Apocalyptic Adolescence: 10 Works Of German Expressionist Cinema by Jonathan McCalmont A NOTE ON TERMINOLOGY

It is traditional essay-writing methodology to begin a piece by defining one’s terms. However, any piece about German expressionism faces a substantial hurdle in that there has never been universal agreement over what the term ‘German expressionism’ actually implies. This lack of agreement is due to two sources of confusion, the semantic and the systemic.

Discussions of German expressionist cinema tend to be over-shadowed by two of the most influential works of film writing ever set down on paper: Lotte H. Eisner’s The Haunted Screen (1952), and Siegfried Kracauer’s From Caligari To Hitler – A Psychological History Of German Film(1947).

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Both books encompass the near totality of Weimar-era German cinema but whereas Kracauer speaks only of ‘Weimar cinema’, Eisner uses the term ‘expressionism’.

The similarities in scope between the books have resulted in the two terms becoming almost interchangeable. Indeed, it is not uncommon to see ‘expressionism’ used as a collective term not only for all of the films of the Weimar Republic but also later films that were influenced by the works of that period.

This semantic drift is partly the result of Eisner’s approach to her subject matter. Eisner was a German Jew who fled her homeland for France in 1933 only to spend much of the war either in hiding or in a French concentration camp. After the war she emerged not only as a film critic but also a poet. Eisner’s personal history is immediately visible in the text of The Haunted Screen.

The book is filled with sweeping generalisations about the ‘German character’ that fall awkwardly upon modern ears and her prose style is more expansive and florid than the more forensic style favoured by the scholars of today. For example, consider Eisner’s opening remarks upon the historical context that expressionist cinema emerged from:

“Mysticism and magic, the dark forces to which Germans have always been more than willing to commit themselves, had flourished in the face of death on the battlefields. The hecatombs of young men fallen in the flower of their youth seemed to nourish the grim nostalgia of the survivors. And the ghosts which had haunted the German Romantics revived, like the shades of Hades after draughts of blood.” [Page 9]

As wonderful as this style of writing is, it does not easily form a basis for forensic historical analysis. To Eisner’s credit, she did spend the rest of her career attempting to tighten up the definition of ‘expressionist cinema’ to a point where it actually meant something concrete, but given the influence of her original book, the damage was done: ‘German expressionism’ was difficult to semantically disentangle from ‘Weimar cinema’.

In addition to these semantic problems, discussions of expressionist film also share the problems facing all attempts at artistic taxonomy – namely, the evolution of language. Indeed, if it is difficult to define genres such as science fiction and horror it is because creative types tend to hate being put in boxes and so they enjoy challenging the boundaries of the genres they operate in. As a result, what one generation or group understand as ‘horror’ can be radically different to what is understood by another group.

The same is true of an artistic movement such as German expressionism; the term itself was a political football. The people working within the movement did not all agree on what the term implied and, even if they did, their interests and tastes naturally evolved over time, thus changing the face of expressionism as a movement.

In short, trying to determine which films are works of German expressionism is not only a bit like nailing jelly to the wall, it is like trying to nail jelly to the wall when you are not too sure about what constitutes jelly and have serious misgivings about the concept of walls. As a result, I have decided that instead of giving you ten works of German expressionist cinema, I will give you a list of ten interesting films from the Weimar era of German cinema that illustrate not only the precepts of expressionist film, but also how the methods and principles of expressionist film enriched cinema as a whole by inspiring other filmmakers.

However, before I do that, I am going to attempt to outline what I mean when I write about German expressionism.

Expressionism emerged as a reaction to impressionism. Impressionism, as practised by the artists Claude Monet and Pierre-Auguste Renoir attempted to break down the boundaries between subject and background in order to produce paintings that were almost like snapshots: images that were exacting reflections of the world itself. Expressionism reacted against impressionism by rejecting the call to represent the world ‘as it is’.

Instead, expressionists favoured representations of the world that ‘expressed’ the artists’ attitudes towards the subject matter. They did not reflect the world, they abstracted from it. A key work in the development of expressionism is Edvard Munch’s painting The Scream (1893), in which the insane flowing colours of the background, the pale featureless visage of the screamer and the dark figures in the background express not merely a person screaming but rather a state of inner turmoil, paranoia, alienation and insanity.

As you might expect from a movement that emerged from the same cultural climate as Nazism, the expressionists were a combative bunch fond of issuing manifestos condemning their perceived opponents. Forever championing artistic values such as ‘abstraction’ and ‘dynamism’, expressionism favoured raw expressions of emotion over obedience to traditional rules of composition and representation.

Their antagonism to the artistic climate they were born into along with their solipsistic obsession with expressing their feelings lead to them referring to themselves as ‘apocalyptic adolescents’. Over the years, expressionism bled out of Germany and the arts and into other mediums and other countries inspiring such luminaries as the Russian artist Wassily Kandinsky, the Bohemian writer Franz Kafka, and the Austrian composer Arnold Schoenberg. Before long there were works of expressionist theatre and, eventually, works of expressionist cinema.

