A Brief and Boredom-Induced Guide to German Expressionist Films, Part 1

Soooooo. Coronavirus. Quarantine. All that good stuff.

Needless to say, the current global crisis is upending everyone’s usual schedule. I myself was doing pretty well for once. But then, as though I’d wished on a monkey’s paw for some extra free time, it all went up in a neat little puff of smoke. Hooray.

But enough about that! The point is, I suddenly had no idea what to do with myself and how to process what was going on. So, like many people, I started to pass the time by catching up on movies. But not your traditional feel-good movies or your pandemic movies, oh no. For you see, right as everything around us was starting to shut down, the Criterion Channel came along with a 10-film collection showcasing the highlights of German Expressionism. And who could say no to some doom and gloom like that? Not me, certainly.

While I will fully admit that I’m doing this write-up because I’m bored and need material for the blog, this is also a topic that I’ve been wanting to cover in some detail for a while. You can think of this as a companion piece to my Horror Is Universal articles, because something I feel I’ve neglected to emphasize in those articles is just how strongly the early Universal Horror films are tied to the German Expressionist movement. Those movies probably wouldn’t exist without that movement, for a few different reasons. In fact, one of the really cool things about German Expressionism is that quite a few film genres can trace their roots back to it. Horror, science fiction, film noir, psychological thriller and more. All that said, this is going to be a bit more casual compared to my Universal Horror articles. I didn’t make notes while watching these movies, so my remarks here are mainly just impressions and stream-of-consciousness thoughts. Basically, it means I’m probably going to gush. A lot.

Defining Expressionism

Broadly speaking, expressionism is a modern artistic movement that originated in western Europe in the late nineteenth century. You’ve probably heard of impressionism, which is art that’s characterized by soft lines and colors and a dedication to capturing the natural, ordinary world. Monet and his water lilies are impressionism. Expressionism is the polar opposite of all that. It’s all about capturing emotion and portraying the world not as it truly appears, but as the painter or subject experiences it. The physical environment becomes distorted and exaggerated to evoke a certain mood or reflect the subject’s mental state. The most famous example of Expressionism in art is Edvard Munch’s “The Scream,” painted in 1893. Notice the bold, swirling strokes that make up the sky and the water and how the boardwalk stretches unnaturally into the distance, all of it drawing your eye toward the exaggerated face of the human subject. It’s calculated to make you feel his anguish.

He just realized he’s out of toilet paper.

When it comes to German Expressionism specifically, the time period that’s most important is the 1920s. Now Germany wasn’t doing all that great in the 20s, mainly on account of that thing which had wrapped up in 1918. The newborn Weimar Republic was already struggling with hyperinflation, uneasy foreign relationships and extremism on both ends of the political spectrum. With money losing value by the day, the German entertainment scene exploded. Hey, if your money’s gonna be worthless tomorrow, you might as well spend it on some fun. German flocked to bars, clubs and — most importantly for today’s discussion — movie theaters.

German Expressionist Films

The German film industry had grown quite a bit during World War One. Foreign films had been banned by the government in 1916, leading to a sharp increase in the number of films being made domestically. Decla-Bioscop (or simply Decla) was one of the big production companies/distributors, along with PAGU and UFA. In fact, it was Decla that produced and released the film often credited with bringing German Expressionism to international attention…

Film #1: The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari

  • Year: 1920
  • Director: Robert Wiene

German Expressionism is all about the heavy stuff: madness, brutality, tragedy, the darkest impulses of the human soul. Nowhere are those themes more prominently displayed than in Caligari. Screenwriters Carl Mayer and Hans Janowitz had both been scarred by their experiences in the war — Janowitz was an officer, while Mayer faked insanity to avoid serving and was rigorously evaluated by a military psychiatrist — and they wanted to write a story about the danger inherent in unquestioning loyalty.

A young man named Francis (Friedrich Fehér) spins the twisted tale of the evil Dr. Caligari (Werner Krauss), an insane asylum director who is mad himself and terrorizes a sleepy village with brutal nightly murders. His secret weapon? A somnambulist, or sleepwalker, that he calls Cesare (Conrad Veidt) and compels to carry out his schemes. Eventually the doctor is brought to justice and locked away, and all’s well that ends well…until the very end, when we learn that Francis is the real madman and the whole story is only his delusion.

