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The impact of german expressionist films upon the modern film industry by blayne ferreira l.jpg

The Impact of German Expressionist Filmsupon theModern Film IndustryBy Blayne Ferreira

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The Origins of Expressionism

  • Expressionism began as a movement in art in Weimar, Germany during World War 1. The movement affected many types of artistic medium including architecture, painting, music, literature and sculpture.

  • Expressionist artists attempted to portray the disparity of their surroundings in artistic form.

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The German Film Industry

  • At the beginning of World War 1, foreign film companies dominated the industry.

  • By the end of World War 1, the German Film Industry flourished. It was propelled by a population desperate for a diversion from their daily struggles.

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  • UFA (Universum Film Aktiengelleschaft) became a leader in the German Film Industry.

    UFA produced many German Expressionist

    films which were destined to become classics.

  • Many of the films, which achieved infamy outside of Germany, are still recognized and watched today.

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Films and the Economy

  • Because of the deteriorating post-World War I economy in Germany, filmmakers were unable to create films which could compete with the grandiosity of Hollywood pictures.

  • By using the elements of expressionism, German filmmakers developed their own style of filmmaking which incorporated symbolism to expose deeper meanings and emotions.

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  • German Expressionist films were made during the silent film era. They contained sounds and music as opposed to dialogue.

  • For many of the silent films, a piano player was hired to play as live accompaniment.

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Elements of Expressionism: Exploitation

  • Expressionism manipulated sound, lighting and stage design to reveal emotions and realities in an abstract manner.

  • Stage sets were very artificial and were made to appear as “paintings come to life”. All realism was removed from sets in order to allow them to become symbols of specific emotions and conditions.

  • Angular structures were utilized to exploit stage design and influence the mood of a picture.

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Mise en Scene

  • “Mise-en-scene” is a French term used to describe the technique of story telling through stage design and cinematography. “Mise-en-scene” is used in Expressionist films to contribute to the design aspect.

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Elements of Expressionism

  • Expressionism conveyed a tone of dissonance by effectively abolishing normal relationships between objects and focusing upon the abstract.

  • Expressionist techniques aimed to conjure feelings of mystery, alienation, disharmony and destabilization.

  • Plots incorporated dream sequences, flashbacks and distorted chronology to promote instability.

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Expressionist Actors

  • Expressionist actors engaged in harsh and amplified movements that were often stiff or jerky to represent inner turmoil.

  • Overstated costumes and makeup contributed to an actor’s ability to portray inner realities and tumultuous emotions.

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Elements of Expressionism: Chiaroscuro and Lighting

  • The technique of “chiaroscuro” was employed in expressionism. Chiaroscuro is an artistic technique in which light and darkness are manipulated to achieve a heightened illusion of depth.

  • Expressionist directors contrasted light and dark to create shadows and other effects which were intended to portray and arouse emotion.

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Expressionist Architecture and Landscape

  • In order to put forth the abstract, it was necessary for the Expressionist filmmaker to obliterate nature and eradicate the natural world.

  • Expressionist filmmakers believed landscapes should emit a soul and should be considered as significant as a character in the film.

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Expressionism Themes

  • Mainstream and popular films of the period were focused upon action, adventure and romance.

  • Expressionist films developed themes based on insanity, madness, discordance and betrayal.

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The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari

  • Since its origin, many films have been labeled as works of Expressionism.

  • The “Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” a German horror classic directed by Robert Weine, best personifies the Expressionist film genre.

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The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari - 1920

This scene demonstrates the effect created through the Expressionist technique of using angular structures to help represent a disjointed mood and a nightmarish atmosphere.

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The Cabinet Of Dr. Caligari

  • The “Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” employed the Expressionist technique of using dream sequences and flashbacks to twist reality and warp chronology.

  • The unnatural and exaggerated character of Cesare carried out frightening acts during the dream sequences.

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The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari

Cesare’s movements were stiff and robotic. His makeup was excessive and overdone. Some of the shadows in this scene were created by wall paintings to enhance contrast between light and dark.

