite wealth by a sorcerer in exchange for the student’s reflection in a mirror. It showed that film was perfect for conveying dreamlike images, the macabre, and, of course, emotion (as Expressionists loved).

Student of Prague

The Student of Prague‘s director was Paul Wegener, who had once been an actor in Max Reinhardt’s theater, and it starred several actors who had also worked in Reinhardt’s theater (told you Reinhardt was important). Wegener would make other German Expressionistic films too, like the first The Golem (1915) and Homunculus (1916).  Fellow German directors took notice.

From Homunculus (1916)

But then in 1914 the Great War, the War to End All Wars, began. Its ugliness and brutality shocked the world in way all those dour artists hadn’t imagined.  The themes of alienation and death in some modern art were rather prophetic.

One result of the war (out of too many to count) was that Germany soon banned the import of most foreign films. (Maaaybe because the market was stuffed with anti-German propaganda.) Thus Germany found itself scrambling to meet the demand for movies, churning out melodramas, documentaries, comedies, and more almost by itself.

Almost…by…itself. Germany, with its legacy of creepy woodcuts and grim Grimm’s fairytales, its metaphysical musings on the state of mankind and strivings toward world power, Germany…with its German Expressionism.  In that isolation, something began to evolve.

Not long after the War ended, other countries started to warm up to the defeated Germany again, and a little film called The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) was released.

All the possibilities of German Expressionism exploded on the screen in Caligari. Its writers (writers Hans Janowitz and Carl Meyer) were both big fans of Wegener’s dark films. They had both been scarred by WWI. They felt that using dramatic angles and lighting in film could be a perfect match for the macabre mood of the times–and they went above and beyond in showing this. Few other films would be as daring as Caligari. The world was talking about German films.

The Twenties saw classics like Nosferatu (1922), The Last Laugh (1924), and Metroplis (1927) released. As you’ve noticed, most films under the label of “German Expressionist” dealt with topics like madness, betrayal, and death–these were intellectual topics, you see. And, perhaps, they also had their roots in old German folk tales, woodcuts, and legends of the supernatural.

These things seeped into Hollywood as well. At the tail end of the silent era, Sunrise (1928) represented a perfect meld of Hollywood magic and German Expressionism.

Image result for sunrise 1927

But it doesn’t end with the brassy early talkies period–this dynamic movement influenced film noir, practically invented the horror genre, and continues to inspire any filmmaker that tries to think outside the box today.

Tim Burton, anyone?

As you can see, German Expressionism is far more than a dry-sounding term in a history book. It was born from a desire to be fresh, radical, and in-your-face modern, although it could never forget its legacy of folk tales and spiritual beliefs. Since one of its influences was the very real pain and devastation of WWI, it’s no wonder you can still sense the power of the darker German Expressionist films today.

And most significantly, the images it created helped transform our understanding of just what that young art form called “film” could do.


Eisner, Lotte H. The Haunted Screen: Expressionism in the German Cinema and the Influence of Max Reinhardt. 2nd revised edition. Translated by Roger Greaves. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2008.
Finler, Joel W. Silent Cinema. London: B.T. Batsford Ltd., 1997.
Gordon, Donald E. Expressionism: Art and Ideas. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1987.
Kracauer, Siegfried. From Caligari to Hitler: A Psychological History of German Film. New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1947.
Selz, Peter. German Expressionist Painting.  Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1957.
Stokstad, Marilyn.  Art History. 2nd edition, vol. 2. New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 2002.
“The Artists’ Association ‘Brüke.'”
“Max Reinhardt.”

21 thoughts on “So What Exactly Was German Expressionism?

  1. Another wonderful historical overview with lots of great graphics and cultural/historical connections all over the place. This makes me want to watch many of the movies you mentioned, even though I’m not usually attracted to this genre. That’s saying something!

    • I’m thrilled that you enjoyed it!! It was quite a challenge getting it all organized clearly. (The phrase “why of course you could write a book on this subject” popped to mind every couple seconds.) Once you peel away the academic-speak, the history of this movement is surprisingly vivid and dynamic, so I hope a little of that came across.

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  4. Thank you for posting. I have been studying “Cabinet for Dr Caligari” for university this semester along with “Battleship Potemkin” and other silent films. I did not realize the depth of story-telling by use of metaphor in these films. Very powerful!

    • It’s true, there’s an awful lot of meaning in the choices German Expressionist films made…uncovering the details can make them even more fascinating than they already are! Glad you stopped by. 🙂

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  7. Pingback: Great introduction to German Expressionism | nitrateglow

  8. This article definitely left me enlightened. The term “German Expressionism” was just a vague understanding for me, and now I think I have a good grasp. Thank you, thank you!

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  14. This is an article I have to read a few times more – which indicates that it is very good and informative. Too good for a grumpy old man to instantly swallow in one bite in the middle of the night. Very well written, structured and pedagogical. So much there is to learn in this world. It doesn’t matter how old you are …

  15. I Wikipediaed Expressionism once and was just as confused as when I watched ‘From Morn to Midnight’ (I had to watch it 3 times the first time). Thanks for the excellent research and better yet; insightful, enjoyable reading. Learning doesn’t have to be work. We studied ‘Potemkin’ in detail in my film class 40 years ago, but no Expressionism. Too bad, too much of some guy named Chaplin.
    I don’t meet many people who are aware of ‘The Night of the Hunter’ (refreshing), but when I was loving being haunted by scenes from it, I wasn’t aware Laughton was using Expressionist influence, because I didn’t know at the time what it was. Starry Night has been my favorite painting since I dropped out of art school, way back. So, I want to thank you for helping me understand so much about myself!
    Again Lea, outstanding work as usual, but are you sure about Wegener’s participation with ‘Homunculus’?

    • So glad you enjoyed the piece! Oh my, you’re right about me getting the Wegener connection wrong, no idea how that happened. That’ll have to be fixed (once I get some better Internet, not the best area currently).

      I can 100% understand why it took at least 3 viewings to get through FROM MORN TO MIDNIGHT. Oh boy, do I ever…! 😀

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