10 Essential Films For An Introduction To German Expressionist Cinema

5. M (Fritz Lang, 1931)

m 1931

M, magnum opus of acclaimed director Fritz Lang, is a rather late movie of the movement. It is the only ‘talkie’ on this list and has both political and artistic importance. Joseph Goebbels, propaganda minister in the Nazi Government, always showed an interest in Lang’s filmmaking and had a special connection with this film. He asked Lang to direct Nazi propaganda movies. Lang said he would think it and escaped to Paris that night. Lang always thought that Goebbels got the movie “wrong”.

M is set in Berlin which is haunted by a child-molesting serial killer brilliantly portrayed by Peter Lorre. The film moves between the story of the killer – who whistles the tune of ‘In the Hall of the Mountain King’ whenever he feels the urge to murder – and the police who are hunting him. Its striking ending is a big question thrown on the face of German people. The film depicts the mass hysteria of then-Germany in a very visionary way. It was an early warning of the rising Nazi dictatorship, or perhaps of all potential dictatorships.


4. Die Büchse der Pandora – Pandora’s Box (G. W. Pabst, 1929)

Pandora’s Box

G.W. Pabst is known to international audiences for two things. The first is this film; the second is being mentioned by name several times in Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds. Of course, Pandora’s Box has a significant value for Pabst’s career. However, the movie owes its fame to Louise Brooks, an American star, who played the leading role, Lulu, a flapper and the mistress of a rich man.

Pandora’s Box tells the story of Lulu, an ill-fated seductive young woman who can be seen as the first example of the femme fatale. Her character annoyed lots of people in Germany since her behavior was viewed as immoral. However, Lulu made Louise Brooks famous and inspired the female characters of film noir. The film is a brilliant portrait of Weimar era and the Jazz age, where there is no place for “free” women and what awaits for those who would like to stand alone and strong is tragedy.


3. Metropolis (Fritz Lang, 1927)


Metropolis is an important example of German Expressionism and of early science fiction. A great inquiry on future of humanity, a critique of society, a prominent dystopian film. Fritz Lang’s remarkable work has dazzlingly designed sets, costumes and unpredictable characters. Beneath its magnificent artwork and set design, the film tells the eternal conflict between oppressed and oppressor.

The movie depicts the story of Freder, son of the ruler of the city and Maria, a working class woman who strives to overcome the social and economic stratification of the city. The city was designed to reflect the social hierarchy with the upper classes living in imposing high-rise buildings and the lower classes dwell underground. A mad scientist, Rotwang, creates a robot identical to Maria in order to thwart the revolt led by Maria and Freder. However, nothing goes as he plans and through Freder’s character, a way to connect the brain and hands is found.

Metropolis received mixed reviews at the time. It was technically breathtaking and revolutionary. However, its message was criticized by both right and left wing scholars in Germany. Nevertheless, it is an indispensable movie. With its subtle references to art history and religious texts, and its design influenced both by Dutch Masters, ancient architecture and Art Deco, Metropolis is a great movie for all cinephiles. It provides important social critique despite the ending being considered by many as naïve.


2. Nosferatu (F. W. Murnau, 1922)


The first Dracula adaptation into big screen, Nosferatu is the magnum opus of director Murnau (at least in his German period, since Sunrise is also a masterpiece) . Nosferatu is the classical vampire story with “nosferatu” replacing “vampire” and Count Orlok replaced Count Dracula. This film is a classical example of German Expressionism with its dark/light games, use of shadow and its cornered, harsh costume and space design. For example, the city where Thomas Hutter (Jonathan Harker in the original) lives has a peaceful and realistic design; but Count Orlok’s castle, his costumes and the vampire itself obviously has one of the most disturbing design approach ever in film history.

Max Schreck, actor who played Orlok in the movie, played his role so convincing that the rumour that he is really a vampire continues today and even inspired a movie in 1999, Shadow of the Vampire. This movie was sued by relatives of Bram Stoker and it was decided to be destroyed; all but one copy survived up to date giving a chance to all cinephiles in the world to watch this amazing movie.


1. Das Cabinet des Dr.Caligari – The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (Robert Wiene, 1920)


The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is a truly masterpiece and the most characteristic movie of the genre. Also, it is the first movie with a twist in the tail. Caligari, with its genre-defining set design, make-up, costume design, unrealistic use of paints, lights and shadows is the most important film of German Expressionism.

Furthermore, Caligari is the movie which is used both in Siegfried Kracauer’s book “From Caligari to Hitler” (1947) and Rüdiger Suchsland’s documentary “Caligari – When Horror Comes to Cinema” (2014). It is seen as an important reflection of the German society and the political situation which led the Nazi Party, Hitler to the government and whole world to a tragedy.

In the movie, Dr.Caligari a magician type doctor comes to a city and exhibits a somnambulist which he can control hypnotically. The somnambulist has a striking ability to answer questions about the future when in sleep. Somnambulist Cesare actually is a slave of Dr.Caligari and their master/slave relationship brings horror to the city and madness to the leading characters of the film. But who is really mad is not certain until its striking end.

Dr.Caligari has an innovative style which comprised flashbacks, dream sequences, twisted endings – a new approach in cinema which is still fresh and eye-opener. With its exaggerated acting and stylish expressionist understanding in the “unreal/past/dream” scenes and its more consistent narration in the frame story, Robert Wiene marks his name in the history of cinema with this unbelievable movie.

Author Bio: Ekin Can Göksoy is a social scientist/author with an M.A in Cultural Studies from İstanbul Bilgi University, Turkey. He is working on subcultures, sociology of Internet and freedom. He is an occasional cinema writer pursuing his aim of making movies since 7th grade when he watched The Man Who Knew Too Much of Alfred Hitchcock who happened to be his favorite director of all-time.