The Haunted ScreenCaligari paintwork

Nosteratu shadow

Metropolis workforce


Cesare from Caligari

The Cabinet Of Dr Caligari (1920)
director: Robert Wiene
While academic film theorists may still be debating the exact boundaries of cinematic expressionism, Das Cabinet Des Dr Caligari‘s status as a work of expressionistic cinema remains utterly unimpeachable.The film is believed to embody the principles of expressionism so perfectly that one could almost talk of cinematic expressionism not as a movement in its own right but rather as a pervasive desire to emulate the sensational (and sensationally successful) Caligari. What is most initially striking about Caligari is that, despite being close to 90 years old, it is a defiantly modern piece of filmmaking. Indeed, its plot would not be out of place in a modern-day psychological thriller.

The film opens with two men sitting on a bench. As a woman in a nightgown wanders past them, one of the two men proposes to tell of how the couple met. We are then transported, in flashback, to a weirdly twisted vision of a German town.

To save money, the producers of Caligari decided to use painted canvas instead of proper sets and the result is a strikingly strange environment filled with absurd cubist architecture, deformed houses with asymmetrical doors and windows built at strange angles, all flowing into each other and filled with grotesque and misshapen pieces of furniture.

The town is filled with painted-on pools of light and shadow that happily bear no causal relationship to the things casting them. At the centre of the town is a fair filled with asymmetrical carousels that appear as though they are about to spin off their axes and career off into the strangely dressed crowds.

Amidst such a disturbing vision walk the narrator Francis (Friedrich Feher) and his friend Alan (Hans Heinrich von Twardowski). Competing for the love of a woman (Lil Dagover), the two men duck into a sideshow operated by the squat and sinister Dr Caligari (Werner Krauss).

Inside the tent, Caligari reveals Cesare the somnambulist (Conrad Veidt), a gaunt and vaguely Frankensteinian figure who is said to have been asleep for decades but, at his master’s command, he awakens and offers up grim portents, prophecies of death and destruction. That night, Cesare kills the narrator’s friend along with other people.

However, it is only when the somnambulist comes for the narrator’s intended that the narrator works out that he is killing on the orders of Caligari. Chasing after the doctor, the narrator discovers him to be the director of the local insane asylum, a rogue alienist who became obsessed with recreating the feats of an earlier Dr Caligari. As the film ends, though, we learn that it is not Caligari who is insane but rather the narrator.

His story was nothing but a maniac’s fantasy, a delusion stitched out of whole cloth and tying together the various inhabitants of the asylum into a fictitious narrative. The demented backdrop of the film is thus revealed to be an expression of the narrator’s dementia. It is an emotional state abstracted and expressed through a distorted depiction of the world.

For the purposes of this article, it is worth noting that Caligari‘s expressionism goes beyond having a backdrop that mirrors a particular mindset. Indeed, Wiene’s commitment to expressionist principles is also visible in the way the film is constructed. Despite having been made during a period in which all cinema was at least partially experimental, Caligariseldom features the complicated camera techniques and moving shots that can be seen in the work of Wiene’s contemporaries such as F.W. Murnau.

Instead, an emphasis is placed on the mise en scène to the extent that every scene appears to have been assembled in the same way as an artist might frame a painting or a photograph: the cameras are placed in order to film the painted backdrops from a particular angle creating a stage upon which the characters are carefully positioned.

These characters and their movements are just as stylised as the backdrops as they too reflect the mental state of the narrator. They are clothed in strange vestments, their facial expressions and ages exaggerated with stage makeup while their movements are oddly sinuous and angular even in close-up.

In fact, these exaggerated gestures would come to be embraced as a style of acting in its own right, a style that would come to be seen as one of the calling cards of expressionism.

In addition to the visual and philosophical links to expressionism, Caligari‘s status as a piece of genre filmmaking is also historically significant. While expressionism outside of the cinema was largely unaffiliated with any particular genre or form, inside the cinema expressionism was closely associated with horror both in terms of its cinematic precursors and in terms of the films that Caligari would later influence.

Expressionism, as an art movement, enjoyed something of a love-hate relationship with the gothic romances of the 18th century. Indeed, much like expressionism, the gothic is also an attempt to bend the landscape to express a particular mindset. Think, for example, of sinister ruined castles, threatening forests and psychological traumas made flesh in the shape of monsters such as vampires, werewolves and ghosts.

Gothic literature also shared expressionism’s fondness for type-based characterisation with Caligari‘s protagonist resembling both the maniac and the Byronic hero archetypes of gothic romance. Given these similarities, it is perhaps unavoidable that people should see in Caligari a continuation of the gothic cinema of the previous decade and, in particular, of the films of Paul Wegener.

