German Expressionist Cinema

German Expressionist cinema grew out of the Expressionist artistic movement that took root in Eastern Europe and Germany prior to World War I which reached its height in the 1920s.  The Expressionist movement encompassed many art forms including literature, music, the visual arts and theater.  It reflected the anxiety, cynicism and insecurities of the new modernity, and, in the case of Weimar Germany, it coincided with a time of social, political and cultural upheaval.

Expressionism sought to convey man’s subjective inner experience and avoid traditional forms of beauty and harmony.  The emotions of anxiety, despair, sense of loss, and betrayal experienced as a result of the horrors of World War I became pervasive in the movement.  Visual artists like Otto Dix, Georg Groscz and Kaethe Kollwitz created harsh  works with angular, sharply contrasted light and dark that gave expression to the overwhelming sense of alienation and shattered psyche resulting from the trauma of the war.  German Expressionist cinema took its cue from these visual images.

The new medium of film was particularly suited to the Expressionist sentiment.  Movies could visually make the darkness of the human psyche real.  They could blur the lines between dreams and reality, madness and sanity, and good and evil.  The contrasts of light and dark, the depiction human existence within the shadows, reached deep into the most primal of human emotions and fears.

Characteristics of the Expressionist style in German cinema include chiaroscuro lighting, angular, disorienting graphics, special effects, and elaborate fabricated sets.  Plots may include flashbacks, dream sequences, or scenes where the sanity of the character is called into question.  Characters might be monsters, magicians, criminals, devils, murderers, doppelgaengers or swindlers.  Gestures are exaggerated and convey raw emotion.

The influence of the directors, production designers, cinematographers, writers and actors who created the Expressionist  style in Germany many of whom later worked in Hollywood  can be seen in the  development of the movie genres of horror, film noir and science fiction.