10 Essential Films For An Introduction To German Expressionist Cinema

best german expressionist films

Like Italian Neorealism, German Expressionism had a direct relation with the politics of the time. Neorealism emerged after fascism destroyed Italy. In response, leftist filmmakers tried to create a cinema which dealt with the social realities produced by fascism. German Expressionism was born in between two World Wars, in a growing Germany where Weimar Republic had a promising future. The German Emperor had been overthrown and democracy was established. Nevertheless, this new Republic still had its problems. There was a looming economic crisis and anti-Semitism was a on the rise. In the midst of all this, the new Republic promised freedom. The music and literary scenes were on the rise in Germany.

After the Allied ban on cinema was lifted on 1920 – a ban on making films against Allies of WWI – Germans started to search for a project which could combine social critique with the artistic perfection of German filmmakers. This project was Das Cabinet des Dr.Caligari – The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. This film which defined German Expressionism was critically hailed in Europe and further afield. It had a significant impact on filmmaking and brought about an opportunity for German filmmakers to work in international projects, particularly in United States.

After World War II, prominent cultural theorist Siegfried Kracauer wrote an important book on Expressionist film detailing how it foreshadowed the Nazi regime and the total eclipse of reason which accompanied it. Of course, German Expressionism was much more than a precessor of Nazism. This movement has many films with a unique style which can be attributed to its relationship to and reflection of architecture. Expressionism has a city-in-its mind: a city with sharp angles, great heights, crowded places; a city which is unsettling, distressing and in a constant state of anxiety.

To depict life in Weimar Republic, filmmakers chose unrealistic, cartoon-like places with dark colors, painted on canvas backgrounds which resemble Edvard Munch’s paintings (an Expressionist painter from Norway best known for his painting ‘The Scream’). After the rise of Third Reich, German Expressionist filmmakers had no choice but to move to the US. The traces of the filmmaking approach that they brought with them can be tracked in the 1940s film noirs.

German Expressionism, in fact, had a very short life span; however, its cinematic style evident through such things as lighting, sets and subtle, metaphorical language has had a great effect on history of cinema.


10. Schatten – Eine nächtliche Halluzination – Warning Shadows (1923)

Warning Shadows (1923)

Warning Shadows tells the story of a baron, his wife and four men who are her lovers. Set in 19th century Germany, the story follows a shadow player who uses his art to narrate the stories about each of the baroness’s lovers. Each story is in a way a prophecy in which the baron realizes that these men are after his wife, becomes jealous and does terrible things to them. Each story is told through shadows as a warning sign to men.

Warning Shadows is a powerful film where the lighting was characteristic and unique, as was the shadow work. Director Arthur Robison, aware of the power of the shadows, tries to imitate the shadow play with his actors also. Set in a claustrophobic castle, camera tracks through dark and narrow corridors and shows the characters behind doors in the shadowy candlelight. Despite its confusing ending, Warning Shadows is an important example of German Expressionism.


9. Der Student von Prag – The Student of Prague (Paul Wegener & Stellan Rye & Hanns Heinz Ewers, 1913)

the student of prague (1913)

This film tells a classic Faustian, ‘deal with devil’ story, a German legend famously reworked by Goethe, although Christopher Marlowe had popularised it in England two hundred years before Goethe’s version. In the film, a student in Prague saves an aristocrat woman and becomes obsessed with her. He makes a deal with a mysterious sorcerer who promises him wealth and fame. Known also as the first feature length horror film, The Student of Prague seems to be inspired both by The Portrait of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson.

The Student of Prague is an important film for German Expressionism and has a remake in the same style which is equally important. In 1926, Henrik Galeen, director of The Golem, shot its remake, which is also worth checking out it.


8. Der Müde Tod – Destiny (Fritz Lang, 1921)

Destiny (1921)

Great German director Fritz Lang’s first important movie Destiny is a tale comprising three stories. The scenes binding the three stories together have an uncanny setting but the film can be seen as an epic love story. A woman is given three chances by Death in three different settings, a Persian, a Venetian in Renaissance and in China, to save her love from death.

In Destiny, Fritz Lang uses innovative effects and hints at the unique style which he develops in his transition movie M. Douglas Banks bought the screening rights in the US and used its Persian extracts in his own movie, Thief of Baghdad.


7. Der Golem – The Golem (Paul Wegener & Henrik Galeen, 1915)

The Golem (1915)

Again a love story but this time a sinister one. The Golem is directed by Galeen and Wegener who also play the leading roles. It tells the story of a man who buys a clay Golem statue and brings it to life. However, when the Golem falls in love with the man’s wife is rejected by her, he becomes brutally out of control.

Inspired by an ancient Jewish tale, The Golem has overtones of Frankenstein with its changes of character depicted in emotional ways. The film is set in a German village in which buildings and houses are made of mud-bricks; but all the streets seem endless and all the houses have disturbing shapes and surprising curves. The setting is designed to prepare us for the bitter ending of the movie.


6. Der Letzte Mann – The Last Laugh (F. W. Murnau, 1924)

The Last Laugh (1924)

This is the first film on the list that is not a horror movie. The Last Laugh, written by one of the pioneers German Expressionism, Carl Mayer, starring the well-known German actor Emil Jannings and directed by the talented but ill-fated Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau, tells the story of a doorman of a great hotel. The film has nearly no intertitles and those that Murnau chose not to add do not convey dialogue. It focuses on life of a middle-class citizen in the post-war period. As an important film of German Expressionism, The Last Laugh also is featured within Kammerspielfilm ecole.

In the film, the poor, old doorman played by Jannings is demoted to washroom attendant in the hotel. He seems dogged by misfortune – even to the point that as the film was about to end on a touch of hope the writer/director iintervenes via an intertitle and changes his life completely. With its innovative, maybe even revolutionary style, The Last Laugh is a great example of F. W. Murnau’s talent and imagination. It is considered the movie which made him famous and paved the way for his move to Hollywood.