The Cabinet of Dr Caligari


Cesare from Caligari

The Student Of Prague (1913)
directors Stellan Rye and Paul Wegener
Der Student Von Prag was Wegener’s directorial debut. The film is based upon an identically titled short story by Hanns Heinz Ewers, a strange variation upon the myth of Faust made famous by Goethe and Christopher Marlowe but with a few ideas borrowed from Edgar Allen Poe’s William Wilson thrown into the mix.The film begins with Balduin (Wegener) as a celebrated swordsman and student who, despite his accomplishments, remains penniless. His lack of funds is a particular source of bitterness for him as he recently saved the life of the countess Margit (Grete Berger), a woman who is betrothed to a man whom she does not love and who is therefore ripe for the plucking.

Along comes Satan in the guise of the sorcerous Scapinelli (John Gottowt) to offer the student a trade. In return for 100,000 gold pieces, Scapinelli can lay claim to anything he wants inside the student’s apartments. Knowing full well that he has nothing of value, Balduin accepts the deal but rather than taking an object, Scapinelli uses a mirror to steal Balduin’s soul (a device that would later be used in F.W. Murnau’s rather sentimental 1926 version of Faust).

Flush with ill-gotten wealth, Balduin sets about seducing Margit only to run into the twin impediments of Margit’s fiancé and a ghostly doppelganger who appears intent upon ruining Balduin’s life. Eventually, Balduin and the fiancé wind up having to fight a duel. As an expert fencer, Balduin honourably agrees to preserve the life of the fiancé should he win.

However, when Balduin is late for the duel, the double turns up and kills the fiancé, disgracing Balduin in the process. Hoping to retain his honour, Balduin flees but, wherever he goes, his double follows him. Eventually, Balduin faces his double and attempts to shoot him, but the shot only manages to kill Balduin.

Visually, The Student Of Prague is something of a curate’s egg with the special effects allowing two Wegeners on screen at the same time easily out-weighed by the rather awkward mise en scène and the real sense that we are watching not a work of cinema but rather a profoundly unimpressive piece of theatre committed to film. However, thematically speaking, the film is quite intriguing.

Just as Caligari moved the traditional gothic tropes into a more psychological register, The Student Of Prague is quite explicit in its depiction of a doppelganger as a manifestation of the protagonist’s self. Indeed, Balduin fully accepts that the antagonist that he is facing is no one other than himself. Also interesting are the rudiments of expressionist techniques that are beginning to filter through from the wider artistic context that Wegener and Rye were working in.

The Student Of Prague not only has mood lighting (Scapinelli emerges from the shadows), but the battle between Balduin’s honourable self and greedy self could be interpreted as a case of class envy. As a poor student, Balduin cannot hope to woo a member of the aristocracy, in order to have that door opened to him he has to literally sell himself and allow selfishness to dominate his life. This is traditional gothic horror reinvented as a case of psychological class envy.

The Student of Prague


Cesare from Caligari

The Golem (1920)
directors: Carl Boese and Paul Wegener
Der Golem, Wie er in die Welt kam is in fact the only remaining part of a trilogy of films made by Wegener and inspired by the famous Jewish folk tale. The Golem would prove to be a central text in the development of German fantastical cinema and, as with The Student Of Prague, it is easy to see how it links up with the emerging tradition of expressionist film.Set in 15th century Prague, The Golem tells the story of Rabbi Loew (Albert Steinruck), a sorcerous scholar who foresees the coming repression of the Jews at the hands of the Austro-Hungarian Emperor. Desperate to avert this disaster, he pours over ancient manuscripts in order to learn how to build a golem (Wegener) and how to animate him using a word stolen from the creatures of the underworld. Initially, the golem is a benign presence, happily helping the Rabbi and his daughter (Lyda Salmonova) with mundane tasks such as shopping and tidying up.

When the word is passed down from the Emperor that the Jews are to be kept in ghettos, the Rabbi travels to court in order to amuse the Emperor with his magical tricks. After showing the Emperor and his court an image of the exodus of the Jews (at which the courtiers roar with laughter), the palace begins to collapse and the golem saves the day thereby earning the Jews a reprieve.

Back in the ghetto, the golem falls in love with the Rabbi’s daughter but the Rabbi turns him down. Although, initially, accepting of this, the golem flies into a rage when he discovers that the Rabbi’s daughter is cavorting with another man. Turning against his creator, the Golem sets about destroying the ghetto until a small girl reduces him to dust by plucking out the life-giving word embedded in his chest.

Cinematically speaking, the most interesting sequence in The Golem is the summoning of the demon. This sequence not only features the floating rings that would crop up in both Murnau’s Faust and Lang’s Metropolisbut we also see a more sophisticated take on The Student Of Prague‘s ‘evil appearing out of the shadows’ shtick as a hideous head looms out of the darkness at the Rabbi’s command.

Also interesting to note is the strange angularity of the set representing the Prague ghetto. This is evidently not an act of style alone as the narrow meandering streets and densely built up nature of the set were supposedly inspired by the actual Prague ghetto. However, it is interesting to note that the serpentine layout and odd angles of Wegener and Boese’s Prague also grace the streets of Caligari.

Thematically, The Golem is, much like Faust, a story about the risks and responsibilities that comes with knowledge and power. The Rabbi has the power to solve his community’s problems, this power is exteriorised in the figure of the golem. Once this power is unleashed upon the world though, the Rabbi not only fails to control it but demonstrates his own lack of understanding of that power.

