Everything there is to know about GERMAN EXPRESSIONIST CINEMA

When it comes to German film expressionism, there’s no doubt that it all began with The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.

Filip Jalowski

13 August 2023

Everything there is to know about GERMAN EXPRESSIONIST CINEMA nosferatu max schreck

As the 19th century was coming to an end, as doubts slowly crept in about the old man who had so generously endowed our civilization, whether, in his final days, he could bestow upon us anything more, a group of women marched out of the Lyon factory with smiles on their faces. There would be nothing unusual about this if this particular procession had passed through the square in front of the factory gates. However, their journey took place in a completely different location and, lo and behold, without their direct participation. The female workers were, in fact, marching between the frames of a celluloid strip, which, thanks to a certain magical box created by the manufacturers of photographic materials, the Lumière brothers, came to life and started moving amidst the solid walls of the Indian Salon. The 19th century amazed us once again, assisting in the birth of another muse: in 1895, it gifted us with cinematography.


In a time when the art of moving images was just beginning to take shape – three years before Méliès’ fantastic A Trip to the Moon, thirteen years before the monumental achievements of Italian monumentalism led by Giovanni Pastrone’s Cabiria – in another French salon, this time the “Salon des Indépendants,” J.A. Hervé set up a series of his paintings on wooden easels, a series he termed expressionism. The artist’s voice acted upon the minds of the era like a cry amidst snow-covered mountain peaks acts upon a blanket of white fluff – it triggered an avalanche. Unknowingly, Hervé gave birth to a new intellectual current, a new convention in art, a new way of perceiving reality. Thanks to two French salons, Goethe’s homeland, in just twenty years, could become, for the first time and as of now, the epicenter of world cinematography. It could give birth to a child of the somber era of Parisian negotiations – German expressionist cinema.

It’s impossible to talk about film without mentioning life because cinema is nothing but the projection of the creator’s soul. Humans are social beings, their character is determined by the times in which they exist. Thus, it becomes evident that it’s impossible to analyze a film movement, or even an individual film, in complete detachment from the reality in which it was born. According to this notion, discussions about the “German march of horror” must undoubtedly begin decades before the appearance of its spiritual father on the screens – Dr. Caligari. They must commence by delving into the doctrine of expressionism and even offering a cursory characterization of the times in which the doctrine matured.

german expressionism das kabinett des dr. caligari the cabinet of doctor caligari

Expressionism is a creative method that, under different names, has been employed by art for years. We can speak of it when an artist primarily aims to acquaint the viewer with their unbridled inner vision of things, which in turn can take shapes vastly different from those characterizing reality. Expressionism has therefore existed everywhere for all time, wherever the rational and classical tone of a work is replaced by euphoric creative illumination, where the desire for an academic representation of the world gives way to artistic means aimed at giving the work the appropriate expression.

Expressionism existed as a method forever, but as an artistic movement, it only emerged in the first three decades of the 20th century, most notably within the struggling post-war Germany. The term coined by J.A. Hervé stirred a true storm of ideas in the former Third Reich. Just four years after the unforgettable exhibition at the “Salon des Indépendants,” expressionism broke free from French canvases and found its place on the front pages of the Munich publication Die Erde. On paper, attempts were made to formulate something akin to an expressionist manifesto, striving to establish the principles that the 20th-century artist should follow. Soon after, from a relatively isolationist Munich, it ventured to Berlin, where it was discussed in the popular publications Die Aktion and Der Sturm.

Expressionism was the child of an era tainted by the cruelty of war, societies that grew up in the stench of death hanging over the fields of Verdun. As World War I exhaled its final breaths, as the Paris Peace Conference, soon to birth a document stabilizing post-war Europe, inhaled its first, Germany was engulfed in fear and unease. With uncertain tomorrows, society was far from optimistically looking toward a future that its wartime opponents would decide. Hence, a negation of the achievements of the previous generation, a generation that led millions to their deaths and allowed the fate of their sons to be determined by their enemies. The spectrum of values underwent a dramatic transformation; expressionism negated what had been obvious in the 18th and 19th centuries.

