Expressionism in Film

“Expressionism” refers to the manner of visual (or other artistic) expression that seeks to represent the external world as a reflection of the inner feelings of the author. This is in sharp contrast to Realism, which seeks to present the external world “objectively", independent of any particular personal point of view. The Expressionist movement rose in Western Europe during the latter part of the 19th Century as an aesthetic reaction against academic standards associated with the Classicism of Greek and Roman antiquity, as well as against the scientific/mechanistic spirit that had arisen during the Industrial Revolution. Although there were similar artistic tendencies present in much earlier artistic works, such as that of El Greco, as well as in other cultures, such as Chinese and Japanese art, the emergence of Expressionism as a major artistic movement is generally associated with the work of the Norwegian Edward Munch and the German schools of Die Brucke in 1905 and Der Blauer Reiter in 1912. These latter schools featured the celebrated works of Franz Marc, Paul Klee, August Macke, Wassilly Kandinsky, and others.

In their paintings, Munch and the German Expressionists presented a world that is distorted and coloured by the inner emotions evoked in the subjective viewer. This is a highly charged, emotional world vastly different from the photographic reality captured by a camera. The attempt is made to show that there is not so much a separation from the inner state of the subject and the external world as perceived by that subject. For example, when the subject is fear, every aspect of the physical world is shown to be nightmarishly oppressive and threatening. A celebrated example is Munch’s painting, “The Scream”. In fact, the most compelling examples of Expressionist painting often depict a disturbing world reflective of an unnatural emotional state.

It was natural for Expressionism to find outlets in other artistic media. For both theatre and film, there was the additional dimension of time, in addition to those of space and colour, to be given Expressionist expression. However, the Expressionist movement in German art was interrupted by the horrors of World War I, but resumed even more brilliantly in the following period of the Weimar Republic. The period was extraordinary, because it offered a unique environment for Expressionism to flourish. Here is what Jeffrey Bader has to say about the Weimar Culture [1]:
The Weimar years (1918-1933) marked a period of political disintegration offset by cultural brilliance. Artistic and academic life enjoyed a freedom and attained an excellence unprecedented during the philistine years of the Wilhelminian Empire and unapproached during the Third Reich. Art and architecture were dominated by the Bauhaus, whose influence was later strongly felt in America. Outstanding German language writers of these years included Thomas Mann, Hermann Hesse, Rilke, Stefan George, Franz Kafka, and Bertolt Brecht. The physical and social sciences produced countless creative thinkers who as emigres stocked American and British universities after 1933. And the Germans were far ahead of their Western counterparts in the art and technology of filmmaking.

The dominant trend of the early Weimar years in visual and literary art was Expressionism. Kandinsky, Marc, and others had experimented with Expressionist techniques before the War, but Expressionism did not achieve the status of a school until after the War. The chief formative experience in the culture of the times was, not surprisingly, the horror and destruction of the War. The artists tried to depict the disintegration of moral values wrought by the War and sought to create the basis of a new humane and moral culture. The destructive side of the Expressionists’ work is perhaps more obvious. The rejection of the “objective” world of realism in favor of a primitive, but jangled visual world of broad and colorful planes and lines is characteristic of Expressionist art. Combined with a peculiarly German penchant for pagan mythology, Gothic milieux, suicide, insanity, and death, Expressionism in the theater provided an excellent vehicle for themes of horror and destruction. The Expressionists were consciously revolutionary; many of them were strong supporters of the revolution of 1918 and were disgusted when militarism, capitalist greed, and bourgeois respectability reasserted themselves in the 1920s. If Expression ever had a positive political creed, its enthusiasm for the Republic was dampened by the failure of the Republic to achieve the promised transformation of society.

The cultural richness of Weimar Germany was eradicated by the onset of Nazism. Official Nazi doctrine labelled most Weimar culture as “Jewish-Bolshevik” and degenerate, and a sort of sentimental social realism became the standard. Weimar artists and thinkers found a more receptive climate in the West, whose culture and science they continued to enrich after 1933 as they had enriched Germany before that date.
In addition, here is further commentary concerning the rise of the German Expressionist film during this period [2]:
In Europe at the turn of the century, within the framework of a swelling dissatisfaction with the general status quo, grew a malaise in artistic circles. The germinal tendency away from Impressionism and its exclusive preoccupation with surface phenomena, its study of the effects of light upon form, had already pointed in two directions. In Paris it led to Fauvism and Cubism, stressing formal elements of design (line, figure, background, color, composition) for their own sake. The urge to represent reality gradually waned, finally giving rise to pure abstract art.