It is telling that it is a little girl and not the Rabbi who removes the word of power from the golem’s chest. As with The Student Of Prague, this process of exteriorisation not only of the Rabbi’s power but also of the golem’s stony ‘otherness’ can be seen as prefiguring the expressionist techniques that would mark Caligari. However, allow me to raise a note of critical warning here.

The main manifestation of expressionism’s semantic vagueness is that it is overly easy for critics to describe different aspects of a particular film as being ‘expressionistic’. The Golem and The Student Of Prague certainly display some of the same cinematic techniques as Caligari but if all that is required for a scene to be ‘expressionistic’ is that the lighting should fit the mood of the characters then ‘expressionistic’ is effectively a useless and pretentious piece of meaningless jargon. What makes Caligari a work of expressionist cinema is the fact that it uses certain techniques towards expressionistic ends. The techniques themselves are not expressionistic.

Before I continue with the broad strokes of this historical narrative, I think it might be useful to present you with an exception to the story told in this essay. An exception that makes the rule if you will… The films I have selected tell a story not of an evolving genre or a cohesive artistic movement, but rather of a set of techniques and ideas filtering outwards from the exemplar of German expressionism – The Cabinet Of Dr Caligari– and into films that are less and less expressionistic.

Indeed, as I said earlier, the spread of German expressionism can be seen as the influence of Caligari. The exception to this narrative is a film which, on paper at least, has a superior pedigree to Caligari when it comes to defining the term ‘German expressionism’. It is a film which draws deeply upon the expressionist movement outside of the film industry, and yet it is a film that is now almost completely forgotten.

The Golem


Cesare from Caligari

From Morn To Midnight (1920)
director: Karl Heinz Martin
Von Morgens bis Mitternacht is not an easy film to see. Whereas Caligariis celebrated with luxuriant DVD releases and endless critical essays, Martin’s adaptation of Georg Kaiser’s work of expressionist theatre is unreleased, un-restored and seemingly unloved – which is a pity as it is quite an interesting film.The film begins with a bank clerk (Ernst Deutsch) becoming obsessed with a female customer (Erna Morena). His libido awakened, the clerk steals money from the bank only to discover that the female customer is in fact a respectable lady accompanying her son on a study tour. She is not the kind to drop everything for a few days’ fun with a bank clerk on the run from the law. Horrified to learn that he has thrown his life away for nothing, the clerk flees and experiences a terrifying vision of death.

This causes him to return home to his wife and children only to reveal to them that he is on the run from the law. This revelation kills his wife stone dead. The clerk then kicks up his heels by betting on cycle races and cavorting with prostitutes and finishes the night with the salvation army where, inspired by the confessions of the down-and-outs he throws his money away. Sadly, this act of repentance comes too late.

The damage is done and the police are closing in on him thanks to a tip provided by a member of the salvation army who provides the clerk with another vision of death. With all hope gone, the clerk shoots himself and dies slumped against a crucifix with the words ‘Ecce Homo’ glowing above him. An inscription that means ‘behold the man’ and which is usually associated with the flagellation of Jesus suggesting that the clerk’s fall from grace is less a story of moral failure than of a man broken by the world.

Kaiser’s play is an example of not only expressionist theatre but of an expressionist literary form. The characters in From Morn To Midnight are not individuals but types. They are known simply by their position or job title. The story told by the play is less an evolving narrative than a series of set-pieces, reminiscent of fixed stopping points along a pilgrim trail. These points are known as ‘stations of the cross’; a name that inspired the name of this literary form, the ‘Stationendrama’. The idea being that the characters in the play are not individuals but rather expressions of a certain vision of the world. A world, in this case, that is a vale of tears.

Visually, the film is an interestingly mixed bag. For starters, it appears to have been made not on a film set but on a theatrical stage. This suggests that, quite possibly, the film was shot in a theatre that was hosting a performance of Kaiser’s play. This would also go some way to explain the rather murky lighting of the piece.

However, this small complaint aside, From Morn To Midnight shows a similar flair for design as Caligari with the objects of the clerk’s obsessions looming out of the dark background at him while his decisions lead him again and again to visions of death as the women in his life have their faces replaced with skulls. The characters also share Caligari‘s strangely angular acting style and their elaborate stage makeup is further augmented by dabs of colour on their costumes. Intended no doubt to play a similar role to the pools of light and darkness in Caligari; lighting effects stripped of cause and effect as though answering the call of some deeper, emotional set of natural laws.

From Morn To Midnight rather sticks out as a work of expressionist cinema as, unlike most of the other films on this list, it is not a work inspired by gothic horror. While its plot may have an uncanny similarity to that of The Student Of Prague, it is much more of a drama than a work of genre and this may go some way to explaining why it is that it has not had the same lasting popularity as Caligari.