Caligari is, in my opinion, one of those movies that you have to see to believe. I could probably write an entire article on this film alone. There hadn’t been anything quite like it before, and despite its many imitators, there has never been anything quite like it since. The world it creates is one you’d expect to find on the other side of a broken funhouse mirror in an evil carnival: everything is bleak, imposing and off-kilter. Windows, rooms and whole buildings are set at bizarre angles. The village streets swirl around in spirals. The long shadows are actually painted on to the film’s sets. Caligari and Cesare look like ghouls with their exaggerated makeup and behavior, and even the “normal” characters have an eerieness about them. The stylized design of the film even extends to the intertitle cards, with their weird fonts and geometric symbols.

All of these wild visuals serve to reinforce the central point of the film, which is the characters’ fractured mental state and emotional collapse. How do you use a visual medium to portray something intangible, like insanity? You allow the audience to see the world through the eyes of the madman. A shining example of the film’s efforts to visualize the abstract comes toward the end of the story, when the origin of Dr. Caligari is revealed. His name isn’t actually Caligari: he took that name from an 18th-century mystic with whom he became obsessed. At the height of his madness, he — and the audience — begin to see swirling white letters appear in the air, spelling out the name CALIGARI over and over. “I must become Caligari!” he declares.

Now, a hundred years later, this film is remembered not only for its visuals but for being the earliest example of a twist ending in cinema. The twist is said to have been a change mandated by the studio, and Mayer and Janowitz felt it undercut the film’s message. I can see how they would feel that way, especially with the “real” Caligari being revealed as a trustworthy doctor that Francis has no reason to fear. On the other hand, you could make the argument that having an unreliable narrator fits with the overall theme of deception and uncertainty. If you can’t trust the narrator, then who can you trust? The question of what’s real in the film and what isn’t can make for a lively debate. Regardless of how you interpret The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, you’re bound to find something to admire about it. It’s a grotesque yet dazzling film that instantly captures your imagination. If you haven’t seen it yet, you need to.

Film #2: The Golem

  • Year: 1920
  • Director(s): Carl Boese and Paul Wegener

A 16th-century Jewish folktale provides the basis for this film, the full title of which is The Golem: How He Came Into the World. In medieval Prague, the revered Rabbi Loew (Albert Steinrück) is alarmed to learn that the Holy Roman Emperor plans to banish the city’s Jewish population. To defend his people, the rabbi creates the titular golem (Paul Wegener) by building a monumental figure out of clay and bringing it to life through magic. At first the experiment is a great success, astounding the royal court, but things take a dark turn when the magic seal that powers the golem falls into the wrong hands.

Wegener (who co-wrote, co-directed and starred in the film) had first heard the legend of the golem in 1913 when he was filming a movie in Prague. It definitely struck a chord with him, because he ended up making three films inspired by the story: the other two have been lost.

Golem is a more conventional-looking film than Caligari, in that it doesn’t look like a Tim Burton theme park on acid. But it’s not without its moments of shock and extravagance, such as the literally explosive sequence where Rabbi Loew and his assistance bring the golem to life. The central ideas of German Expressionism are all still here: depicting a more abstract vision of the world, dabbling with the unknown and diving into the psychology of the characters. Beneath all the fire-and-brimstone special effects is the story of a creature that wants to go out and experience the world on its own terms. It’s something of a Frankenstein prototype in this regard, and you can easily draw parallels between Wegener’s performance as the golem and Boris Karloff’s performance as the Creature. Golem also has a concrete connection to Universal Horror in the form of our old buddy Karl Freund, who was the director of photography here. This is the first time his name shows up in German Expressionism, but it won’t be the last.

The Golem isn’t a perfect movie. The story drags a little bit, especially when it focuses on the love triangle between Loew’s daughter, his assistant and a Christian knight. But it’s still pretty entertaining and respectful of the folklore that inspired it. You can tell that Wegener really had a ton of passion for this story. Check this one out if you can find a copy.

Film #3: Destiny

  • Year: 1921
  • Director: Fritz Lang

When it comes to German Expressionism, Fritz Lang is THE GUY. You are not going to forget that once this lesson is all over, believe me. Having started out as an actor and screenwriter, he would eventually become one of the most influential film directors of all time. But before he could do that, he had to make his first film. And his first film is…weird.

