German Expressionism

The Criterion Shelf: German Expressionism

Bil Antoniou investigates ten films that define the visually opulent genre made popular in the 1920s

Richard Pena on the Criterion Channel describes Expressionism as people’s fears manifested visibly in the world. The German Expression of the 1920s is considered the first successful effort to render unseen emotions visually on screen.

Inspired by artwork like Munch’s The Scream, Expressionism highlights stories in which the psychological state of the characters are interpreted for the viewer, never more obviously displayed than in the illogical architecture of Robert Weine’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.  In later Fritz Lang works, we see dark tales told with a fair share of visually baroque imagery that reached beyond pretty pictures. The era’s burgeoning fascination with psychoanalysis is reflected in Lang’s films in the Criterion Channel’s German Expressionism series, as well as in Wiene’s later work film with Conrad Veidt, The Hands of Orlac.

Criterion‘s collection of German Expressionism is a gift for those of us who have always read about this unique style of filmmaking, but never actually investigated it.  Studying in film classes often meant referring to the landmarks in the genre, mainly Caligari and Metropolis, but conversation (in my experience) often focused on the period as a stepping stone for directors like Fritz Lang and F.W. Murnau to their Hollywood careers. The films themselves were referred to as developmental stages towards more famous ones later on (M as a prototype for film noir, for instance).

I, who spend most of my time watching movies, never watched Caligari until recently, but I knew everything about it. Seeing Criterion Channel’s gorgeous restorations in the German Expressionism collection, that could be because seeing these films in ideal conditions has never been easier, and feels like a reward as a result watching them here.

Here they are in preferential order:


Metropolis (Fritz Lang, 1927)

Science-fiction films have rarely created so complete and convincing a world since Lang made this masterpiece about the dehumanizing effect of the big city.  One of the most visually dazzling movies ever made, it features a woman who decides to lead a group of Workers (the people who do everything but can’t make decisions) to invade the intellectual world of the Thinkers (the people who decide everything but don’t get involved) and allow human nature to overtake a forced and unreal social control. The image of Brigitte Helm turning into a robot is one of the longest-lasting in cinema history. The film has undergone a number of restorations and reissues over the decades, including a New Coke version with a rock soundtrack that I find noisy and annoying.


M (Fritz Lang, 1931)

The incomparable Lang moves to synchronized sound without sacrificing any of the ornate visual requirements of expressionism, telling the tale of a serial killer (Peter Lorre) with a predilection for murdering small children. Lang walks a tightrope carefully in a film that would still make audiences nervous today, drawing plenty of sympathy for the parents who lose their beloved children to the main character’s monstrous appetite, but also presenting a depth of humanity for the killer as a victim himself. Peter Lorre’s Hans Beckert is trapped by his own inhuman desires, while members of “decent” society are shown as a careless and angry mob that, in pursuing emotional satisfaction over legal justice, fail to actually make their society any better. Innovative camera work and haunting photography is to be noted, but at the heart of it is Lorre’s daring performance as the pathetic and pursued creature that Lang holds responsible for his actions and pities all the same.


Nosferatu (F.W. Murnau, 1922)

Max Schreck is perfectly creepy as Count Orloc, the Dracula-like vampire who, following a visit by real-estate agent Hutter, decides to move from his haunted castle to the city of Wisborg and there falls in love with Hutter’s fiancee Ellen. The imagery is fantastic, the pace quick, and the acting top quality. The film was originally to be based on the novel by Bram Stoker, but as the rights weren’t available, Murnau just changed a few names and augmented the story to his own purposes. The making of this all-time classic was the subject of E. Elias Merhige’s delicious film Shadow of the Vampire, and this particular version was effectively remade by Werner Herzog in 1979.


Destiny (Fritz Lang, 1921)

Lang has no end of fun exploring the excesses of this capricious melodrama. A happy couple are accompanied to a public house by Death himself, who whisks away the man and leaves his newlywed wife begging to be reunited with him. Death tells her that that there are three men around the world that he needs to collect. If she can save one of them, she can have her man back. She wanders an unnamed Middle-Eastern country during Ramadan, Venice during Carnival, and imperial China during the Emperor’s birthday party.  The plot allows the audience to travel the world within one feature film and no expense is spared on the sets and costumes, all of which are dazzling. Lang’s talent for magnificent wide shots really creates a sense of wonder–it’s probably why he’s more closely associated with expressionism despite the fact that he didn’t direct the movie that started it all.


