During World War I, Hollywood began portraying Germans as villains for the first time. The trend started in 1916 when patriotic films like The Battle Cry of Peace started urging Americans to defend themselves in war. Actors like Erich von Stroheim fit the mold of the stereotypical movie villain in this period. Germany’s response to this was to pour more money into their film industry to counter-balance the negative portrayals of Germans in American films.
This was the set-up for what is seen by many film historians as a golden age of German cinema, taking place primarily in the 1920s, during the post-WWI, pre-WWII period in German history when the German empire transitioned into a federal constitutional republic following the country’s defeat and reestablishment in 1919. By 1924, an era of artistic innovation and liberal revolution spread throughout Germany, and this new political and cultural shift was reflected in their movies as well.
Films in the silent era sought to refine the atmospheric and storytelling techniques pioneered by D.W. Griffith, and German films were so good at telling stories and creating atmosphere due to the visuals alone that they often didn’t need intertitles. Germany’s silent films were more artsy in their execution than Griffith’s dramas. Things like showing a character’s inner thoughts, which Griffith shot in brackets, were more abstractly done in Germany. Internal human sensations may or may not be distorting the images in a certain creative and highly influential group of German films which implemented a style that critics dubbed expressionism. A style that dominated German art, not only in cinema but in paintings and on stage. The set designers (later known as art directors or production designers) who constructed these distorted and claustrophobic settings borrowed the style from the art, theater and architecture of German culture. In fact, many of the artistic movements of post-war Europe like expressionism, cubism, constructivism and other abstract forms of art were heavy influences on German films.
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) was the biggest signal to the start of this new era. It was a movie that told the story of a hypnotist (played by Werner Krauss) who hypnotizes people to commit crimes. Written by Austrian screenwriter Carl Mayer and German author Hans Janowitz and directed by Robert Wiene, it combined fantasy with psychological horror and memorable visuals. It’s a clever but twisted film, not just full of visual twists but narrative twists. It plays with the audience’s perceptions and expectations in more ways than one. As for the art design, everything about it is exaggerated, irregular, grotesque and dark. In the expressionist films of Germany, darkness reigned supreme and sunlight was suppressed.
Caligari inspired many filmmakers, not just in Germany but in France, inspiring a rise in avant-garde, abstract and experimental cinema throughout Europe. This artist-driven film movement ventured away from literal realism in favor of something more psychological. It was like an anti-Hollywood movement in a way. Hollywood being the most money-driven of all the film industries around the world. Meanwhile, filmmakers in Europe cared more about making art than making money, probably because the budgets and profits weren’t as big which created zero incentive for pandering to the masses. Something that led to the neorealism movement in Italy and later the French New Wave.
Other German films that used expressionism include From Morn to Midnight (1920), which was directed by Karlheinz Martin and based on a 1912 play by Georg Kaiser. It was even more radical artistically than Caligari.
The Golem (1920) directed by Paul Wegener is a horror film about the creature made from clay of Jewish folklore which was hugely popular in Germany as well as the United States.
Destiny (1921) is a fantasy romance directed by Fritz Lang and inspired by the Indian folktale of Savitri. It tells several stories of tragic romance. The figure of Death in the film was a precursor and most likely an influence on Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal.
Nosferatu (1922) is a gothic horror film directed by F.W. Murnau and inspired by Bram Stoker’s vampire novel Dracula. It is one of the most famous examples of German expressionism and it is seen by many as a horror masterpiece. It was a big influence on later films and it featured an eerie performance from Max Schreck as Count Orlok, who was more hideous and less sexy than future cinematic portrayals of vampires.
Waxworks (1924) is an anthology film directed by Paul Leni which combined several genres, including fantasy, horror and historical drama.
The Student of Prague (1926) directed by Henrik Galeen told the supernatural story of a young man who sells his soul to the devil.
Metropolis (1927) directed by Fritz Lang and based on the 1925 novel by Thea von Harbou was among the first feature-length sci-fi films. It is set in a futuristic dystopian city and told a story about the classist divide between the wealthy and the working class. It doesn’t hold up well and not every scene of the movie has even survived so it’s impossible to watch the whole thing, but it’s an interesting and beautiful looking film with a lot of historic value.
German expressionism and the changing culture of Germany in general had a ripple effect on the film industry. A type of German film that came around the same time as expressionism was known as kammerspielfilm, which was a subgenre that showed lower middle class life in a dramatic and intimate way. It was radical in a way that was similar to the effect of Italian neorealism years later. An example of it actually came from Nosferatu director F.W. Murnau when he directed the psychological drama The Last Laugh (1924). Not every German filmmaker was a fan of expressionism. In fact, an anti-expressionism movement known as the New Objectivity sought to portray German life in a realistic way. An example of the New Objectivity is Georg Wilhelm Pabst’s Joyless Street (1925) which followed the lives of two women from a poor Austrian neighborhood, Maria (Asta Nielsen) and Greta (Greta Garbo in her second major film role).
Many of the techniques of expressionism can be found in the Nazi propaganda films of the war years, with stirring musical motifs and the incorporation of mythical and godly figures invoking films like Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, which was Adolf Hitler’s favorite film.
But Germany’s influence can also be felt in America in major ways during the studio era, not only because of certain Hollywood directors who have experience with the German film industry like Alfred Hitchcock, Billy Wilder, Otto Preminger, Michael Curtiz and Fred Zinneman, but because of things like Universal’s monster movies of the ’30s and ’40s, which you could tell were heavily influenced by the expressionist films of Germany. Universal films like Dracula (1931) and Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932) were even shot by German cameraman Karl Freund who previously shot The Golem and Metropolis and would later go on to direct Universal’s 1932 horror classic The Mummy. Freund was even an influence on Gregg Toland, the cinematographer who shot Citizen Kane, and it shows. In fact it shows all over the 1940s in the moody expressionism and dark lighting of the film noir genre, and in unexpected places like television sitcoms. The three-camera shooting technique that was popularized by I Love Lucy was pioneered by Freund.
So Germany’s influence on Hollywood cannot be overstated. The idea of portraying the psychological in a literal way either to convey a character’s disturbed mindset or to convey the distorted nature of the story being told is something that every movie and show does nowadays. Plus the influence of expressionism can be seen in the films of Tim Burton and Guillermo del Toro as well as Ridley Scott’s cyberpunk noir Blade Runner, Alex Proyas’ superhero film The Crow and Polish cinematographer and frequent Ridley Scott collaborator Dariusz Wolski who has worked on Sweeney Todd, Alice in Wonderland and the Pirates of the Caribbean films. The golden age of German cinema may have ended with the rise of the Nazis but at least its legacy lives on in countless films.