Inspired by the death of Lang’s mother when he was a child, as well as the Indian folktale of Savitri and Satyavan, Destiny is a story that asks whether or not love can overpower death. An unnamed young woman (Lil Dagover) has unexpectedly lost her fiance (Walter Janssen), so she ventures into the realm of Death himself (Bernhard Goetzke) in order to save her lover’s life. Death responds by transporting the couple into three different scenarios across Earth and through history. In each one, star-crossed lovers are about to meet a terrible fate. But if the young woman can change fate in at least one story, Death will grant her wish.

Destiny is a film with a lofty goal that it can’t quite reach. It’s impressive from a visual standpoint, especially with the anthology segments. We get to see stylized depictions of the Middle East, Renaissance Venice and ancient China, all of them brought to life in lavish detail. But the actual plot stretches itself too thin pretty quickly. Each segment is fairly repetitive, and by the time we get to the China story (which does extra damage by including outright fantasy elements which the film didn’t really have before), the film as a whole has overstayed its welcome. The most interesting part of these sections is watching Dagover, who plays the female half of each couple. While the film doesn’t really try to remind you of the fact that this is supposed to be the same person acting out each scenario, you can see how she changes her attitude and strategy each time the scene changes. Her efforts to save her lover go from evasion to cunning ruthlessness to open aggression.

The best part of the film by far is all of the stuff with Death. Goetzke plays him as a tired old soul who takes no pleasure in spreading misery. He’s just as confined by destiny as the rest of the world, something he’s painfully aware of. His domain is also where the most fascinating visuals of the film come into play, with a long staircase ascending into the light and a shadowy room full of candles representing human lives.

This movie is okay, I guess. It’s watchable and well-made, but the story is too thin and starts to go around in circles after a while. The cultural depictions are also horrifically dated, which is something that modern viewers will have trouble getting past. Compared to the other German Expressionist films — especially the later efforts of Fritz Lang — it feels rather basic.

Film #4: Nosferatu

  • Year: 1922
  • Director: F.W. Murnau

Cinema’s original vampire is still its absolute scariest. This is the horror film from which all others are descended, and one of the German Expressionist films with the most relevance to Universal Horror. In fact, the Universal horror films might not exist without Nosferatu — but not in the way you’d expect.

Nosferatu is an unauthorized adaptation of Dracula, with the names changed to protect the innocent and avoid copyright infringement. Hapless real estate agent Jonathan Harker Thomas Hutter (Gustav von Wangenheim) travels from his home in Germany to the wild land of Transylvania, where he becomes the reluctant guest of the mysterious Count Dracula Count Orlok (Max Schreck). Orlok, of course, isn’t interested in moving to Germany for the sights: he’s after that sweet, sweet blood. Especially the blood of Hutter’s wife Mina Ellen (Greta Schröder), who comes to realize that she might be the only person who can end the vampire’s reign of terror.

Everything about this movie feels wrong, and I mean that in the best possible way. Murnau’s directing here is a masterclass in creating an eerie atmosphere and employing unusual filmmaking tricks to up the tension of a scene. For example, the sequence where Hutter embarks on the final leg of the journey to Orlok’s castle is meticulously crafted to feel like you’re stepping out of the real world and into something much more dangerous. The creepy carriage that arrives to escort Hutter is depicted with sped-up footage, creating the illusion of skin-crawling supernatural speed. One shot of the carriage rolling along the road is shown in photographic negative. When we finally get to the castle, it feels almost alive and malevolent, as though it’s working with its master to ensnare Hutter. And all this, of course, is capped off by the first proper appearance of Orlok himself.

Look, Max Schreck is a terrifying son of a bitch in this movie. There’s no other way to say it. The long creepy fingers, the stiff movements, the rat-like teeth, the dead unblinking eyes…every piece adds up to a brilliant whole. The well-known urban legend of Schreck being an actual vampire is obviously just that, but there’s a reason it has endured for so long: dude makes a really, really good vampire. Whether it’s the iconic scene where he rotates up out of his coffin (another ingenious use of special effects), one of the scenes where he’s intently watching Ellen or just when you see his shadow on the wall, you can’t take your eyes off him. No matter how much you will want to (and believe me, you will want to).

