ByAbi Toll, writer at
Abi Toll

Weimar Cinema, also known as German Expressionist cinema, was conceived of in the inter-war period in Germany, between 1920 and 1927. The German involvement in WWI invoked a dark introspection that Expressionist film makers wanted to capture.

Before the Second World War, the German film industry was sedentary and had been overtaken by progress elsewhere in Europe. 1920's expressionism however, offered a departure from the types of cinematic conventions in 1910 Germany, which still consisted of 'short, pornographic snippets and crude every-day anecdotes' according to Mubi. Expressionist techniques now involved the abstraction and transformation of the filmic landscape from the banal to the occult.

Finding themselves more free than ever before to experiment, the film makers were able to:

'Construct a symbolic world of the imagination'.

The movement was prompted by what Mubi describe as the 'grim reality of daily life'. Rather than creating a direct imitation of life, the expressionists intended to convey the wreckage of post-war Germany through the medium of film, where its themes mainly focused on:

Sex murders, depression, veterans ghoulishly mangled in the war, the loss of innocence and complete rejection of the past.

This was achieved by creating: elaborate scenography, theatrical composition, fantastical narratives, abstract lighting and obtrusive camera techniques. Such methods went on to influence:

Surrealist film, avant-garde cinema and 40's and 50's American film noir.

Most notable is the way in which it helped to shape the horror aesthetic. Here we take a look at 5 examples of seminal German Expressionist films which were at the genesis of the horror genre:

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), Directed by Robert Wiene:

’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) is arguably one of the most famous of the Weimar period, and helped set the foundations of horror. It's striking and abstract scenography, coupled with surreal sequences, create a hallucinatory effect. It helped to convey the fears of violent sexual crimes which were prevalent at the time, in which a victim was 'sexually savaged' but not murdered. In the film, the crime is portrayed through the story of a traveling magician whose hypnotized servant commits his master’s heinous acts by night.

In addition to its contextual relevance, Dr. Caligari also contains some of the most poignant examples of 'Expressionist mise en scene'. This is no less attributed to the excessive dramaturgy and theatrical lighting techniques which Mubi describe as the 'painted-on light and shadow' which was restricted due to budget limitations. The overall effect of this film is powered by that which is at its core. Senses of cinema note this as being 'the very real emotions and anxieties that have haunted cinema' since the great war.


The Hands of Orlac (1924), Directed by Robert Wiene:

Wiene's follow up to 'Caligari' was another fantastical gothic portrayal of the 'fragile nature of identity' and morality. The Hands of Orlac employed expressionist techniques, including surreal dream sequences and over emphatic acting. The story traces the trials of an established pianist who is haunted to the point of insanity after receiving a hand transplant. This comes after experiencing a near fatal accident, where the hands' previously belonged to a murderer who was executed for his crime.

The traumatic collision that takes place at the beginning of the film, establishes itself in a reality which henceforth becomes gradually more bizarre. The crash scene presents the horrors of death and destruction, mirroring the war torn context of the time. It was intended to convey the grim realities of death to a wider audience, who may not have experienced such devastation first hand.

Faust (1926), Directed by F.W. Murnau:

Where it could be said that the previous two films are more rooted in reality, Faust is more of a morality tale based on the 16th century German legend. It regales the story of a luminary who, dissatisfied with his life, decides to exchange his soul with the Devil in return for boundless knowledge.

In 's Faust, the mighty two: God and Satan are locked in a formidable battle which can only be resolved once one has captured the soul of Faust (Mubi). The story follows the despair of Faust who proceeds to burn his books after failing to remedy a war and the mass death that ensues. Satan recognizes an opportune moment and sends Mephisto in to tempt the vulnerable Faust. The result is a tour de force of terror, destruction and redemption which tipifies an era where religious constructs were being challenged and collapsed.


Metropolis (1927), Directed by Fritz Lang

During the ‘20s, there was a stock of German Expressionist actors, writers and directors who managed to elevate the movement to international recognition. was the most famous of all, and whilst his films seemed to exist outside of the horror genre, 'his use of supernatural elements, dark storylines and artistic sets generated the same sort of emotional response' (Mubi).

Senses of Cinema explain that regardless of its vision, Metropolis:

Was a sensational and astronomically costly flop of such disastrous proportions that it bankrupted Ufa, the nationally financed film studio of Weimar Germany.

Visually spectacular and gargantuan in its ambition, Metropolis was haunted by its naive portrayal of politics and romance. Regardless of this however, it's legacy is resounding as a 'a magical behemoth' of the Weimar period. This scene is a particular favorite, which shows the charismatic Maria dancing with the intention to seduce the men of Metropolis in order to gain power over them. The result is breathtaking, with complex editing between Maria's possessed dancing and the despairing protagonist Freder, who is having a nightmare. A truly incendiary and memorable scene.


Nosferatu (1922), Directed by F. W. Murnau:

Senses of cinema state that where:

Stoker’s novel invokes Jack the Ripper, who operated in London in the late 1880s, Murnau’s film conjured up the mediaeval Europe of the Plague.

The small budget film had even at the time of its release, 'the patina of antiquity'. Senses of cinema note that location filming was rare in Germany at the time of the film’s production:

But this allowed Murnau to suitably combine the two contradictory elements which exist in most of his work: expressionism and realism.

Where the atmosphere is realized through the use of:

Optical effects (speeded-up motion, stop-motion photography, superimpositions and the use of negative), heavy make-up and Expressionist performances.

Here, is unrivaled in his malevolent representation of the vampiric Count Orlok. His performance is easily one of the most terrifying and memorable in the history of the horror genre. Schreck- also the German word for terror- is somewhat of a legend himself who was supposedly a real-life Vampire. Schrek was also portrayed as such by in Shadow of the Vampire.


The legacy of the expressionist movement lives on in countless genres and films where its influence may not instantly be apparent. References to Metropolis are infinite, where its reverberations take their myriad forms from mad scientists ('s Frankenstein, 1931) to the dystopian aesthetic ('s Blade Runner, 1982).

The expressionist fascination with human neurosis, fantasy and surreal horror influenced ('s Mulholland Drive) and there have been countless re-imaginings of Nosferatu: ('s Nosferatu the Vampyre and 's Interview with the Vampire) to name but a few. The listless references in popular culture are incredibly far reaching and other tropes are identifiable in the work of 's: Edward Scissor Hands, his 1992 Batman Returns and of course Sweeney Todd. One of the most stunning yet subtle references however, is 's shower scene in Psycho which echoes the dissolution of Nosferatu. The image is a lasting monument of the expressionist oeuvre.


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