German Expressionism: Cinema or Theatre?



German expressionism was a powerful art movement in Germany during the early twentieth century. The movement focused on the artist’s emotions and opinions on reality and was “characterised by simplified shapes, bright colours and gestural marks or brushstrokes” (Tate, 2018). It is argued that the main film that portrays this method of German expressionism is Robert Wiene’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. With the collapse of the Weimar Republic heightening due to the mass hyperinflation, Germany was seen as a bleak society and Wiene shows many dark expressionist features which imitate expressionist art and create dark messages, which include themes of mental health and insanity; all of which are used to symbolise German society post 1918.

Perhaps the most significant way German expressionism cinema is shown in Caligari is due to the sets shown throughout. The hand drawn and painted sets show surreal, vivid images that can easily be referenced to Germany at the time. A prime example being the use of shadows throughout. “The demonic fun fair is a central motif in expressionist cinema”(Coates, P, 2001, p.28) The shadows allow a scene that is meant to portray something fun, such as the fun fair scene, feel hostile and leave the audience with the conventions of a classic horror film and an eerie affect. A scene where ‘Alan’ is being murdered, the use of shadowing not only allowed them to surpass film violence laws, but also used cinematic devices to show the melancholy darkness of the film. This relates to much of the German expressionist art of the time, as Germany was stuck in a social complication construct and many of the films, especially Caligari symbolised the upset after 1918.

Another significant example of the cinematic sets portraying aspects of German expressionism is through the use of levels. The wonky camera angles/sets arguably are a depiction of how unstable financially and politically Germany was during Weimar. With the value of the mark constantly declining and the revolts during the period e.g the Spartacist Revolt (1919) (Trueman, C, 2015, The Spartacists).

Another example of the levels portraying cinematic German expressionism are the scenes where a location is introduced. The house in the film is positioned on top of the hill, this symbolises the social construct and oppression of Germany post WWI. This links to German expressionism as most of the art reflected the ‘unheimlich’ feature of expressionism, which is the environment influencing and indicating the emotional status of the individual. The use of levels to show authority, portrays the low status Germany adapted.The_Cabinet_of_Dr_Caligari_Holstenwall

Themes in Caligari suggest expressionist art themes were obvious throughout. The theme of insanity is frequent, especially with the unrevealed ending where we are unsure if Francis is mentally ill. “Critics were unanimous in praising Caligari as the first work of art on the screen” (Kracauer, S. 1947, p71). The themes are used to epitomise how the German public felt after the embarrassing loss of WWI. Dramatic irony is another theme used, especially where the character ‘Cesare’ is approaching ‘Jane’ in her bed as she sleeps, attempting to kill. The audience know what is about to happen due to the long, drawn out camera shots, but Jane doesn’t and the dramatic irony could be a reflection of the economic state Germany could not predict after WWI.caligari

To conclude, it is clear that Caligari is purely a form of cinematic German expressionism as it relates to many of the expressionist artworks of from post WWI and it continues to symbolise German society at the time of Weimar. Caligari introduced horror films to Germany and continues to influence many popular directors today e.g Tim Burton (Leow, J. 2016).WorldofLightandShadow_8


Coates, P. (1991). The Gorgon’s Gaze: German Cinema, Expressionism, and the Image of Horror. Cambridge: The University of Cambridge.

Art Term: German Expressionism (2018). Retrieved from:

Wiene, R (Director). (1920). The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari [Motion Picture]. Weimar Republic: Decla-Bioscop.

Trueman, C. (2015). The Spartacists. Retrieved from: History Learning Site

Kracauer, S., & Quaresima, L. (2004). From Caligari to Hitler: A psychological history of the German film. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press.

Leow, J. (2016, September 12) German Expressionism in Tim Burton’s films[Blog post]. Retrieved from:




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