german expressionism nosferatu max schreck

Expressionism’s ideological foundations are rooted in the theses of the most advanced minds of modern times. It is strongly influenced by idealistic philosophies, advocating a renewal of thought. In this respect, it draws from G. Hegel and I. Kant. Consequently, the forgotten metaphysics of classical times are rehabilitated, present both in Hegel’s Absolute and Kant’s philosophy. Through Edmund Husserl, phenomenology emerges, calling for a rejection of a naturalistic view of reality and encouraging the negation of generally accepted theses and assumptions, urging a perspective on the world as it “truly appears.” Henri Bergson, a French thinker, reminds expressionists of intuitionism – a philosophical viewpoint stating that true knowledge is not attainable through reason (rationalism) but through intuition. Advocates of the new doctrine also turn to Friedrich Nietzsche, particularly to his Dionysianism, which posits that within humans exists an elemental essence of existence – wild, ecstatic, untamed, and to the father of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud, who draws attention to the enigmatic nature of the human subconscious. Embracing these viewpoints leads to the negation of relativism (the belief in the absence of absolute truths), historicism (the belief that history is governed by constant laws leading to a predetermined goal), naturalism (the focus on the external aspects of the world, minimizing metaphysics), and rationalism (the belief that reason is the only tool of knowledge, senses or faith cannot lead to it).

It’s evident that the philosophical foundation of expressionism is spiritualistic monism, giving priority to the spirit – the immaterial being – rather than the rational and schematic systems of past years. For Germany, this path naturally leads back to the great traditions of romanticism, both ideologically and thematically. The revival of religious mysticism, sentimentality, the cult of the common man, and the escape into the world of fantasy resurface in expressionism after a period of classical oblivion.

german expressionism the cabinet of dr caligari

Social disparities resulting from the post-war political and economic crisis, a sense of moral and cultural devaluation, and fear of ordinary days, combined with the ideological foundations of expressionism (negating the previous worldview) and references to the romantic era, which left a golden mark in German cultural history, cause the expansion of the new movement across all domains of Germanic art. Painters, upholding ideas opposing naturalism and impressionism, stop striving for formal perfection. In the search for the secret Absolute, they abandon academic aesthetics for creative expression. The painting was no longer meant to be beautiful aesthetically – it was to demonstrate the artist’s ecstasy, the tension between individual elements of the work. Hence the popularity of paintings with exaggerated colors, the popularity of painting with bold and irregular lines. The abandonment of the conventional view of the world results in a fascination with primitive art; woodcuts and their more recent form, linocuts (created similarly to woodcuts, but using linoleum instead of wood), start to emerge. The artist once again becomes a visionary, artistry becomes a mission again. The most representative groups of German expressionists (in the realm of painting, of course) were “Die Brücke” (founded in 1906) in Dresden and “Der Blaue Reiter” (founded in 1911) in Munich. Prominent creators included Fritz Bleyl, Erich Heckel, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, and Karl Schmidt-Rottluff from the Dresden formation, and Wassily Kandinsky and Franz Marc from the Munich one.

In the field of music, expressionism is manifested through the creation of atonal music, which abandons the center around which it would develop. Individual chords are not linked together, and the entire composition becomes atematic. This is most perfectly presented in the works of Schönberg, Berg, and Webern, but certain elements of expressionism also appear in Strauss’s work.

german expressionism cabinet of dr caligari

In literature, there is a special fondness for lyrical forms. Epics are pushed to the margins, with short stories by Benn, Edschmid, and partly Kafka being their only form. From the pages flows a bitter critique of capitalism, an observation of the inevitable agony of cities. Prose breaks with the naturalistic novel, emphasizing textual vision and unusual techniques aimed at stylizing the language. The tenets of realistic psychology lose their strength, as humanity is no longer observed from that angle; a complete transformation of humans is called for. The flight from beautiful form leads to the barbarization of language. Nouns become strongly overrepresented since only they approximate the essence of the thing being written about. Adjectives, adverbs, attributes are reduced to the necessary minimum; their excess disrupts the composition of the work, which is not meant to move through what it represents but to move through itself. Expressionist drama forms a separate branch of literature, reinstating monumental monologues, attempting to become entirely universal. Its characters often lack names; they are women, men, children, doctors, symbols of different social groups. During that time, Brecht, Sorge, Wedekind, and Hasenclever contributed most significantly to dramaturgy.