In Germany the counter-reaction took a subjective, introspective turn. There the ascendant impulse was to bare the secrets of the soul. These artists, “Expressionists”, as they were to be labelled, wanted to dissect nature and reinterpret it according to the workings of each individual psyche. It was an exploration of man’s inner life. But man’s inner life was shrouded in unfathomable mysteries. Whereas Freud was moved to explain them rationally, the Expressionists desired an emotional statement, often with mythical or religious overtones. This is the key to Expressionism. It emphasized the emotional experience in its most intense and concentrated formulation. The Expressionist proclaimed emotion at any cost, often as the noted art historian Sir Herbert Read put it, to the point of “an exaggeration or distortion of natural appearances which bordered on the grotesque”. They constantly derived inspiration from Van Gogh, who had insisted that the artist’s task was to interpret fundamental emotions like joy, sorrow, anger, and fear. Characteristic of the kind of experience which stirred them was that described by Edvard Munch in 1889 [3],

“'One evening I was walking along a path -- on one side lay the city and below me the fjord, I was tired and ill -- I stopped and looked out across the fjord -- the sun was setting -- the clouds were dyed red like blood. I felt a scream pass through nature; it seemed to me that I could hear the scream. I painted this picture -- painted the clouds as real blood. The colours were screaming -- this became the picture from 'The Frieze of Life'.”
For each artist, emotional needs, psychological pressures, and private obsessions transformed nature into his own symbolic inner reality.

Although German Expressionism had already developed in literature and painting before World War I, it achieved its most vivid statements only after 1918. The postwar intellectual climate favored radical change; it was virtually unanimous that the inherited ideas and conservative values of the authoritarian Kaiserreich, largely responsible for the gloom and defeat of the war, were to be discarded. Many yearned for nothing less than the spiritual rebirth of mankind. Some were optimistic, others sceptical, but all were anticipating a radical redefinition of man an society. And for most, Expressionism was the means.

The cinema was especially suited to these revolutionary concepts. It was unencumbered by traditional dogma of style or technique. Furthermore it had only begun to realize is expressive possibilities and stir the imagination before it was taken over by the war-propaganda machine. After the war it was freed and endowed with enlightened governmental support. When The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (by Robert Wiene) first appeared in 1920, it was immediately acclaimed as the first work of art in the cinema. It seemed to embody in concrete visual terms directions the intellectual community had been eagerly anticipating. All elements of the full-blown Expressionist style were there. The sets were entirely studio-made, fully in keeping with the tendency to deny nature while emphasizing inner experience. Once inside their studios, German directors and technicians explored all means of developing lighting technique and decor in order to underscore dramatic impact and to establish and sustain mood or atmosphere. In Caligari, the sets were grossly distorted (spider-like trees, leaning rhomboid houses, crooked windows, walls painted with angular black-and-white designs) to evoke an aura of anxiety and dread.

Lighting technique had at first been taken over directly from the theater, but soon developed for cinematic purposes. Eventually, the Expressionist director could flood a set to get flat, blanched characters and objects, and dark angular shadows; flood it from both sides to eliminate shadows; bathe it in soft light to emphasize mass; in dim light for haunting chiaroscuro; or from above or below, depending on the mood to be conveyed or the dramatic content to be intensified.

Acting was an integral part of the Expressionist style. Gestures were brusque and exaggerated. When seen today, they seem overwrought, at times ludicrous. But it must be borne in mind that their intention was exactly parallel to the Expressionist painters’ desire for intense emotional expression through their garish color contrasts and their grotesque deformation of form. Expressionist acting was not without its compelling examples. e.g. Werner Krauss as the unscrupulous Dr. Caligari. And unforgettable is Conrad Veidt as Cesare, the somnambulist who kills at the behest of Caligari, as he glides along a wall in unctuous harmony with it.

An incredible assortment of phantoms, vampires, ghosts, devils, mandrakes, and themes of death, fate, mystery, and horror proliferated on the German screen during the Expressionist years. Much was derived from eerie Gothic tales and legends, for the medieval period was a time when mysterious universal forces were tolerated and revered without explanation. The Expressionists assumed the same mystical approach, evincing a similar desire to sacrifice themselves to and revel in these mysterious forces. Clemenceau was once moved to remark, in light of this characteristic German fascination, that the difference between the Germans and other races is that Germans have a taste for death, whereas other nations have a taste for life. Lotte Eisner adds that “the weird pleasure the Germans take in evoking horror can perhaps be ascribed to the excessive and very Germanic desire to submit to discipline, together with a certain proneness to sadism” [4]. Whatever the reasons for its existence, the traditional German focus on the murky side of life was a fortunate circumstance. It was ideally suited to the Expressionist temperament and to visual representation.

In their tender care for exposing on the screen cosmic essence and energy, the Germans have been criticized for their slowness of pace. They have been quick to reply that it is necessary to exhaust all the possibilities for the mood of a situation in order to chart the furthest recesses of the soul. The slowness in earlyl German films, when it occurs, must be tolerated; it should be treated as an occasion for losing oneself in the Expressionist mentality.

