What Is German Expressionism? The Ultimate Guide

What is German Expressionism?

German Expressionism was a movement that did not just dominate the film industry, but rather it was a cultural movement that reached a broad variety of art movements during its day. German Expressionism had its beginnings in Germany (not surprising) in the 1920s. This time represented an age of artists after World War 1 and before World War 2, and who had experienced life under the rein of the Prussian Emperor Wilhelm II. While it is hard to define German Expressionism due to its many artistic facets, its development was rooted in young people desiring to break away from German bourgeois culture and ideology.

German Expressionism was all about change. Every piece of art and every movie created in this style was an escape from the classical styles that had dominated in previous times. The youth culture during this time wanted to tell different stories than those that were told in the past. This was a very powerful time for literature as many German Expressionists believed that literature was one of the best ways to tell one’s story in a personal and unique way. These Expressionists, no matter what mode of art they employed, rejected realism in favor of showcasing painfully raw and personal renditions of the human condition through expressive and dramatic artistry.

what is german expressionism
Nosferatu (1922).

In order to escape realism and embrace this new art movement, many art mediums took on a strange, dreamlike style. However, there was no romanticism in this style. After WWI, violence and horror became a poignant subject for German Expressionists to explore. Films that came out during this period were the ever-famous Nosferatu by F.W. Murnau and Metropolis by Fritz Lang.

Besides these movies being masterpieces in their own rights, another reason for their success, especially in Germany, was likely that in 1916, Germany had banned all foreign films from the country. A shortage of new films quickly followed and German directors had to take matters into their own hands. A film that I personally love from this era is The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, a film that completely embodies the German Expressionist movement through its jagged, physics-defying architecture, horrifying makeup, and fascinating, dramatic acting. The environment of the film is spread out and constructed by emotion rather than reality.

What Is German Expressionism?

Bathers Ernst Ludwig Kirchner
Bathers by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner.

As I mentioned in the beginning of this blog, German Expressionism was not just a film movement. It permeated the realm of painting just as much as it did film. Edvard Munch’s The Scream is perhaps one of the most famous examples of this movement in painting. Other examples include Bathers by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, The Foxes by Franz Marc, and Composition by Wassily Kandinsky. All these pieces defy reality and embrace colorful, emotional, intellectual, dreamlike figures and worlds, but they all do this in individually unique and personal ways, each painting in its own style.

Unfortunately, German Expressionism did not last long and started to fade once the 1930s rolled around. However, despite its short lifespan, German Expressionism made a lasting impact on art, and especially on movies, thanks to its focus on the strange and the horrific. Even today, we can see the influences of German Expressionism through modern artists such as Tim Burton and Ridley Scott.

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  1. I had the opportunity to watch The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari for the first time recently, and I loved it.

    I’m not much a film buff, so I’ve never thought to compare German Expressionist films to more modern films; however, the first Alien film (directed by Ridley Scott) is one of my favorite films, and I definitely see the influence. Really interesting!

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