From drama, we are not far from the progenitor of cinema, theater, which during the time of expressionist expansion was still under the enormous influence of the English theorist Edward Gordon Craig. The Briton called for a departure from the stereotypical copying of works, aiming to create a theater where the director’s vision would be more important than faithful reproduction of the original script. A stage bridging the gap between the audience and the “super-marionette” actor, astonishing with its scenic depth and monumentality. Expressionists perfectly realize his intentions, turning the stage into another actor – this applies to both theater and film. Dreamlike sets created by German painters make the stage a small work of art while projecting a nightmare simultaneously. The meaning of the word “prop” evolves; it becomes geometric-cubist structures surrounding the actor, who plays their role contrary to Stanislavski’s vision (meticulous psychological shading replaced by emotional performance). Amidst this theatrical frenzy, the director becomes almost god-like; as the sole individual, thanks to their subjective vision, they can control what happens on the theater stage or within the confines of a small studio.

Traveling through the meanders of the subject, we’ve finally reached its source; it’s time to become acquainted with the achievements of expressionism in German cinema, for which the 1920s were incredibly fruitful.

german expressionism

Before Caligari

The precursor to German expressionist works can be recognized in the 1913 film The Student of Prague. Directed by Stellan Rye, a Danish filmmaker, it was created a year before his death in a French prisoner-of-war camp. It’s a great loss that the barbaric bloodshed took away an artist who undoubtedly had the potential to join the pantheon of German directors of the expressionist era. The Student of Prague exhibited the first elements characteristic of the new style. At a time when Hollywood was slowly reveling in scandal, indulging in perverse fantasmagoria, German cinema transported us to the romantic worlds of Edgar Allan Poe, Alfred de Musset, and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. S. Rye’s film transformed the paragraphs of one of the English romantic’s tales – William Wilson – combining them with elements drawn from Musset’s poetic Night of December. References to the monument of German literature, Faust, can also be found. By synthesizing three works, we get a story about a student named Balduin, who decides to sell his mirror image to a sorcerer. The rebellious magician uses it to create a doppelgänger of the original owner. This doppelgänger begins to torment the young man effectively, becoming his greatest nightmare and turning his life into a hellish game. The screenplay features emblematic figures of the upcoming movement. The split character, so characteristic of Fritz Lang’s works, the demonic sorcerer – a prefiguration of Caligari or Rotwang from Metropolis, the mutual interference of the spiritual and material worlds (doctrine of the entire expressionism). The new artistic current shyly begins to reveal itself even in terms of form, where suggestive contrasts give it away.

Three years after the Danish filmmaker’s death, in 1917, a powerful film production company emerged in the territory of the Second Reich, known as “Universum Film AG,” popularly called “UFA.” Initially functioning as a government propaganda machine, it became a private organization in 1921. Its apolitical character allowed it to promote films that deviated from the war theme. Soon, under its patronage, the world would hear about Fritz Lang and Marlene Dietrich, but we will return to them a little later.

german expressionism the student of prague

Early period (Paul Wegener and Robert Wiene)

Supposedly, in the beginning, there was the word, and following it, reality emerged – a debatable and subjective matter since it’s impossible to prove. When it comes to German film expressionism, there’s no doubt that it all began with The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.

Directed by Robert Wiene (born in Breslau, now Polish Wrocław), the film became a manifesto of expressionistic madness. For the first time in the history of cinema – and perhaps the last – set designers became more important than actors, directors, or screenwriters. The idea of the stage as a bridge, proposed by Craig, and realized on the theater stages of the interwar period, reached its extreme expression here. In the surreal labyrinth of decorations, stretched on wooden easels in the seclusion of a hermetic atelier, figures wandered, engulfed by their surroundings. Predatory shapes of the deformed “world seen through the eyes of a madman” (a slogan on the posters of Caligari) attacked the audience’s imagination, quickened their heartbeat, and momentarily made them themselves – like the narrator – an inmate of a psychiatric hospital. The boundary was defined by a wall made of celluloid tape. The creators of the set design were Hermann Warm, Walter Rohrig, and Walter Reinmann, painters associated with the group “Der Sturm,” formed around the Berlin newspaper of the same name.

