German Expressionism as a movement in the arts flourished in the 1920s, strongly associated with the disillusionment of the post-WWI era. It contrasted itself to the reigning canons of realism and impressionism and, instead, focused on subjective emotional experience, alienation and violence of modern city life. Artists like Wassily Kandinsky, George Grosz, and Oskar Kokoschka, to name but a few, used violent color, aggressive lines and radical distortion to convey and evoke extreme emotion.
Above: The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)
A mood of disenchantment can be seen in the typical features of German expressionist film: surrealism, uncanny atmosphere, convoluted shapes, stark shadows and unreliable corrupt(ible) characters. The early films, especially, use expressive non-realistic sets (e.g., ominous shadows, objects painted on the walls), stark contrasts and theatrical acting. The distorted images literally embody the perspective of the frequently insane protagonist. While the visual representation challenged realism, the content (madness, obsession, betrayal, hallucination, criminal underworld, etc.) and focus on inner emotional reality set itself in contrast to the commercial cinema of the time. The most famous early examples of German Expressionist films are perhaps The Student of Prague (1913), The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), Golem (1920), Nosferatu (1922), Dr Mabuse the Gambler (1922). Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927) and M (1931) are also frequently mentioned as examples of German Expressionism.
Although the vigor of Expressionism waned in the 1930s, its dark imagery and use of light had a major impact on American cinema, after the rise of Nazism forced many German filmmakers into emigration and exposed other directors to their style. Expressionist style can be seen in the work of, for example, Otto Preminger, Alfred Hitchcock and Orson Welles in the 1940s. The influence was especially strongly felt in horror film (e.g., Karl Freund’s Dracula (1931) or Edgar G. Ulmer’s The Black Cat (1934) and film noir.
Many scholars (e.g., Thomas Elsaesser, James Naremore) see German Expressionism as a direct predecessor of film noir, through the transfer of the atmospheric representation of the paranoid mindset, corrupt and sinful city and the femme fatale. Perhaps even more defining was the influence of the German Expressionist visual style, such as frame compositions, contrasts of light and shadow, expressive use of darkness and unusual camera angles. These stylistic elements continue to be used in contemporary cinema, for example in Blade Runner (below) or the work of Tim Burton.