actors, culture, directors, History in Films, movies

German Expressionism


Conrad Veidt plays Gwynplain in The Man Who Laughs, 1928

If you love Batman and know the history of his enemies, you already know The Joker was inspired by the American silent film, The Man Who Laughs, released in 1928. Wearing dental apparatus and fake teeth, Conrad Veidt’s look was downright ghastly and explains why people (including myself) suffer from coulrophobia. What happened in the German theater in the 1920s influenced the studios in Hollywood in the 20s and 30s and the genre of the horror story–and science fiction if you consider Metropolis–began. Creepy and macabre is how I like it, and it all began with German filmmakers like Fritz Lang. This brief time span influenced the filmmakers discussed with reverence today like Alfred Hitchcock, Orson Welles, Billy Wilder, and Tim Burton. Also, its influence melted into the elements of the American film noir like The Big Sleep.

What is German Expressionism?

Maybe you never went to film school or are unaware of German Expressionism. Simply stated, it was an art movement in film during the Weimar Republic (1919-1933). At its height during the decade of the 1920s, it was a German reaction to the horrors of World War I. Mutilated soldiers returned with haunted eyes, hopeless, and depressed. I speculate the society as a whole suffered from nightmares more than dreams. It would explain why Germans are stereotyped as a notoriously serious culture. I read a fascinating article, scholarship suggesting the correlation between the Weimar years of emasculated men who committed depraved sex acts and murders against women particularly in 1920. This reaction to the war might be a link explaining the mindset of a society that allowed Nazi intolerance toward Jews. 

In a paralyzed German society after WWI, it is easier to understand how horror came to be expressed on the film screen.

Examples You Should Watch

Abstract production designs mimicked Surrealism in art. Architecture with exaggerated lines and points replicated the skyscraper. Shadows, nightmares, long staircases, dream sequences, ghoulish villains and pretty, naïve women nurtured the psychologically damaged. The Man Who Laughs is an example of German Expressionism taking root in Hollywood. If you have 14 minutes, try this documentary short about the love story of a maimed man who falls in love with a blind girl:   


Nosferatu (1922)

Inspired by Bram Stoker’s classic, Dracula, actor Max Schrek plays the vampire Count Orlok the nocturnal stalker in F.W. Murnau’s masterpiece, Nosferatu. As an aside, have you seen Shadow of the Vampire (2000) with Willem Defoe as Count Orlok? I highly recommend it.


 Fritz Lang


Metropolis (1927) is a Fritz Lang masterpiece. In the future in a utopian world, Thinkers are all head and Workers are all heart. One group lives above ground and clueless how their towering metropolis functions while the other group lives underground, an exploited work force that wants a rebellion. Modern and marvelous, it astounds me this was created in 1927. If you have to sit through one silent film, let it be this.

M (1931)

German police cannot find a child murderer and criminals join the manhunt. Peter Lorre is great in this role and follows German filmakers to Hollywood and stars and speaks in film noir classics like The Maltese Falcon. 


Victor Hugo

United Pictures tried their hand with silent films in the German style with material adapted from Hugo’s classic tales, The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923) and The Phantom of the Opera in 1925 with Lon Chaney. With their popular success, United Pictures created a franchise in the 1930s. Monster movies like James Whale’s Frankenstein, The Werewolf, The Mummy, and Dracula were commercial successes.

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, 1920 

(1920) The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari
(1920) The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari

Robert Wiene directed the quintessential German Expressionist film. The twisted Dr. Caligari has an exhibit where he keeps Cesare in a closet. He is able to foretell the future and like a zombie, stalks and kidnaps a beautiful girl named Jane. Madness and mayhem. It’s a simple story surrounded by all the characteristics of German Expressionism. Shadows. Long staircases. Symbols. Madness. Murder. Darkness. Unrealistic settings. A nightmare come true.


Can you guess the following films and why they are considered a bow of respect to German Expressionism? Here’s a set of Alfred Hitchcock examples.


 Here’s another set. Can you guess which particular film influenced these contemporary remakes?

What are your thoughts about German Expressionism? Does it seem to you, as it does to  me, that German Expressionism is very similar to the characteristics of Gothic born in the Romantic period?

43 thoughts on “German Expressionism”

  1. Now that on mention it, I can see why you added Hitchcock in your post. Up to that point, I was thinking, “Well, I don’t think I can stomach any of these dark movies.” And there you added a curve ball! Again, I enjoyed your post! ❤


      1. And the more I think about his films, those scenes, for lack of a better word because my brain is tired, are what really made his films succeed. It’s nice to see ‘m from a different perspective. Thank you, Cindy 🙂


        1. My pleasure. I love Hitchcock. I liked his use of color, like in Vertigo, the green is used throughout to symbolize jealousy. Same rhetorical devices used in books–it’s fitting as a visual in a film.