german expressionism cabinet of dr caligari

Wiene told a story characteristic of the movement, employing equally characteristic techniques and narrative solutions. The story takes place in a town visited by a mysterious doctor who possesses power over a sleepwalker, Cesare. Soon, people begin to disappear among the winding streets, and the shrewd townsman Alan starts to suspect that death arrived with Caligari. The main character’s mental illness fits perfectly with the expressionistic fascination with the human subconscious, influenced by the writings of Sigmund Freud. Caligari is the prototype of an iconic character for the movement – beneath the mask of ordinary existence, he hides a storm of conflicting emotions, a desire for dominance, a disposition driven by instincts. He is an expressionistic madman, a product of the moral devaluation of post-war society. In the initial version of the film, the town authorities were portrayed as insane (an expressionistic critique of the system), but censorship demanded their portrayal to be changed. The fascination with contrast is so significant here that shadows often aren’t natural reflections of characters but black spots painted on the decorations. Contrast is also present in one of the most remarkable scenes in The Cabinet… – the awakening of the sleepwalker. The makeup emphasizing Cesare’s closed eyes in contrast with his deathly pale complexion causes the moment of opening his eyelids to appear more sudden and dynamic (similar techniques would later be used by other creators of horror films, and even the Romanian aristocrat – Dracula – would awaken similarly).

Werner Krauss takes on the role of the diabolical Caligari, and he will appear again in the iconic expressionist film four years later, embodying the revived figure of Jack the Ripper in Waxworks. Apart from him, Wiene, and the aforementioned set designers, there’s someone else worth mentioning. Carl Mayer, the screenwriter, will return several times in the 1920s, both in expressionist style and in another German film movement – Kammerspiel. He will even write the brilliant The Hotel Atlantic for Friedrich Murnau. The director of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari seems overwhelmed by the enormity of his work and thus ends up being remembered in the history of cinema for only one film – a pity because a few months later, he creates Genuine, also written by Mayer, which takes us back into the world of surreal delusions. However, this film doesn’t have the same impact and is overshadowed by other titles, like the famous The Golem by Paul Wegener. Wiene falls into creative stagnation, exemplified by the unsuccessful Raskolnikov or the new version of The Student of Prague. Toward the end of his career, he shines once more with the forgotten The Hands of Orlac, telling the story of a pianist who, after losing his hands, receives the hands of a serial killer as replacements (a brilliant performance by Conrad Veidt).

german expressionism the hands of orlac

Let’s leave Wiene now and move on to Wegener and his animated statue, the Jewish Golem. Few know that the human likeness made of clay is a legendary figure found, for instance, in the Talmud. Jewish tradition believed that it was possible to replicate the divine creation process, but since humans are weaker than the Creator, they won’t be able to breathe life and consequently, speech, into their creation. The most famous legend about the Golem dates back to the 16th century and is attributed to the Jewish rabbi Judah Loew ben Bezalel. He supposedly brought to life a creature that would protect his people from the persecution of the Prague society, which accused Jews of practicing witchcraft and the occult.

Wegener’s The Golem is a cinematic interpretation of this Jewish legend and is also the third film about the clay monster. The first was made in 1915 and had the same title as the one from 1920. The second, The Golem and the Dancing Girl, was made two years before the latter. Unfortunately, both of these films are lost, with the tapes likely destroyed during World War II. Hopefully, they will be rediscovered someday, much like the original reels of Sergei Eisenstein’s masterpiece Battleship Potemkin were found after years – then Wiene and his Doctor will have to step aside from the top spot in the expressionist realm.

german expressionism the golem

The film from 1920 was primarily made possible by Wegener, who, in addition to directing, also took care of the literary aspect by writing the screenplay and acted as the unforgettable Golem himself. Wegener is an intriguing figure, a precursor to expressionist cinema – he played one of the main roles in Stellan Rye’s The Student of Prague, and on the other hand (much like the mysterious Max Schreck, whom we’ll mention a bit later when discussing F. Murnau), he was an actor in Max Reinhardt’s theater. Reinhardt’s theater, unlike Craig’s ideas, treated the actor as a figure who ideally represents the psychology of the portrayed character. It’s non-expressionistic in nature, yet profoundly influential on German expressionism.

The film transports us to a world where reality collides with fantasy, where the powerful in Prague are depicted as wicked individuals, while the poor Jews from lower social classes are portrayed, as Orwell would say, as “more equal.” While not as psychedelic as the world haunting us from the frames of the somnambulist-murderer story, it is greatly influenced by expressionistic painting preferences. The narrative also includes a theme characteristic of Romanticism: the love between a young man from the upper class and a girl from the lower class, which is brutally interrupted by the intervention of the clay monster. After assisting in convincing the city authorities of the innocence of the Jews, the monster gradually turns against its creators and eventually succumbs to a murderous rage. This rampage is ultimately halted by an innocent girl, fascinated by the shiny “Star of David” on the monster’s chest and captivated by its heart.

german expressionism the golem