Intriguingly, other works of non-genre expressionist film have enjoyed a similarly depressing fate. For example, Caligari‘s director Wiene would go on to make an expressionist adaptation of Dostoevsky’s Crime And Punishment called Raskalnikov (1923), while Hanns Kobe would direct an angry expressionist story about conflicts of class and generation entitled Torgus (1921), but it too has faded from view.

The written history of German expressionism becomes increasingly murky the further one gets from Caligari. With expressionist dramas proving to be less influential and popular than expressionist horror films, the films that followed in the wake of Caligari kept many of that film’s techniques but gradually distanced themselves from the philosophical underpinning that made Caligari such a wonderfully intelligent and challenging film.

From Morn to Midnight


Cesare from Caligari

Genuine: A Tale Of A Vampire (1920)
director: Robert Wiene
Despite having been made at around the same time as Caligari and with the same director, Genuine feels like a film from a much earlier period. This is partly because of its apparently rather simplistic narrative and partly because the set design is much less effective. The plot of Genuinerevolves around a tribeswoman named Genuine (Fern Andra) who is captured and brought back to civilisation in chains.Despite being purchased as a slave, she shows a strange power over the men who would own her and she soon finds herself locked up in a luxuriously decorated apartment where she is protected from the outside world. However, yearning for freedom, the woman starts to play the men who desire her off each other, and she lures them into all kinds of uncharacteristic behaviours. Eventually, the local townspeople grow wise to what is going on and storm the house where she is being kept but it is too late, as she has died.

The chief pleasure to be had from watching Genuine is also the film’s primary failure. On their own, the film’s set designs are striking. Genuine’s prison is a blur of strange patterns, whirling gears and disjointed angles all completely at odds with the more traditional atmosphere of the village outside her prison. The expressionist set design of the prison is foreshadowed by the footage of Genuine’s home, whose black walls covered in shapes and inscriptions is fiercely reminiscent of the backdrops used in From Morn To Midnight.

The film’s plot itself is somewhat puzzling partly because the only version that is currently on release is actually a condensed 43-minute version of the film that ships with Kino’s edition of Caligari. As a result, it seems fair to suspect that some of the plot subtleties (such as why she dies) may have been shorn off.

Also misleading is the film’s subtitle ‘A Tale Of A Vampire’. Genuine does not have fangs. She does not recoil from crosses and nor does she actually bite anyone. If Genuine is a vampire then it is a rather different vampire to the kind we usually see at the cinema (particularly during this period).

Interestingly though, the original subtitle is ‘Tragedy Of A Strange House’, but while this certainly does away with the talk of vampires, it does seem to fail to capture the implication that it is Genuine who is making the house strange, and not the other way around.

Genuine was evidently supposed to be an attempt by Wiene to launch an entire genre or movement off the back of his success with Caligari. Unfortunately, Wiene’s attempts to move the Caligari formula on only serve to undermine it. As wonderful as some of Genuine‘s sets are, they are forced to co-exist cheek-by-jowl with much more normal buildings.

There is a similar mismatch in the expressionistic acting technique used inexpertly by Andra and the much more naturalistic styles used by the rest of the cast. Instead of heightening the strangeness of the sets and acting – hinting at an emergence of the supernatural into a mundane setting – placing such strangeness next to more naturalistic forms only diminishes them, and makes them appear odd, artificial and cheap, as though the production might have run out of money halfway through.

Genuine: A Tale of a Vampire


Cesare from Caligari

Waxworks (1924)
directors: Leo Brinsky and Paul Leni
After writing The Haunted Screen, Eisner pulled back from her expansive vision of expressionism in order to list three films that she saw as truly expressionistic. Those films were CaligariFrom Morn To Midnight, and this one – Das Wachsfigurenkabinett.Looking at the film now, it is easy to see why Eisner chose Waxworks as its visual inventiveness and high production values do cast expressionism in a better light than a film such as Genuine. However, look past the weird backgrounds and the jerky angular movements of the actors and what you find is not a film that expresses some inner turmoil, but rather a film cashing in on the look of Caligari.

Waxworks is an anthology film framed by a story about a poet (William Dieterle) getting a job as a writer for a carnival waxworks show. He is shown figures of an Arabian potentate, Ivan the Terrible, and Jack the Ripper, and is told to write stories explaining away the peculiarities of the figures.

The first story tells the tale of a baker with a beautiful wife (modelled on the daughter of the waxworks owner, naturally) who yearns for more from life than a poor baker can offer. As a result, the baker pledges to break into the palace and kill the Caliph Harun al Raschid (Emil Jannings) and steal his wishing ring.

However, unbeknownst to the baker, the Caliph has already spotted his beautiful wife and he sneaks into the baker’s home and sets about wooing the beautiful woman while the baker flees the palace guards. Caught in flagrante by the baker upon his return home, the Caliph plays it all for laughs and pardons the baker for his crimes. The expressionist influence is instantly visible in the oddly angular streets as well as the houses (and indeed the Caliph) who all resemble loaves of bread suggesting that we are seeing the world through the eyes of the baker.