What I love about this film is that it might be a Dracula adaptation first and foremost, but it’s also pulling from other sources of vampire folklore and crafting its own. As a result, Orlok feels like a different and way more threatening kind of monster than Bram Stoker’s aristocratic Dracula. He can’t be stopped or even slowed down by modern science. Instead, the answer to defeating him lies in old-world superstition — and, more importantly, it requires a sacrifice. This is perhaps the bleakest of the many Dracula adaptations I’ve seen, with extra emphasis placed on the devastating loss of life that results from Orlok’s evil. In light of the current world situation, Ellen watching a procession of coffins pass her window is a particularly brutal moment.

The film is not without its flaws, of course. Some of the acting is kind of iffy (looking at you, Hutter), and the film’s second act slows the story down way more than it should. At least, it does in the version I watched. It’s difficult to criticize Nosferatu‘s pacing or editing since there is no definitive cut of the film. This is the case with a lot of movies from this era, which were nearly lost and had to be reconstructed. We’re lucky to have the ones that still exist. In the case of Nosferatu, however, the movie is like this because it’s not even supposed to exist anymore.

Remember how I said this was an unauthorized Dracula adaptation? Well, this was back when the novel was still copyrighted, and so Bram Stoker’s widow successfully sued the hell out of the production company. Part of the court ruling was that all copies of the film had to be burned. But lucky for us, one print had already been released internationally: that one print is the reason we still have Nosferatu.

Oh, and in order to pay the legal fees for the copyright dispute, Florence Stoker authorized a stage adaptation of Dracula. And that became the 1924 Deane/Balderston play which would inspire Universal’s 1931 film. That’s right, Nosferatu nearly getting sued out of existence helped create Universal Horror.

It should go without saying that you ought to see this movie if you haven’t already. With its dark atmosphere, solemn tragedy and iconic villain, it’s the original horror classic and an enduring example of the German Expressionist movement.

And one more thing…because I am a millennial, I am legally obligated to reference this:

Film #5: Dr. Mabuse the Gambler

  • Year: 1922
  • Director: Fritz Lang

So there I am, on the Criterion Channel app, looking at the list of German Expressionism movies and trying to plan my watch schedule, when I happen to notice the runtime for this movie. My brain powers off for a second as I try to comprehend the number I have just seen. “No, that can’t be right,” I mutter as I switch to Google and type the film’s title into the search bar. “That has to be a typo.”

But no, this movie really is four and a half hours long.

Then what in the hell, I wondered, could it possibly do to justify that? How could it avoid becoming a slow, bloated mess?

Well, it turns out there is one thing more surprising than Dr. Mabuse the Gambler‘s runtime, which is the fact that I was downright riveted for every minute of it. I’m not gonna lie, this might be one of my new favorite movies. It’s that good.

The titular Dr. Mabuse (Rudolf Klein-Rogge) is a man of many talents: gambler, psychoanalyst, master of disguise, international crime lord, that sort of thing. With his own unique skills and his massive criminal network, world economies and human lives are his to control and exploit. His latest scheme involves using hypnosis to trick Berlin’s wealthiest into gambling their fortunes away. But the stalwart Prosecutor Von Wenk (Bernhard Goetzke) is on the case, and he’s slowly realizing that he’s stumbled on to something much bigger than he could have imagined. What follows is a thrilling game of cat-and-mouse across 1920s Berlin as Mabuse and Von Wenk try to chase each other down. As the web of intrigue grows more tangled, it also becomes clear that the stakes of the game aren’t just money anymore: lives, love and sanity all hang in the balance.

It’s not really possible to assign a single genre to this film. You could call it a thriller, or a mystery, or a crime drama. But there are also elements of horror, romance and even fantasy. Fantasy, you say? Oh yes. See, Dr. Mabuse is basically the original supervillain. If you took Professor X and Mystique from X-Men and you put them in a blender with Kilgrave from Jessica Jones, this guy is what you’d end up with. His powers of mind manipulation are damn near limitless. With just a look, he can make you see whatever he wants you to see and think what he wants you to think. He can control your every move while you don’t even know he exists.

