German Expressionism was born in the 1920s in its namesake country as a direct response to impressionism, which brought the world realistic art. If impressionism sought to display authentic life, expressionism was the reverse. It too wanted to reflect life, but through metaphor, allegory, and symbolism. World War I was over, but those who returned brought it back with them. Expressionism allowed artists to explore themes like madness, betrayal, and death without being overt.
Expressionism touched many aspects of life in the '20s from architecture to dance, painting to sculpture, and perhaps most memorably, in a burgeoning new art form taking place in America and Europe: cinema. Films started looking different. Ambitious set designs made use of sharp geometic shapes, unbalanced lines and angles. Shadows were often painted on floors, ceilings, and walls. All these efforts were there to express inner emotions, to punctuate them. If realism was presenting life as square and within the frame, expressionist filmmakers wanted sharp lines that broke free of the camera's eye. Expressionism was unsettling and unpredictable, like life itself.
Since the '20s German Expressionism has invaded all types of movies. It's most prominently associated with film noir, a genre infested with mystery and shadows. These days you're most likely to find expressionism in science fiction where outer space presents a permanently black backdrop. However, horror movies also make use of expressionism to set an ominous tone. In fact, the first German Expressionist films could be considered horror movies. Here are some of our favorite examples of expressionism's influence on cinema since the '20s.
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)
Directed by Robert Wiene
Considered by many to be the first true example of German Expressionism in film, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is about a crazy hypnotist who enlists a sleepwalker to commit murders for him. The plot was risqué for the time, but what really stands out is the production design. It has a twisted visual style to reflect the madness of the story not unlike the work of Salvador Dali. Shadows and light were hand painted on backdrops and the set pieces break out of frame to convey discord.
Directed by F.W. Murnau
Murnau's unauthorized version of Bram Stoker's Dracula might be the most famous vampire movie in the world. Unlike Caligari, actual shadows were used in frame to create menace as opposed to madness. Count Orlock's nightmarish fingernails only grow larger in shadow as he slinks around looking for his next neck to suck.
Directed by Fritz Lang
Lang's classic is about the hunt for a serial killer who goes after children. The police and a group of vigilantes catch him and try him in a kangaroo court where the accused explains his uncontrollable urges. Lang's heavy use of darkness makes M an expressionist masterpiece, along with Orson Welles' fantastic madman performance.
Directed by Tod Browning & Karl Freund (uncredited)
Dracula brought German Expressionism to America where Dracula birthed a slew of monster movies that primarily take place in the dark (Frankenstein, The Mummy, Werewolf of London, The Wolf Man). German cinematographer Karl Freund is usually given a co-credit because Browning left him alone on set so much. His stylized backdrops and lighting set the tone for the other Universal monster movies of the time.
Cat People (1942)
Directed by Jacques Tourneur
A horror classic, Cat People is about a woman who's cursed to turn into a panther when sexually aroused or angered. Hugely expressionistic, the film is sometimes referred to negatively for being overly so. Evil is implied, famously in the swimming pool scene, by using shadows and atmosphere.
Directed by Alfred Hitchcock
World War II slowed the production of artistic films, especially German Expressionist works, for years starting in the late 1930s as American studios turned to supporting the war effort with propaganda pictures. The Nazi regime cast a pall over all of Europe. After the war, however, film became a go-to respite similar to baseball in America. It was time to live life again.
The world's most famous filmmaker, Alfred Hitchcock, was schooled in German Expressionism during a stint as assistant director/art director at the UFA Babelsberg Studios in Berlin in 1924. He worked on a movie called The Blackguard and the sets Hitchcock designed were heavily expressionistic. The British director brought that influence with him when he eventually settled in Hollywood, and started making some of the greatest thrillers in film history.
In 1960, Psycho was released and it immediately changed film forever. The bathroom scene, whereby the killer's silhouette is visible through the shower curtain, looks like scenes from Nosferatu. Themes of madness and taboo create the dread in the movie and have been imitated for years.
Eyes Without a Face (1960)
Directed by Georges Franju
Now a classic, Eyes Without a Face debuted the same year as Psycho and critics of the time saw the German Expressionist influence and disregarded it as a copycat. Time tells a different tale, however. The movie has become hugely influential as an artistic horror film willing to traverse the deepest depths of human emotion.
The Exorcist (1973)
Directed by William Friedkin
Another film cloaked in darkness — even The Exorcist's poster is an expressionist masterpiece. Director William Friedkin's artistic sensibilities trended towards expressionism in certain scenes of The Exorcist. The threat of the demon pervades in a sensory way unlike other films of the time.
The Films of Tim Burton
Batman (1989), Edward Scissorhands (1990), Batman Returns (1992)
Although he doesn't explicitly make horror movies, director Tim Burton borrows elements of horror to create his gothic visual style. He brought German Expressionism to the world of superheroes when he made the first two Batman movies in the late 1980s and early '90s. Both of these films take place almost exclusively in the dark. Both feature villains worthy of a horror film, and both make use of shadow to introduce characters or intimidate. Gotham City is a towering gray metropolis where the sun seems to never come out. In Batman Returns, The Penguin is presented much like Nosferatu once was, his shadow creeping along the wall as he walks closer to us. Likewise, Edward Scissorhands, which is not a horror film but feels like one at times, also uses dark shadow to portend evil things. Although, Burton usually subverts it, using our expectations against us to create humor.
Directed by James Wan
Another more modern example of expressionistic sensibility in horror can be found in Insidious, which makes use of shadow in a threatening manner and relies on darkness to create suspense.
The Babadook (2014)
Directed by Jennifer Kent
Likewise, The Babadook uses expressionism as the chief vehicle for presenting its villain. Mr. Babadook is essentially a shadow himself and his long arms and movements speak to that notion.