The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (Robert Wiene, 1920)

The film that is considered the biggest influence, if not the birth, of the era of German Expressionism is a silly but potent tale. It’s narrated by a haunted young man who tells of his small town where a mysterious and possibly evil Dr. Caligari appears at a local fair with his sideshow attraction, a somnambulist (played by a very young Conrad Veidt).  The young man believes the sleepwalker is committing murders in his trance-like state under Caligari’s instruction, but nothing is what it seems until the bitter end of this delightful, gorgeously photographed indulgence.  Director Wiene doesn’t quite have Lang’s command over mise-en-scene and character and there’s no memorable depth here thematically. However, the deliciously ornate sets, in which no lines travel a straight line, make for a feast for the eyes.


The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (Fritz Lang, 1933)

A ring of jewel robbers confound a city as murders pile up and a police detective is driven crazy trying to figure out the source of the crimes. The only clues point to Dr. Mabuse, now catatonic and locked up in an insane asylum, possibly controlling people through hypnosis. This deliciously strange procedural is a grab-bag of the delightful and the dull, highlighted by superb visual motifs that are unforgettable (including some very nifty special effects), but also hampered by an overly convoluted plot that is frustrating to follow. What makes it memorable, other than its historical interest as a Hitler allegory that got it banned in Germany for twenty years, is Lang’s expertise itself, a man who in the burgeoning years of sound could make something so smooth and brisk at a time when other films were held back by stilted scenes of dialogue and awkward pacing.


The Golem (Carl Boese, Paul Wegener, 1920)

Co-director Wegener himself plays the title character, a mythical creature fashioned from clay and given life by Kabbalistic magic thanks to the divination of a concerned Rabbi in sixteenth-century Prague.  Reading the stars and seeing trouble ahead for his people, the religious teacher and his faithful servant conjure up the giant at the same time that an edict is handed down by the emperor declaring that Jews, who are already living separately in a walled-in ghetto, are to be stripped of their rights.  Filmed on gorgeous, giant sets (with Jewish ghetto life looking like a village at Disney World) and restored beautifully, this rendering of the legend that inspired Frankenstein features mystical beauty in its visuals and more than its fair share of ironic humour in its telling (like the fact that the rabbi saves his people by undoing his own mischief, twice).


Dr. Mabuse the Gambler (Fritz Lang, 1922)

Lang made three films about the nefarious Dr. Mabuse, beginning with this extravagant, four-and-a-half hour crime drama. Mabuse is a master of disguise who has the power to hypnotize people into doing his will, first crashing the stock market by stealing insider information and then ruining a young millionaire by getting him to play large sums badly at a casino. Berlin’s police commissioner Von Wenk gets onto Mabuse’s game, strong enough even to outfox his hypnosis, and pursues him devotedly throughout the mammoth running time after Mabuse’s attempt to get rid of his nemesis accidentally gets the millionaire killed instead. By today’s standards, the plot isn’t exactly brimming over with unforgettable incidents, but no one should ever compare films of the silent era to contemporary cinema.  Lang is clearly a masterful artist well ahead of his contemporaries, creating a host of detailed characters performed with expert subtlety by his cast, and filling the movie with gorgeous art-deco images and a series of beautifully filmed parties, seances and nightclubs.


Variete (Ewald Andre Dupont, 1925)

Fatal romance and life under the big top, what could be more exciting? Emil Jannings plays the proprietor of a run-down sideshow whose spirits perk up when an orphaned beauty joins his spectacle and wins his heart, causing him to abandon wife and child and restart his career as a daring acrobat. When they are spotted by a successful aerial athlete who asks them to join his high-profile show, it begins a love triangle that sees the two men vying for the woman’s affection. Jannings grows more desperate as it becomes clearer that he is no much for his younger and more erudite rival, and that takes us to desperate measures. The easily digested plot is perked up a great deal by gorgeous cinematographer by future Oscar winner Karl Freund. The long shots of acrobats flying over scores of people are breathtaking.


The Hands of Orlac (Robert Wiene, 1924)

Wiene teams up with his Caligari star Conrad Veidt for another gruesome, mystical film, this time starring the actor as a world-famous concert pianist who loses his hands in a train accident. His wife begs the doctors to save his moneymakers, so the mad scientist uses the hands of a recently executed criminal to transplant onto our hero.  Unable to get back to work, Veidt instead finds himself drawn to commit crimes, his hands gravitating towards encircling throats and grabbing knives, while his wife suffers their poverty and lowers herself to ask Veidt’s vampiric father for assistance. Long and drawn out, the film once again shows Wiene’s talent for powerful visuals and little else. The story is plodding and the moralism of the conclusion feels like a letdown after what promised to be a delicious voyage into the world of the irredeemably macabre.