BSA206: German Expressionism

German Expressionism is an artistic genre that originated in Europe in the 1920s, and is broadly defined as the rejection of Western conventions, and the depiction of reality that is widely distorted for emotional effect.” [1]
This style of film was influenced by artists such as Vincent van Gogh, Edvard Munch, and El Greco and the way they used bright clashing colours, flat shapes and jagged brush strokes to create powerful reactions to their work. These influences can be seen through the use of geometrical painted backdrops,
German Expressionism originated in the 1920s as an artist genre in Europe, and it is “broadly defined as the rejection of Western conventions, and the depiction of reality that is widely distorted for emotional effect. ” [1]


The “German style.” Emphasis on design or mise-en-scène, uncanny atmosphere, and composition (less on story and editing, unlike Hollywood). “The film image must become graphic art” (Hermann Warm).

Expressionism = Stylization that abstracts and transforms reality as we know it (from the conventions of realistic art) through

  • –  photography (unexpected camera angles, little camera movement)
  • –  lighting (stark contrasts of light and shadow for various effects)
  • –  totally artificial, stylized sets (“paintings come to life”), stripped of all realistic details and psychology—sets that becomesymbolic diagrams of emotional states
  • –  overtly theatrical (anti-naturalist) acting style (actors move in jerky, slow, sinuous patterns) and heavy make-up
  • –  integration of all elements of mise-en-scène to create an overall compositionSuch Expressionist techniques aim to
  • –  abstract from realistic details and contingencies
  • –  bring out the “essence” of an object, situation, or state of being
  • –  express a subjective viewpoint
  • –  evoke mystery, alienation, disharmony, hallucination, dreams, extreme emotional states, destabilizationExpressionist film in the 1920s is based on the premise that film becomes art only to the extent that the film image differs from empirical reality: “The world is there: Why repeat it?” The “formative” power of film was seen in its ability to
  • –  resignify and rework reality (not merely record it)
  • –  construct a self-contained aesthetic and symbolic world of the imagination radically detached from the everyday


Defining features of expressionist films include the techniques of artificial, stylized sets that become symbolic diagrams of emotional states, stark lighting contrasts, and heavy, theatrical make up. (2) Examples of these techniques can be seen in the images below.

Shadow play in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919)
Shadow play in Nosferatu (1922)
Stark lighting contrasts in the geometrical set of Dr. Mabuse: The Gambler (1922) Source: 3
The artificial, stylised set of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919)
Lighting contrasts and artificial sets: Cesare in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919)
"Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari"D 1919/20 R.: Robert Wiene Conrad Veidt
Cesare with his heavy make up in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919) Source: 4






Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s