  2. Excellent post. I think Fritz Lang is the filmmaker who inspired pretty much all of the dark Sci fi we see today. The city in metropolis has kind of become the definitive oppressive future vision. Another example of this would be Dark City. It’s visuals are like this all the way through


  3. Forty years ago, PBS ran a great series on these movies. I think it might have been in concert with the American Film Institute. I don’t remember the term “German Expressionism” being used, but perhaps it was. Does anyone remember the series?


    1. Bill! Welcome back. Glad for your excellent observation regarding Orson Welles. ‘The Trial’ with Anthony Perkins– my brain conjures up The Third Man and Citizen Kane as examples but I forgot that gem. Thanks.


    1. I did not realize he passed away in May. RIP.
      I should think so. Some of his female aliens looks akin to the original in Metropolis. I don’t know if that’s correct, but I can see how you went there. Thanks, John 🙂


  4. Fantastic post Cindy! It’s a topic I’m not familiar with so hey, you learn something new every day! 🙂 I didn’t know The Joker was inspired by The Man Who Laughs, very interesting indeed.


    1. I love researching. It’s crazy how one topic leads you to another and the connections that arise. Especially stuff that’s common knowledge to a certain group, like comic book enthusiasts I just discovered for myself the other day. Clownish grins, I’m sure ‘The Man Who Laughs’ is the film from my childhood that made me scared of them. 😉


      1. Hi, Cindy and Ruth:

        Bob Kane and his creation, ‘Batman’ have been adding to the H.P. Lovecraft Mythos for ages. With his inclusion of Arkham Asylum (‘Rats In The Walls’) and The Lazarus Pit (A hat tip to the dimensional portal in ‘Color Out of Time’.

        Excellent connection between ‘The Man Who Laughs’ and Jack Napier, AKA The Joker!


        1. Kevin, thanks, my friend, for your insights. I’m fascinated with Peter Lorre these days and his career transistion from silent films to speaking roles. That whole exodus of Germans over to U.S.; the connection and relationships in film; the blendings of genres between German Expressionism and film noir as well as surrealism in art, art deco in architecture, modernism in literature–well, shoot, the whole time period between world wars is a pocket of history I can’t get enough of– all art.


  5. Hi Cindy, I didn’t really know anything about this subject before reading your post , but it seems obvious now that Tim Burton takes a lot of inspiration from German Expressionism, with the characteristic sharp bold shapes featured in his sets and lighting/shadows.
    I also realised that the name of one of the villains in Batman Returns is Max Schreck, the same name as the actor who plays Count Orlok in Nosferatu!


  6. Hi, Cindy:

    Very intriguing choice!

    Murnau could do more with a shadow and in possible intent of fright and harm than any American director ever could! And having Fritz Lang as a devout and learned acolyte didn’t hurt, either!

    German expressionism to me means the ability to seduce and repulse at the same time. While usually adding the visualization of the character’s thought overlaid into a scene (The chariot scene with Spencer Tracy and his lady love in ‘Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde’ speaks volumes!). Todd Browning had it in spades with his revenge of the carnival scene in ‘Freaks’. While Hitchcock borrowed liberally for ‘Shadow of Doubt’, ‘Touch of Evil’, ‘Psycho’ and the tennis match and Merry-Go-Round scenes in ‘Strangers on a Train’. And Carol Reed’s ‘The Third Man’ is an homage to shadow, mystery, sound and claustrophobia.

    Though my favorite is the scene from ‘Night of the Hunter’. Where the kids are paddling a John Boat through the marshes and pass by a quickly revealed spider in its web.


    1. Yes, Mitchum and Winters–I felt soooo much for Willa Harper. Yes, the boat passes underneath, very creeepy. I love the shadows and sillouettes and the wish the boy would not succumb to the personality of Mitchum’s character. What a stellar film. I like your definition of German Expresssionalism: German expressionism to me means the ability to seduce and repulse at the same time. I like that. Ambivalence is THE most unusual and fascinating human feeling. To carry it off in any art form is the highest form of art, in my estimation. Thanks, Kevin 🙂


  7. Excellent write-up Cindy. I wanted to read this for sometime, and kept the link with me. And I also read the very deeply analytical ‘Lust and Murder in Weimar’ (the link you had given). I really enjoyed that too.
    Hitchcock – I can recognize ‘Spellbound’ (I think) & ‘Psycho’. The contemporary movies, I can see ‘Edward Scissorhand’ and two ‘Batman’ movies.
    Lang’s ‘Metropolis’ happens to be my favorite German Expressionism film so far.
    Am still waiting to watch ‘Nosferatu’ and ‘The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari’.


    1. Hi! Sorry for the late response, Nuwansen. It means a lot you have found the time to read the post as well as the link. Sweet! When you watch Nosferatu don’t forget to watch Willem Defoe and John Malkovich version. It’s really great. 🙂


  8. Definitely a number of similarities to the Gothic.

    Oh and I had zero idea that the Joker was based on a silent film. Now that I see the photos, it is clear, though. So. Thanks for teaching me something! 🙂


      1. I saw that you have a book already published. Good for you. I’ve written two novels but I haven’ submitted. Hobby writing mostly.
        That is a great setting! Are you fluent in German?


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