I’m not a big fan of the horror genre. I don’t care for horror films, TV shows, novels or anything like that. But I do have an understanding of the genre and the roots that it has in something I really do enjoy: German expressionist cinema.
German expressionist cinema is a type of film that highlights bizarre sets, unusual angles, dark shadows, strange people and strange places. Mental illness was often a feature of the stories in one form or another. Expressionism got its start in Germany in 1913 with The Student of Prague, but it didn’t really take off and come into its own until after World War I. Though the Expressionist movement was largely dead after 1933 (not coincidentally the year that the Nazis came to power in Germany), it nevertheless created vibe that resonates throughout film today, inspiring, in whole or in part, such genres as film noir and horror and provided inspiration for filmmakers like Tim Burton and Alfred Hitchcock.
For those who are interested in seeing what Expressionism is like, here are some suggestions, several of which are in the public domain and can be viewed on sites like YouTube or easily downloaded in guilt-free form. Enjoy!
The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari (1920)
While not the first expressionist movie, is certainly the prototypical one. It tells the story of a traveling magician named Doctor Caligari and his sleepwalking assistant, Cesare, is an examination of mental instability and included some of the earliest uses of flashbacks in movies, as well as pioneering the “twist ending” that certain other directors of the modern age are very fond of. The film also provided obvious inspiration for Tim Burton in most of his filmography. To look at Caligari is to see Edward Scissorhands at its most basic.
Odd are you’ve seen at least parts of this movie. It was an unofficial adaptation of Dracula, which director F. W. Murnau had wanted to adapt directly, but wasn’t able to as the studio couldn’t secure the rights from Bram Stoker’s widow. The film itself, even now, is a study in creepy. Max Schreck does an astonishingly good job of playing Count Orlok, presenting him as a disturbing, rat-like individual that bears no resemblance to the more suave and sophisticated Dracula that appeared on screens in 1931 (more on that later), and the overall atmosphere of dread is as well-executed as any in cinema.
Last Laugh (1924)
This movie is not a horror film in any sense, but is a great example of expressionist styles used to tell a different story of story. In the movie, Emil Jannings plays the doorman of a fancy Berlin hotel. He’s fond of strutting around like he’s the next Kaiser, and all his neighbors humor him in this. Then one day he’s demoted, kicked down to being a washroom attendant. This is, as you can probably imagine, not the best fate for the man, especially once the neighbors find out. The end of the film is interesting indeed, as is the fact that with the exception of the very end, no intertitles are used. You’re just expected to figure out what’s going on by paying attention.
Based on the old German legend, this Murnau film also features Jannings, this time playing Mephisto. The opening scene shows him standing over a city with black wings, and is really a sight to see. It’s not quite as visually stunning overall as some of the films on this list, but it’s still worth seeing, and served in part to inspire the “Night on Bald Mountain” scene in the 1940 Disney film Fantasia.
Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927)
Murnau’s greatest film and one of the best examples of Expressionism in a non-horror movie. It was made by Murnau for Fox Studios (this is so far back in the day, they hadn’t yet merged with 20th Century), after William Fox hired him to come work in America on a four picture deal. The film includes a great deal of expressionist elements, including bizarre sets, weird shadows and strange characters. The movie also features elements of slapstick comedy, and, though largely silent, has some sound elements to it. It also was one of the first films to use split screen effects, has some amazing tracking shots, and uses forced perspective like you wouldn’t believe.
Again, this isn’t a horror film, though it does contain some horror-style elements to it. The basic plot centers on a Man, his Wife and a Woman from the City. The Man is cheating on his Wife with the Woman from the City. She wants the Man to kill his Wife, and suggests he drown her (this is done with an intertitle showing the word “drown”, as it dissolves and flows down the screen). The Man agrees and takes his Wife on a boat ride. In the end, he finds he can’t kill her, and the two end up in the City, remembering why they fell in love in the first place. By the end, all is well, and the two have reunited in happiness. Then on the way back, there’s a storm and the boat capsizes. The Man makes it ashore. Of the Wife, there is no sign… It’s a very good movie, and won one of two Best Picture awards at the very first Academy Awards. Not bad!
F. W. Murnau was one of the best at the Expressionist genre, but he wasn’t the only one working in the field. Fritz Lang’s sci-fi epic about socialism, robots and the value of labor. It contains a lot of weird, futuristic elements that have stuck with science fiction ever since they first appeared in this movie, and the shots of the robot with electricity in circles around her has become quite iconic.
The plot of the movie isn’t one of its strongest points, and for years a lot of the footage has been missing. That footage was located in Argentina not that long ago and has been released on DVD and blu ray (yes, old time silent films can benefit from being released in blu ray, as film is a high-def medium even in black and white). I’ve not seen it, but apparently like the director’s cut of The Abyss, this movie is much more coherent with the missing footage added in.
The last really great Expressionist film to be made, M features Peter Lorre in his first major role playing a child-raping serial killer prowling the streets of Berlin. So vile and loathed is this man that both the police and the Berlin criminal underclass begin chasing him, leading to one of the all-time great scenes in film as the killer is given a “trial” by the criminals.
This movie is not quite as laden with Expressionist style as some of the other films on this list, but the style is still present, and this represents the addition of sound to the genre, which is something director Fritz Lang played with extensively in this movie. What Expressionist elements you do get in the film come in the form of bizarre camera angles (including a particularly memorable one of the head inspector on the case), and some fascinating imagery during the mock trial. This movie was popular enough that it spawned a sequel, The Testament of Doctor Mabuse, which was also a sequel to another Lang film, Mabuse the Gambler. The sequel is more horror than Expressionist, but it’s still very much worth seeing as well.
The Bride of Frankenstein (1935)
We round out our list with an American movie, and the sequel to the 1931 film Frankenstein. Despite being an American movie, director James Whale was clearly inspired by the Expressionist movement, and much of that shows up in this movie, especially during some of the scenes where the monster (played by, of course, Boris Karloff), is chased by a mob. This is a really excellent film; far better than the first movie and one that should have probably won Best Picture.
Other recommended films: If you want to see other films that were clearly heavily inspired by Expressionist cinema, though they themselves might not really fit into the genre, check out some of these other movies:
Dracula (the 1931 Bela Lugosi version)
The Third Man
Silence of the Lambs
Fargo (which uses white in the same way that Expressionist cinema often used black)
Anyone have any films they think belong on this list?
WhatCulture’s 31 Days of Horror 2, a month dedicated to the horror genre in the run-up to Halloween has begun. Check out our articles so far here;
This article was first posted on October 13, 2011