And the movie is like “Oh, he’s just a really good psychoanalyst-“


I mean, I have no problem with his being a f***ing wizard, but let’s just take a moment to acknowledge it.

With this film, Fritz Lang is clearly maturing as a filmmaker compared to Destiny. Not only is the screenplay sharp and suspenseful with nearly airtight pacing (though being based on a novel probably helps), but Lang is able to strike a balance between the realism demanded by the setting and the stylized visuals of German Expressionism. While the previous movies in this list all take place in the past or in some vague, fairytale-esque limbo, Mabuse is explicitly set in a real place in the modern day. The story is interested in all walks of Berlin life, from the lavish underground gambling dens to the winding streets of the slums. It’s particularly interested in shining a light on the decadence and rot of the upper classes. There’s some pretty pointed social commentary going on here: in the world that Lang creates, where nothing feels quite real and everything is just a game if you’re rich enough, a person like Dr. Mabuse fits right in. In a way, he encapsulates the darkest side of the Roaring Twenties. As he says in one memorable scene, “There is no love. There is only desire! There is no happiness. There is only the will to power!” He goes after whatever he wants in the moment, no matter what the consequences.

Rudolf Klein-Rogge had a few minor roles in Destiny and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, but this is where he really got to show off his acting chops. As Dr. Mabuse’s plans begin to unravel, so does his mind. It’s impressive and scary how he slips from coolheaded arrogance to brutal, wild-eyed anger and back again, and Klein-Rogge only gets more animated as the character’s mental state deteriorates further. His ultimate breakdown is a sight to behold.

It would be a difficult feat to make a hero as compelling as this villain, but the movie ends up doing that pretty well too. Prosecutor Von Wenk is a different kind of awesome compared to Mabuse. For he is, as the kids would say, a dork. He’s the kind of guy who, when asked by a pretty girl to help her quietly get out of an awkward situation, sprints across a crowded room and flips the lights off so she can run away. The kind of guy whose plan for going undercover in a gambling den is slicking his hair down and slapping on a giant handlebar mustache that makes him look like the Pringles mascot. In short, he is my favorite character in this movie. He has a cute semi-romance with the aforementioned pretty girl, Countess Dusy Told, who becomes integral to the story when Mabuse becomes obsessed with her following a chance encounter. Once this movie really gets going, it does not step on the brakes. We’ve got kidnappings, attempted murders, actual murders, you name it. And it keeps you hooked because you really do want to know what happens to all the characters, especially as the insurmountable odds against the good guys keep growing.

The distorted visuals of German Expressionism are a perfect fit for a psychological thriller like this, where many of the characters end up in an altered state of mind. The scenes where Mabuse uses his hypnotic powers on people are where the film tricks really come out to play. The “floating letters” effect from Caligari makes a reappearance here, representing trigger phrases or commands echoing in people’s heads. At a few key points in these scenes, the dialogue cards even become blurred and distorted to reflect the way Mabuse’s voice is supposed to sound to the protagonists. It’s the kind of innovative storytelling that you could only do with a silent film. Expressionism itself is something of a minor theme in the film, since one of the side characters is an avid follower of the movement: a lot of Expressionist art shows up in his house, and the other characters discuss it now and again. But the real triumph of stylized horror comes in the final minutes of the film, when…but I don’t want to spoil that for you.

So, am I seriously recommending that you watch a 4.5-hour long movie? Yes. Yes, I am. If you have time to binge-watch Tiger King or whatever the hell it’s called, you can sit down and watch this. It’s a non-stop ride full of pulpy action, compelling characters and nail-biting suspense. I won’t lie to you guys, I legitimately gasped a few times while watching this. It’s a movie that takes you by surprise with how good it is, and it sticks in your mind long after you’ve finished it. And you want to know the best part? This isn’t even considered Fritz Lang’s masterpiece.

In the second part of this article, I will discuss another five German Expressionism movies. So stay safe and keep an eye on the blog! Happy Easter!

— Dana

One thought on “A Brief and Boredom-Induced Guide to German Expressionist Films, Part 1

  1. Thank you! I thoroughly enjoyed your commentary. Nosferatu is a favorite of mine and I will definitely spend pandemic down time watching ALL of these films. Thanks, too, about the info on the Criterion Channel. Looking forward to hearing about the next 5 movies!


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