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The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari

Director, Robert Weine, was

praised for his effective use

of expressionist technique and for

his set designs

and scenery.

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The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari

True to expressionist

form, the plot of

“The Cabinet of

Dr. Caligari”


murder, sleepwalking,


and madness.

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The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari

Designed by the Expressionist

Bahaus School,

the films’ sets were contorted and artificial.

The distorted designs


to develop the atmosphere



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  • Expressionist elements (particularly sinister plots, horrific events, and chiaroscuro lighting) continued to be highlighted in German cinema throughout 1920’s and into the 1930’s.

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Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror: 1922


directed by F. W.


became a vampire

classic which

featured many



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Shadows and Silhouettes


and the use of

shadows became


widely associated

with the film “Nosferatu”.

In some Expressionist

films, silhouettes were

used in place of shadow.

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Expressionism in the 1920’s

  • Though the harsh and contrived unnatural environments of the original Expressionist films began to fade, Expressionist themes were integrated into films during the 1920’s and 1930’s.

  • Artistic control over light and scenery were exercised to set the expressionist mood.

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Metropolis: 1927


directed by Fritz Lang,


Expressionist elements

to depict a futuristic


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In keeping with


concepts, Lang

portrayed women

in the unnatural

Form of machines.

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Lang accentuated the

dark mood of the film

by including lighting practices

characteristic of

Expressionist cinema.

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  • During the period of Expressionist filmmaking

    in Germany, other notable directors included

    Paul Wegener, Karl Heinz Martin, Leon

    Brinsky and George Wilhelm Pabst.

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The Emigration of Expressionism

  • When the Nazi party came to power in

  • Germany, many filmmakers felt it

  • necessary to leave the country. They

  • emigrated to America and integrated

  • Expressionism into American cinema.

  • Expressionist films became successful

  • in America and largely impacted the

  • American film industry.

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The Expressionist Influence

  • American Horror films and Film Noir were two American film genres that were heavily influenced by Expressionism.

  • The silent film “The Phantom of the Opera,” starring Lon Chaney incorporated many Expressionist elements.

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The Expressionist Influence

  • German filmmakers such as Karl Freund, designed dark sets for use in American classic films such as Universal Studios 1931 release of “Dracula”.

  • German directors, Fritz Lang and Otto Preminger, expanded Expressionist themes into American crime dramas which further spread the influence of Expressionism.

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Alfred Hitchcock

  • Alfred Hitchcock had worked in Germany in the 1920s. He became greatly influenced by Expressionism which became evident in many of his films.

  • Hitchcock’s early British films and his black and white films of the 1950’s were permeated with Expressionist techniques. The Expressionist influence can be seen in his color films of the 1960’s as well.

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Alfred Hitchcock: The Lodger-1927

Hitchcock employed the use of shadow and light. He directed his actors to over-exaggerate their facial movements to better emphasize their inner emotions in “The Lodger”.

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Alfred Hitchcock- I Confess-1953

The exploitation of light and shadow assisted in

expressing this film’s interwoven themes of guilt

and deceit.

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Hitchcock- The Wrong Man-1957

In addition to traditional Expressionist elements, Hitchcock engaged the use of whirling camera movements to create a dizzy and disorienting effect for his audience. In contrast to his earlier films, “The Wrong Man” was based

upon a true story.

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Alfred Hitchcock-Psycho- 1960

Hitchcock relied heavily

on the

use of shadows and


in the movie “Psycho”.

He also represented the dark

emotionality of Norman

Bates by maintaining a bleak

environment and contrasting

light and darkness

throughout the film.

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Hitchcock- The Birds- 1963

In his movie, “The Birds”, Hitchcock manipulated sound as was

done in the early German silent films. The sound effects contributed to the

to the turmoil in the movie and added to the chaotic atmosphere.

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Hitchcock- Marnie 1964

Hitchcock’s use of color in “Marnie” provoked and conveyed a frenzy of emotion. His use of artificial backgrounds and highly stylized sets reflected the influence of Expressionism.

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Hitchcock and Expressionism

  • Alfred Hitchcock was exceedingly popular and many other filmmakers copied his techniques.