The second story involves the evil Ivan the Terrible (Conrad Veidt) who poisons his subjects and rules with an iron fist. Fearing the Tsar’s capriciousness, his poisoner decides to mark a giant egg-timer with the Tsar’s name, implying that he too has been poisoned with a substance that only the poisoner has a remedy for.

Ivan takes an interest in the marriage of one of his subjects and he turns up to the wedding posing as the bride’s father, thereby luring out some assassins who promptly shoot the real father full of arrows. As Ivan barks orders at the guests and terrorises the wedding party, he suddenly becomes aware of the egg-timer. Believing that he has been poisoned, the Tsar goes mad.

Though not strictly speaking expressionistic, this segment also boasts some nice backdrops. The costumes are incredible parodies of oriental decadence while the entire sequence seems filled with dust particles and strange looming shadows. The third story is much shorter and it sees the poet convince himself that he is being hunted by Jack the Ripper (Werner Krauss). The result is a fantastical sequence in which phantoms lunge at the poet while he writes, images of a mind turned to dark thoughts for far too long.

Waxworks is an entertaining if somewhat lightweight piece of filmmaking. It lacks the psychological gravitas of Caligari or even Genuine‘s ill-conceived commitment to a theme. Instead, it seems quite self-conscious in both its choice of rather traditionalist fantastical subject matter and its visually inventive production design. However, beneath the desire to look the part, there is no intellectual substance here. Is the film really suggesting that bakers see the world as being made of bread?

Hardly… What Waxworks offers is a dilution of the expressionist formula. Rather than expressing some state of emotional turmoil, the backdrops of Waxworks are simply stylised in a manner that is appropriate to the subject matter. The houses in the first vignette look vaguely Arabic and also quite like loaves of bread. This is appropriate to a story about an Arab baker. Similarly, a dusty world full of shadows but peopled by characters in absurd clothes nicely suits a story about medieval decadence and moral corruption.

While Waxworks may come across as simple-minded when compared to Caligari, it does nonetheless mark an attempt to adapt the expressionist style to a different intellectual framework; a process of dilution that would result in some of the greatest works of Weimar cinema.



Cesare from Caligari

Nosferatu (1922)
director: F. W. Murnau
Much like CaligariNosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens remains an immense cinematic achievement. Indeed, one of the most talented directors of the last few decades Werner Herzog attempted an almost shot-for-shot remake of Murnau’s film in 1979 and produced Nosferatu The Vampyre – which, though in many ways wonderful, was nowhere near as eerily effective as the original.Nosferatu is an intriguingly distorted retelling of Dracula. Originally intended to be a direct adaptation, Murnau was forced to change the names and refrain from using the word ‘vampire’ because the studio could not secure the rights to the novel. In the film, a young estate agent Hutter (Gustav von Wangenheim) is sent by his employer Knock (Alexander Grenach) to broker a property deal with the reclusive Count Orlok (Max Schreck).

Upon arriving at the count’s castle, Hutter discovers an eerily rat-like man with a bald head and a strange demeanour. The Count refuses to share Hutter’s meal and instead sets about feeding on him, slowly building his strength before setting off for Hutter’s home town. Upon arriving in Wisborg, the Count feeds upon Hutter’s beautiful wife but he becomes so engrossed in the feeding that he fails to notice the Sun rising over the houses and is killed.

Nosferatu bears two of the calling cards of expressionism. Firstly, there are the strange angular movements of Shreck as Orlok. This is expressionistic acting taken to its logical conclusion, acting that is not so much non-naturalistic as non-human. Secondly, when Orlok is trapped in the sunlight, we see the painted backdrop of the houses opposite. It is reminiscent of the twisted abodes of films such as The Golem and Caligari.

However, what makes Nosferatu such a fascinating film is the extent to which Murnau forces the expressionist methods to evolve. Indeed, Nosferatu is peculiar in so far as, unlike most films of the period, it is shot on location. With the exception of Orlok’s clock (itself reminiscent of a skeleton clock in From Morn To Midnight) there is very little set dressing and very little intentional stylisation of backdrops. Murnau’s approach in making Nosferatu was to demonstrate how, if properly shot, the real world could be evocative of certain emotional vistas.

The most memorable example of this is the bone-chilling voyage through the forest. Murnau inverts the colours of the forest to make it appear spectral and he speeds up the Count’s carriage to make its movements unnaturally fast and jerky. Murnau also makes sure that the Count is forever moving towards the camera, looming out of the shadows and ready to pounce at the audience. For Murnau, the world itself is a chilling and terrifying place. It does not need artificially stylised painted backdrops to achieve this effect.

Interestingly, Herzog makes a good deal more of this idea than Murnau did. In Murnau’s film, rats and plague accompany Orlok but in Herzog’s film, Orlok is the personification of plague, disease and death. This neatly inverts the standard expressionist line, here the world is not a concrete object expressing an abstract idea; rather it is an abstract idea expressed through concrete objects.