Sadly, the German cinema was not able to produce films of such precious quality indefinitely. Some recognise the beginning of a decline as early as 1925. Though less prevalent, films of excellence continued to issue from Germany in the late Twenties and early Thirties. The decline of the German cinema has been attributed to several factors. In the mid-Twenties, a strong trend toward realism began to undercut Expressionism, starting with the so-called “street film” – simple attempts at depicting life in the streets. Moving out of the Expressionists sway, they mobilized the camera to accompany the characters, recording their natural gestures in realistic surroundings. Moreover, the chaotic social conditions (inflation, political machinations, intrigue, assassinations) of later Weimar Germany made it impossible for creative minds to remain isolated in fantasy. And that always willing antagonist, Hollywood, took a heavy tool. Not only did it compete successfully for box-offices inside and outside Germany, but it lured away whatever directors, actors, and technicians of talent it could buy. The final blow was levelled by the political interferences and harassment from the Nazi government.

The legacy of the pure Expressionist years (1919-25) and their aftermath (1925-33) was priceless to the development of the cinema. According to Arthur Knight [5],
“In other lands other directors had already developed the techniques of film. It remained for the Germans to take the vocabulary and extend it, deepening and enriching the entire medium, turning to themes, emotions, and relationships never before essayed on the screen. And to treat these new subjects, the German artist evolved additional techniques that are still impressive for their boldness and originality. They discovered the importance of costume and decor and lighting, the nuances of acting for the camera and, perhaps most important of all, they treated the camera itself as a creative rather than simply a recording instrument. . . . They rarely venture outside the studio, preferring to create their settings from the ground up, to control every aspect of their production. As a result, one is at all times intensely aware of the artistry in each of these pictures, of the skill and planning and technical mastery that went into their making.”
Some of the outstanding German Expressionist films during this period that I have had the good fortune to view are:
  • The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), directed by Robert Wiene
  • The Golem (1920), directed by Paul Wegener
  • Destiny (“Der Mude Tod”, 1921), directed by Fritz Lang
  • Dr. Mabuse, Der Spieler (1922), directed by Fritz Lang
  • Warning Shadows (1922), directed by Arthur Robinson
  • Nosferatu (1922), directed by F. W. Murnau
  • Siegfried (Niebellungen, Part I, 1923)
  • Waxworks (1924), directed by Paul Leni
  • The Last Laugh (1925), directed by F. W. Murnau
  • Faust (1926), directed by F. W. Murnau
  • Metropolis (1926), directed by Fritz Lang
  • The Love of Jeanne Ney (1927), directed by G. W. Pabst
  • The Threepenny Opera (1931), directed by G. W. Pabst
  • The Blue Angel (Der Blaue Engel, 1930), directed by Josef von Sternberg
  • M (1931), directed by Fritz Lang
Although the German Expressionist school declined in the 1930s, that was far from the end of Expressionism in film. From the above list it can be seen that F. W. Murnau and Fritz Lang continued their work in America. And Josef von Sternberg, born in Austria, was essentially an American who just came over to Germany to direct a single picture, The Blue Angel, and then returned (with its star, Marlene Dietrich) to the United States to continue the Expressionist film tradition.

It should be emphasised that though the early German Expressionist films were almost like direct transcriptions of Expressionist painting into a cinematic form, gradually, the Expressionist themes were conveyed in a wider variety of ways and with more degrees of subtlety. These varying degrees of subtlety mean that Expressionism in film today is not simply a black-and-white issue. Many films can be considered to be Expressionist to a certain extent. Indeed, since we can say that films correspond more to our dreams than to our lived reality, it might be said that all films are to some extent Expressionistic.

Nevertheless, we can identify certain filmmakers as more emphatically Expressionistic than mainstream. Evident examples include Josef von Sternberg, Orson Welles, Jacques Tourneur, Werner Herzog, Roman Polanski, and Wong Kar Wai. Others directors, such as Ingmar Berman and Alfred Hitchcock, evince strong Expressionistic tendencies only on certain occasions. But with our broader perspecitve concerning what comprises Expressionism and its techniques, I contend that there are still other directors who are normally considered very much outside the scope of Expressionism who, nevertheless, can be considered to be Expressionistic. This group includes Robert Bresson, Kenji Mizoguchi, Carl Dreyer, and Michelangelo Antonioni.

The Expressionist elements, themes, and techniques outlined here are explored in more detail in connection with my further examinations of individual films and filmmakers.

  1. J. A. Bader, “Weimar Culture”, German Expressionist Film Festival, 1970, University of Massachusetts, Amherst, MA.
  2. M. Purvis and R. K. Wood, German Expressionist Film Festival, 1970, University of Massachusetts, Amherst, MA.
  3. M. Julius, “The Compulsive Subjectivity of Edvard Munch”, Contemporary Review, Jan, 1993,;col1.
  4. L. Eisner, The Haunted Screen: Expressionism in the German Cinema and the Influence of Max Reinhardt, 1974, University of California Press.
  5. A. Knight, The Liveliest Art; A Panoramic History of the Movies, 1957, Macmillan, New York.

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