Post World War I Germany was a very dismal place. The German “empire” was reduced to nothing more than a hollowed structure of its former self. With the new Weimar republic in place, the German people were unsure of their future. Because they were broke and starving from the War, their uncertainty was reflected in the art and film of the era. Expressionism is the tendency of an artist (in our case, a director or screenwriter) to distort reality for an emotional effect. Instead of making films for strictly entertainment purposes, as it had been before, the films coming out of Germany in the 1920’s reflected the mood of the time.

         The first Expressionist films made up for a lack of lavish budgets (Germans were in extreme debt following the war) by using set designs with wildly non-realistic, geometrically absurd sets, along with designs painted on walls and floors to represent lights, shadows, and objects. The first Expressionist films, The Golem (1920), The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), Destiny (1921), Nosferatu (1922), Phantom (1922), Schatten (1923), and The Last Laugh (1924). Later films often categorized as part of the brief history of German Expressionism include Metropolis (1927) and M (1931), both directed by Fritz Lang.

         All of these were highly symbolic and deliberately surrealistic portrayals of filmed stories. The plots and stories of the Expressionist films often dealt with madness, insanity, betrayal, and other subjects. The German name for this type of storytelling was called Kammerspielfilm (chamber film).

         The extreme non-realism of Expressionism was short-lived, and it faded away (along with Dadaism) after only a few years. However, the themes of Expressionism were integrated into later films of the 1930s, resulting in an artistic control over the placement of scenery, light, and shadow to enhance the mood of a film.

Kimberly Marks

Table of Contents