Count Orlok in Nosferatu


Cesare from Caligari

Metropolis (1927)
director: Fritz Lang
Along with Nosferatu, this is most widely known film of the German silent era and it is easy to see why. Filmed with hundreds of extras on Pharaonically huge sets and featuring intricately made and beautifully designed science fiction landscapes, Metropolis is a hugely impressive piece of work despite the fact that the numerous cuts and changes made to the film leave us with a film with a strangely disjointed narrative full of gaps plugged with inter-titles.Metropolis is a city marked by the starkest of class distinctions. The film opens with images of the workers marching into work. Huge torrents of people flow jerkily in and out of the factories as shifts change. This is humanity reduced to the status of machinery. Cogs embedded in a vast industrial landscape. Meanwhile, above the ground, Freder (Gustav Frohlich) – the son of Metropolis’ leader Joh Frederson (Alfred Abel) – cavorts with his upper-class friends.

Suddenly, the group’s horseplay is interrupted when a young girl (Brigitte Helm) wanders into the park accompanied by the children of workers. She calls upon the children to look at the upper-class people as brothers and Freder is so moved by this that he follows the young girl named Maria back to the worker’s city.

There he finds terrifying working conditions and experiences a vision of an Egyptian slave caste being fed alive into the smoking maw of a giant mechanical sphinx. Filled with guilt, Freder offers to trade lives with one of the workers and starts working a proper job.

Meanwhile, Freder’s father is becoming aware of revolutionary pressures building up amidst the workers and he orders the mad scientist Rotwang (Rudolf Klein-Rogge) to use his new invention – an artificial life form – to pose as Maria and serve as an agent provocateur, whipping the workers into a state of revolutionary fury that Frederson can then crack down on.

However, the robotic Maria seems to spend more of her time dancing in posh nightclubs than whipping up the masses and so the real Maria manages to communicate her own special brand of Christian Marxism stressing the need for a messianic ‘heart’ to mediate between the capitalist ‘head’ and the proletarian ‘hands’. A messiah handily provided in the shape of Freder.

Metropolis‘ Wikipedia page happily proclaims the film to be a work of expressionist science fiction but, even more than was the case withNosferatu, the claim to expressionistic sensibility is now starting to ring hollow.

Metropolis does indeed feature workers who move with the same rhythmic undulation as Caligari‘s Cesare, and Rotwang’s house is certainly reminiscent of those Prague-inspired crooked houses from the early years of expressionism, but Metropolis‘ over-riding aesthetic is not expressionism but art deco. The design of the futuristic city is not an expression of a mental state; it is simply a particular architectural style that was emerging at the time.

Similarly, the strange angular dancing of Maria and the movements of the workers are evocative of their mechanistic nature. In the context, such movements are naturalistic rather than stylised.

Metropolis marks the end of a process of evolution and assimilation. One can see the influence of expressionism upon the film’s DNA but the differences between Metropolis and Caligari (let alone From Morn To Midnight) are such that it no longer makes sense to speak of such films being works of German expressionism. Instead, we can speak of a post-expressionist period.

One in which the lessons of expressionism have been learned but they are now put to work serving ideals and aesthetics that are almost directly opposed to those of the original expressionists.

Indeed, as an illustration of this point, I would like to devote the last two ‘slots’ of my list to works that reacted against the sensationalism of expressionism and which adopted methods much closer to those of impressionism. And yet, the heritage of expressionism is still evident in both films.

Maria in Metropolis


Cesare from Caligari

The Last Laugh (1924)
director: F.W. Murnau
Der Letze Mann is an example of the somewhat short-lived cinematic genre the ‘kammerspiel’. The kammerspiel (literally ‘chamber play’) appeared around the same time as expressionism and yet its cinematic form seemed almost a reaction against the sensationalism of Caligari and its copycats.The kammerspiel films avoided stylised backdrops and focused upon the psychological nuances of its characters. They also avoided, where possible, the use of inter-titles either to narrate the action or communicate dialogue. The films also had a particular interest in displaying the realities of life for the German working class.

The film begins in a rainstorm. We are outside the Atlantic hotel and the front of the hotel is a hive of activity as people arrive and depart. At the centre of this activity is the doorman (Emil Jannings), a colossus of a man with a magnificent pair of whiskers. Clad in a resplendent military uniform covered with an oilskin to keep the rain off, the doorman is like a general on parade.

However, when he is forced to help carry in a huge trunk unassisted, he finds himself tiring. He slumps into a chair and takes a nip from a flask before returning to his post. Noting this dereliction of duty, the hotel manager has the doorman demoted to the rank of lavatory attendant. The doorman takes this badly. His whiskers and uniform have earned him a position of respect in his local community and to be stripped of his uniform is to somehow deflate him. Indeed, once a colossus of a man, the doorman is now a cowering wreck, showing his age terribly.

Desperate to maintain his status, the doorman steals a uniform and wears it into and back from work but his scheme is soon uncovered and his humiliation is complete. At this point, an inter-title is used to explain that, normally, such a man would work his job until death. Humiliated… Defeated… Miserable… However, because the filmmakers feel positively disposed towards the character, they are willing to indulge the audience in a fantasy.

