The Influence of German Expressionism Films throughout the History of Cinema

Text: Vatsala Manan

The horror cinema that existed before the 1920s, dominated by Hollywood studio system, was “horror” just in terms of narrative. In effect it, however, left a huge vacuum in creating a sense of terror and dread. The roots of the very essential fright inducing effects, whether they are stark shadows creeping on the walls or distorted physical features, can be traced to the German Expressionist Movement of the 1920s, which have become a staple of the horror film genre till this day.


The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Robert Wiene, 1920

German filmmakers, like F. W. Murnau, Fritz Lang, and Robert Wiene, all part of the movement, experimented tremendously with the mise-en-scene, creating visually distorted images. Working with a consistent theme, manifested in the body language of the actors, their costumes, and the geometric sets, all blended harmoniously with each other to create an affect of disharmony, alluding to the inner conflicted psyche of the protagonists on screen.


Nosferatu, F.W. Murnau, 1922

The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari and Nosferatu are two of the most influential films in shaping the genre of horror films, changing the very aesthetics of horror. Their grotesque monster coupled with their ever-present sense of shadows of doom and clouds of dreariness, reinvented the Hollywood horror. In the following movies one can see the pivotal role played by German Expressionist films in the history of horror cinema.


The Phantom of Opera, Rupert Julian, 1925

A silent film on the popular French novel by Gaston Leroux, is about a longing Phantom, who is so ghastly in appearance, almost resembling a skeleton, that he has resorted to live in the darkness of the dungeons, only to return to the world above to shock the glittery people with the jolting shadows that he casts against the walls.



Psycho, Alfred Hitchcock, 1960

Considered as one of Hitchcock’s best, and ranked among the greatest films of all time, it can be seen as the first slasher film. The famous blood-curdling shower scene, the horrific element being invoked by the nightmarish blurred shadow of the murderer thrown on the unsuspecting shower curtain, clearly shows the influence of German Expressionism had on the filmmaker.

Eraserhead, David Lynch, 1977

Only Lynch can manage to pull a film, which is aesthetically mesmerizing and disturbingly grotesque at the same time.  The film is a commentary on alienation and loneliness, and Lynch creates this mood effectively through the black and white dreary mise-en-scene, and bizarre characters, driven to the point of lunacy because of their monotonous dry geometric architecture.

Dracula, Francis Ford Coppola, 1992

Unlike Murnau’s Count Orlock from Nosferatu, Coppola’s Count Dracula is a beautiful romantic aristocrat. However, Coppola couldn’t resist resorting to certain conventions established by his predecessor, Murnau. Just like Orlock, Cappola’s Dracula in his true form is stark white in appearance, has sharp pointy long nails, almost bald if not fully, and glides around his crumbling ancient castle with his bloodthirsty silhouette looming ominously.

Sleepy Hollow, Tim Burton, 1999

Burton’s whole body of work shows strong influence of the aesthetics of German Expressionism. From the peculiar costumes and make-up of a set of strange characters, their farcical performance, and the nightmarish-dreamlike setting, to the dominating spooky shadows lurking at corners, Burton manages to not only incorporate but also recreate the aesthetics of horror, making them peculiarly his own.