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When studying the origins of such genres as horror and film noir (though it is debatable whether noir is actually a genre or a style / aesthetic), it is necessary to be aware of the influence of German Expressionism, a style of filmmaking developed during the Weimar years in Germany, particularly in 1920s Berlin.

World War 1 meant that Germany could no longer import films from France, Italy and America, forcing them to import from Scandinavia. These movies tended to emphasise cinematography above plot and narrative; often very slowly paced, for example, they were generally beautifully photographed, and this visual clarity had a pronounced effect on later German cinema. Danish cinema in particular was seen as being hugely influential, both in terms of style (lighting, scenic design and camera placement) and content (urban setting, focus on the criminal underworld and designed to deliver visceral thrills.) See, as an example, the works of Scandinavians Sjostrom and Stiller. It was particularly influential on the work of Fritz Lang. 

German Film, in common with that of other nations, started to become more of an 'art form' in the years after World War 1 but, although the film industry was booming, the Germans could not compete with huge American budgets. As such, directors like Lang and Murnau experimented instead with light and shadow (leading to the chiaroscuro style of lighting (essentially, very low-key lighting designed to emphasise extreme pockets of light and dark) which is possibly the key feature of film noir, and, as such, much neo-noir and, more generally, horror and crime genre film ever since.) In keeping with the shadowy aesthetic, themes tend to be dark (something of a tradition in German literature); crime, soulessness and, in general, the darker side of human nature are emphasised. The influence was driven forward when the Nazis took control of Germany and many of the directors, cinematographers and so on who had crafted this style fled to America.

The texts most commonly used as examples of German Expressionism (or heavily influenced by it) are those by Fritz Lang (Metropolis (1927) and M (1931), or F.W. Murnau's Nosferatu (1922.) Robert Wiene's The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1920) is also hugely important.


For a lot of students, the real importance or interest of German Expressionism lies in the influence it has on contemporary film. TImm Burton is the most obviously influenced, but any director who is working in horror, psychothriller, dystopian sci-fi or any related area probably owes a debt to the early German auteurs. See here for additional notes:


EXPRESSIONISM ROUND 1: Caligari vs Edward Scissorhands


EXPRESSIONISM ROUND 2: Robocop vs Metropolis


Obviously, German Expressionist films are old. This means they are long out of copyright and freely available online. Here's a start - the trailer for Fritz Lang's incredible Metropolis, made in 1927 and the precursor to so much of the sci-fi we watch today.




Whenever students seek to explore the darker side of the human experience, they often reach for the expressionist aesthetic. There are no rules in filmmaking, so they will no tparticularly feel comelled to exactly copy the German Expressionists, but in films like this, the nfluence is clear. Combine chiaroscuro, dark subject matter and a formalist approach to editing, and you have a dark, disturbing piece of work.

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