We are then treated to a final reel in which the doorman is given a fortune and allowed to eat huge cakes in the dining room at the Atlantic hotel. The once defeated man is now triumphant over his oppression. The film ends in a vulgar slapstick of cream and gurning faces; a genuinely happy ending.

The Last Laugh is often described as a work of German expressionism. We are told to pay attention to the scene in which a depressed and drunken doorman lurches through the streets while the world wheels around him. We are also told to pay attention to the stylised military bearing of the doorman. Are these not the calling cards of the expressionists? No. They are not.

The Last Laugh is wonderful, moving and brilliantly made film but its value is not as a work of expressionism. Instead, we can marvel at Murnau’s technical accomplishment as we see the first ever use of a ‘dolly shot’. We can enjoy the subtlety of Jannings’ performance and we can be moved by the character’s fall from grace. We can even smirk at the rather odd epilogue to the story that was reportedly added after Murnau’s producers complained about the downbeat ending.

To judge such a film by the values of expressionism is not only to do a disservice to the expressionists, it is also to do a disservice to a film that deserves to be judged on its own terms.

The Last Laugh


Cesare from Caligari

Pandora’s Box (1929)
director: Georg Wilhelm Pabst
One of the more interesting elements of The Last Laugh is the way in which it tries to depict the realities of a working class existence in Weimar Germany. The Last Laugh‘s distinction between the gritty home life of the doorman and the elegant surroundings of his job speak of great social inequalities that many filmmakers felt needed to be addressed.This desire to reflect the world as it really is constituted a move away from the stylised genre films of the expressionist era and towards a form of gritty realism. However, films such as Pabst’s Die Büchse der Pandoracombined their social realism with a crowd-pleasing melodrama that has ensured their visibility to this day.

Pandora’s Box is something of a morality tale, but the morality that embodies it is somewhat elusive. Lulu (Louise Brooks) is what might rather loosely be termed a ‘party girl’. She lives in an apartment where she is visited by a stream of much older men, who appear to be supporting her in return for her company.

She also attracts a number of hangers on including a former pimp and midget in an oversized suit (Carl Goetz) and a listless former strongman who is forever planning a trapeze act (Krafft-Raschig). Lulu’s main benefactor is Dr Schon (Fritz Kortner), but Schon has decided to dump Lulu in order to marry a woman from his own class. Hoping to pay off Lulu, Schon organises for her to take the lead in a variety show being compiled by his son Alwa (Francis Lederer).

However, despite initially taking to the idea, Lulu reacts violently to the idea of performing for Schon’s fiancée and threatens to walk out. This forces Schon to reveal his affections for the woman and thereby marry her or face public disgrace. After the marriage, the couple start to argue and, after a scuffle, Schon winds up dead.

Lulu, along with her hangers on (now including Alwa) flee the city and wind up working in a port-side gambling shack where they are slowly being fleeced of their remaining possessions. Reaching desperation, Lulu draws upon her oldest friends in order to escape being sold into slavery but in so doing she burns her final bridges and winds us living in a garret and returning to prostitution where she picks up a serial killer who murders her.

It is traditional, when talking about Pabst’s work with Louise Brooks to praise Brooks’ acting and, having sat through numerous works of expressionist cinema; I cannot help but feel that Brooks’ naturalism and effervescence in front of the camera are genuinely breathtaking. It is frequently said that Brooks re-invented cinematic acting and it is easy to see why.

Where most other actors from the period overact by today’s standards, Brooks’ performance is designed to be picked up not by a theatregoer sitting at the back of the stalls, but by a camera standing right next to her. Her emotions flow not through grand gestures but in raised eyebrows, weak smiles and fidgeting gestures that speak of real psychological depth and realism.

Pandora’s Box is overflowing with social realism. The sequence backstage at the theatre where we see the actors preparing to go on but never the actual play is a wonderfully reflexive look at the entertainment business by people working in that very business. Thematically, the film apes the ‘fallen woman’ melodrama but never quite lapses into it.

Yes, Lulu causes the death of Schon and the destruction of his son but Lulu herself is being worked on by nefarious characters who force her into making bad decisions just as she forced Schon and Alwa into making mistakes of their own. Much like the doorman in The Last Laugh, Lulu is a victim of the world and yet also a participant in it. As the audience, we learn the nature of the world by seeing how it impacts upon the characters.

For all of its differences with CaligariPandora’s Box does seem to illustrate what must be the central lesson to be learned from German expressionism, namely that realism should not be taken as a given. The act of making a film is necessarily an act of abstraction; filmmakers draw lessons from the world and then choose to allow those lessons to be expressed through the images projected on screen.

Expressionism is simply the extreme manifestation of a creative process that exists in all film. When modern directors choose to make the home of a junkie so sordid that it makes the audience’s flesh creep they are using the lessons learned from expressionism. When superhero films express the crime-ridden decadence of their setting through gothic architecture, they are using the lessons learned from expressionism.

In its simplest and most lasting form, the message of expressionism is that all representational art is expressing an idea and as such, all film is necessarily stylised to one degree or another. Pabst’s realism and Wiene’s expressionism are merely different stylistic choices.