  • Because he was mimicked by so many other directors, Hitchcock inadvertently acted as a vehicle to propel the influence of expressionism more widely into filmmaking than ever before.

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Ridley Scott-Blade Runner-1982

  • Many analysts believe that Expressionist media often contains an underlying and ambiguous social critique.

  • In the science fiction movie, “Blade Runner”, directed by Ridley Scott, poetic speeches contained vague political themes and ideologies.

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Blade Runner

  • In the manner of Expressionism, Ridley Scott incorporated dark shadows, hazy lighting and odd camera movements into the film.

  • In addition to the parallels to movie “Metropolis”, “Blade Runner” imitated sequences from other German Expressionist films. Bladerunner’semphasis on the degraded, alienating city resembled that of many expressionist "street films" taken together. Some propose that “Bladerunner” was a remake of Lang's Metropolis.

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Similar to the earlier Expressionist film, “Metropolis”,

“Bladerunner” portrayed a futuristic city as bleak and dark.

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Ridley Scott contrasted light and dark and used straight

angles and silhouettes. Images in the movie were reminiscent of “Nosferatu”.

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Tim Burton

  • Tim Burton is a modern-day director for whom the influence of Expressionism is evident in many of his films.

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Tim Burton – Beetlejuice-1988

The painted backdrops used in “Beetlejuice” mimic those seen in “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari”.

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Tim Burton and Expressionism

  • Burton’s depiction of Gotham City in his movie “Batman Returns” was also compared to Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis”. The angular building designs and severe looking city squares of Gotham City bore resemblance to Lang’s futuristic city.

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Tim Burton-Batman Returns-1992

  • The urban design of

    Gotham city resembled

    a dream or nightmare-

    like landscape. A variety

    of architectural styles

    including Expressionism

    were borrowed from in

    the creation of the city.

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Tim Burton- Nightmare before Christmas- 1993

  • Expressionist themes permeated the opening montage of this film and were familiar to the silent Expressionist films of the 1920’s.

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Edward Scissorhands

Critics have compared the likeness of Weine’s

“Cesare” to Burton’s “Edward Scissorhands”.

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Other Expressionist Influence

  • In addition to the direct influence of emigrated German filmmakers, filmmakers in other countries were impressed with expressionist style and techniques. They incorporated the style into their own films which expanded the influence of Expressionism to international films from the 1930’s to the films of today.

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Works Cited

  • Works Cited

  • 1918, By. "GreenCine | German Expressionism." Gcsplash.gif. Web. 1 Nov. 2010. <>.

  • "Film Images Cabinet of DrCaligari - Bing Images." Bing. Web. 23 Nov. 2010. < images cabinet of drcaligari&FORM=IGRE&qpvt=film images cabinet of drcaligari#>.

  • "Film Images Form Bladerunner - Bing Images." Bing. Web. 10 Nov. 2010. < images form bladerunner&FORM=IGRE&qpvt=film images form bladerunner#>.

  • "Batman Returns - Movie Photos." Movie Photos and Wallpapers. Web. 14 Nov. 2010. <>.

  • Coates, Paul. The Gorgon's Gaze: German Cinema, Expressionism, and the Image of Horror. Cambridge [England: Cambridge UP, 1991. Print.

  • Eisner, Lotte H. Murnau,. Berkeley: University of California, 1973. Print.

  • Eisner, Lotte H. The Haunted Screen; Expressionism in the German Cinema and the Influence of Max Reinhardt. Berkeley: University of California, 1969. Print.

  • "German Expressionism Films." Index. Web. 3 Nov. 2010. <>.

  • Johnson, Glen. 2010. Web. 11 Nov. 2010.

  • "Photobucket | Edward Scissorhands Pictures, Edward Scissorhands Images, Edward Scissorhands Photos." Image Hosting, Free Photo Sharing & Video Sharing at Photobucket. Web. 17 Nov. 2010. < scissorhands/>.

  • Scheunemann, Dietrich. Expressionist Film--new Perspectives. Rochester, NY: Camden House, 2003. Print.