Sharp shadows and angles, jagged lines, and men walking away into the dark dark night wearing heavy trench coats against the violent pitter-patter of the rain. What do they all have in common?
All these elements, especially in film, can be directly related back to German Expressionism - an artistic movement and a distinctive style of filmmaking that emerged after World War I in Germany. The movement has had a lasting impact on the mystery and horror genres. Even today, one can see horror films and suspense films that exhibit German expressionist techniques. The art and film movement has influenced the works of filmmakers such as Alfred Hitchcock, Werner Herzog, Tim Burton, and Ridley Scott.
What is Expressionism?
Before expressionist films became all the rage (first within Germany and then quickly in other parts of Europe and America), the term “expressionism” was largely associated with visual art. To be more specific, with the modern art movement that emerged in the early 20th century in Europe. Masters such as Vincent Van Gogh and Edvard Munch have been associated with the German expressionist art movement.
Not Just A Scream
Expressionist painters aimed to depict one’s inner reality i.e. subjective emotions. Though the German expressionist art movement began to be seen as a separate art movement in the late 19th century, it first emerged in Germanic and Nordic art during the Middle Ages. Expressionism, both these times, was a reaction to social change and collective spiritual decline.
German expressionist artists were concerned with truly representing humanity’s relationship with society and with the loss of spirituality and authenticity within society. Expressionists aimed at reflecting one’s true inner turmoil. They did so by using jagged and distorted lines, jarring and contrasting colors, and flat shapes.
These techniques seem to:
i) create a true representation of the inner world by creating a work of art that was visually intense, and
ii) bring out a reaction from the one witnessing the piece of art (or film).
iii ) The impact of this art brings the observer face-to-face with inner chaos.
German Expressionism in Film
German Expressionism History
In 1916, a defeated Germany banned all foreign films post-WWI, which led to the expressionist cinema within Germany i.e. the German Expressionist movement developing pretty much in isolation from the rest of the world. However, due to this forced cultural isolation triggered by the Weimar Republic post-WW1, German artists began to create art that spoke to them - that spoke to the people of a fallen nation. Germany emerged as the leading center of the avant-garde, and it was the German Expressionist movement (which could be found in painting, sculpture, music, and films) that led the way.
The German Expressionist style of creating films became a way for filmmakers to express the collective anxiety of a defeated nation. The future felt uncertain and oftentimes….bleak. These films aimed at expressing this angst using eerie motifs, nightmarish imagery, and terrifying stories.
German film critic Lotte Eisner labeled German Expressionism “helldunkel” and stated that the movement was a “sort of twilight of the German soul, expressing itself in shadowy, enigmatic interiors, or in the misty, insubstantial landscape.”
The films weren’t all too concerned with coming across as aesthetically pleasing. After all, their main aim was to represent the truth. The effects of the war and the absolute devastation that comes with it - of the economy as a nation and at a mental and spiritual level, as an individual - were fundamental to paving the way for German Expressionism.
Remarkable German Expressionist Films
Two of the most famous expressionist films of all time are The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Metropolis. The two silent film classics have made a lasting impact on the entire genre of horror as a whole and can be seen as being a direct predecessor to film noir.
A poster in German for the film The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, via
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) by Robert Wiene tells the story of Francis who looks back on his encounter with a man who can control people in their sleep (Dr. Caligari) at a carnival.
Throughout the film, sidewalks lead nowhere, buildings rise at weird angles, and strange shapes appear to be lurking at just about every corner.
The use of exaggerated sets and of high-contrast lighting were used to convey the characters’ subjective experiences on screen.
Metropolis (1927) by Fritz LangMetropolis was one of the last and undoubtedly one of the most memorable German Expressionist films to be made. It may well be one of the most remarkable films within all of German cinema. The film literally divides the world into two - of the haves (who live on the top) and the have nots (who live underground). The city is a chaotic and intense place to be in. Though Metropolis does not contain as much of typical expressionistic imagery as Dr. Caligari, it, too, is marked by sharp contrasts and terrifying sets.
A poster for the film Metropolis, via Wikimedia Commons.
Lighting in German Expressionist Films: Chiaroscuro
One of the integral aspects of German Expressionist films is the contrasts of darks and lights and incongruous patterns to create a nightmarish world. The lighting technique that was employed by German Expressionist filmmakers to create these contrasts, angles, and to bring an overall sense of collective despondence is known as the chiaroscuro lighting technique.
Chiaroscuro is Italian for bright and dark (chiaro means bright or clear and scuro means dark or obscure). The term, which finds its roots in Renaissance art, refers to the use of light and dark to create the illusion that a work of art is three-dimensional.
Leonardo da Vinci has been credited with being the first artist to use the chiaroscuro technique in art in Adorazione dei Magi (1481), via Wikimedia Commons
Chiaroscuro has been used in many films such as Metropolis, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Nosferatu (1922), T-Men (1947), and The Godfather (1972). The high-contrasting lighting and low-key lighting setup are used to create areas of darkness and light in the film - to create dark backgrounds and low-lit subjects.
This balance of light and dark lends a sense of mystery and volume to the objects, subjects, and settings within the film. The contrast leads to depth and creating a more enhanced dramatic effect.
Film Influences Life
In The Godfather, director Francis Ford Coppola uses chiaroscuro to add suspense and drama to the film. In the film, oftentimes only half of Michael Corleone’s face was lit.
This expressionistic lighting represented Michael’s own morality struggle - his constant state of flux - between good and bad, light, and dark.
The 1972 crime classic film The Godfather, via mepixels
St. Peter by George de la Tour (1615-20) is an example of Tenebrism, via Wikimedia Commons
Shadows and Darkness
In Citizen Kane (1941), Orson Wells uses chiaroscuro inspired by tenebrism to visually represent the difference between Kane’s personal and political persona. Tenebrism (which comes from the Latin word tenebrae i.e. “darkness”) is an art term that refers to the use of extreme contrasts of light and dark to heighten the dramatic effect. The figures are often illuminated while the background remains intensely dark. In Citizen Kane, Wells translates tenebrism to film via the use of chiaroscuro and artificially illuminated areas to create a dramatic contrast between light and dark.
Neo-Noir and Beyond
To take a more recent example, one can look to the opening scene of the neo-noir crime story, Sin City (2005). The film opens with a woman, the customer, standing on a balcony as a man - rather a silhouette of the man - approaches her. The scene has been lit using primarily the light from the party. Due to the use of chiaroscuro, each shadow is pronounced. The characters’ faces are half-lit and half-obscured and there is a sense of something just around the corner waiting to go wrong. The film achieves this sense of mystery and doom using lighting strategically. Throughout the film, too, the chiaroscuro lighting technique is used to highlight both emotional intensity and obscurity.
The brilliance of chiaroscuro lies in its ability to create a visual representation of inner conflict - whether it be existentialism, a moral crisis, or ennui. The technique became an integral part of German Expressionist films to help exemplify the dark (and many times, scary) reality of the inner experience. The thick contrasts, the sharp lines and angles, and the shadows that make German Expressionism would not have been possible had it not been for the lighting.
Shrita Pathak is a professional writer and Business Head at Studio Covers, a luxury soft furnishings store. She graduated from Symbiosis School for Liberal Arts, Pune (India), in 2019 where she majored in Political Science and Public Policy with a double minor in Film Studies and Economics. Before the pandemic hit, she spent a year in northwestern Spain teaching English. She is an avid traveler, a reader, and a vegan.
Shrita's Instagram is @itstheshayway