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A History of German Expressionist Film (1919-1926/33)

German Expressionist Cinema was one of the greatest achievements in early cinema history. Until the end of World War One, the art of cinema was a fairly simple one. The scope of what could be achieved with film over and above the theatre was simply unrealised. In Germany near the end of the war the conditions were generated that opened up a new creativity in the art of filmmaking. German Expressionist Cinema was born, and it took some big steps forward in the foundation of modern cinema. This new form of cinema met great success in many international markets, opening the world's eyes to new ideas and forms of art in cinema. The conditions for this new creativity did not last, and German Expressionism began to disappear in its original, distinctive form. But its ideas lived on, and its influence can be traced to many different genres of cinema today, proving the amazing step forward this style generated in the art of film making.

It is interesting to note that the internal problems in Germany at the time created the conditions for the birth of the German Expressionist film movement. Toward the end of World War One, the German government and military set up the UFA (Universumfilm Aktiengesellschaft) to support the local film industry (and propaganda creation). The borders had been closed to import, so all entertainment had to be internally produced. Many film production houses opened, and the industry boomed with a new strength - but this alone did not generate the Expressionist movement. The people of Germany were hurting. The economy was in depression and the war had been lost. There was little to make the people happy about the world around them. Things were not good. It was this social state in conjunction with the booming film production environment that gave rise to a film genre that reflected the mood of the people - through design as well as subject matter. German Expressionism was born.

The style was revolutionary, taking film from being an art that displays reality to an art that brings the viewer physical representations of emotion and theme. Taking from the Expressionist art movement, the German filmmakers began to create sets that were an embodiment of the inner feelings of the characters performing within them. By taking elements of reality-based design and altering them to suit a mood, the audience can visually identify the underlying feelings of the action taking place. Beyond simply this, German Expressionist film took two major steps forward in production ideology. One was the use of a studio for all aspects of shooting - there could only be the necessary absolute control if all sets and action took place in a studio. The other was the pure idea of giving an audience what it wanted, beyond the conventional (for the time) film structure and design. Not surprisingly, while German Expressionist films were quite successful in terms of box office they were not always well received by critics at the time.

There were quite a number of German Expressionist films made with a few that truly stand out as prime examples of the genre. "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari" is notably the first film that fully exemplifies the genre and it did so with great success on many levels. "Dr. Caligari" used amazingly distorted set design and make up to create a twisted reality. This gave a physical reality to the world of the storyteller - a madman in an asylum. The film was also entirely shot in a studio, not common at this time, so that all elements of environment and design could be under strict control. Not only was such production design revolutionary, but the decision for doing this was just as much so. The original script for "Dr. Caligari" was purely the story of a police officer chasing a man who has been committing murders, but it was decided that the audiences would like the film more if the police officer's hunt was nothing more than the ravings of a madman. So the story was framed within an introduction and conclusion of a madman telling a story. This decision showed a specific decision to give the audiences what they wanted to see - truly the foundation of all modern cinema. Beyond the success of "Dr. Caligari" worldwide, the doors to export were opened. Many other films of the genre then went on to success around the world. Other standout films of the genre were "Nosferatu", the classic vampire film (which interestingly was ordered to be destroyed due to copyright infringement on Bram Stoker's estate), and "Metropolis", with its lavish sets and huge cast. "Metropolis" is often seen as the film that signaled the end of the German Expressionist genre, due to both financial issues and social change.

There is no agreed upon year in which German Expressionism came to an end. It, like many other early 'genres', seemed to somewhat fade into the next style of cinema (such as "Metropolis" and its relation to both German Expressionism and New Sachlichkeit). But there are a number of factors that contributed to the end of German Expressionism in its clearest form. In 1924 the US Dawes Plan stabilised the German economy and by doing so removed the excellent export conditions that made German films easy to sell internationally. This also created good import conditions, which introduced heavy competition for the German filmmakers' unseen for many years. Added to this the rising budgets requested by German Expressionist productions, it was no longer a financially secure style of film to support (the failure of the expensive "Metropolis" at the box office assisted in the downfall of UFA). Social conditions too were changing, and as people headed to a more positive and prosperous time they were not as interested in seeing dark, twisted views of the world in films. All these conditions were bringing about the death of German Expressionism as it was known.

Though German Expressionism was dying and never seen again in this original form, many genres since then have been influenced by its production values. Film Noir is one such genre, which used lighting and design to set the mood of the film with great effect. Also early science fiction and horror films used distorted production designs to portray mood and emotion of the characters involved. It is difficult to follow the influence of German Expressionism into more modern times. As production values and technology improved, films have moved a long way from looking like early cinema. Certainly the influence of German Expressionism can be seen in modern B Grade films - the methods of mood creation are easily spotted when low budgets are involved with their production. A notable recent film that shows some clear influence is "The Fifth Element" which uses its design to great effect in showing the feeling and mood of the world around the characters involved. Thus even today it can be seen that German Expressionist cinema was highly influential on the progress of modern cinema.

No other film genre of the 1920's was as innovative and influential as German Expressionism. It opened the world's eyes to the possibilities of filmmaking, and where an audience could be taken. It was very much a product of its time, and so flourished and declined in that 10 year period of social and economic change. But its influence lives on in terms of production aesthetics and audience-driven production decisions. Simply put, modern cinema would not be the same if it was not for the ground breaking achievement of German Expressionist cinema.


Bordwell & Thompson
Film Art: An Introduction (5th Edition), McGraw-Hill, 1997

Fabian Web

Andreas Huyssen, "The Vamp & the Machine: Fritz Lang's Metropolis",
in After the Great Divide: Modernism, Mass Culture, Postmodernism, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1986.