The Sunrise and Sunset of German Expressionist Cinema

The silent film Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans has often been regarded as one of the great American movies and is continually lauded for its visual expressive style. Released in 1927, Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans was not only heavily influenced by the German Expressionist films of the period, but it marked the American debuts of two important members of the movement: German director Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau and Austrian screenwriter Carl Mayer.

Expressionist Cinema

Expressionist Cinema is a genre that was part of a larger movement which included architecture, paintings, dance, sculpture and cinema. Expressionism used exaggerated depictions of reality for emotional effect. Heavily influenced by the paintings of El Greco, Van Gogh and Munch, Expressionist cinema was concerned with the relationship between art and society, using sets with jagged edges, harsh lighting and clashing colours, within plots occupied with identity and insanity.

The Rise of Expressionist Cinema

Expressionist cinema was confined to Germany because it was isolated during the First World War. The German film industry was protected then by the ban on foreign films which meant that domestic cinema thrived, from producing only 24 films in 1914 to producing 130 films in 1918. German hyperinflation encouraged Germans to spend more time at the cinema because the value of their money was quickly deflating.

The aftermath of the World War One is an integral theme in most Expressionist films. Many Germans in the Weimar Republic, the unofficial name for the German state from 1918 to 1933, strongly resented how their leaders brought devastation to their country and this anger manifested itself into the art of Expressionism. Many of the films and artworks in this genre reflect their anxieties and concerns.

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari

Although there were earlier Expressionist films such as The Student of Prague in 1913 and Nerves in 1919, the quintessential Expressionist film from the period is The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.

Directed by Robert Wiene and released in February 1920, the concept for The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari was inspired by the experiences of its writers, Carl Mayer (who would later write Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans) and Hans Janowitz, who were distrustful of authority following their experiences during World War One.

Telling the story of the mysterious Doctor Caligari (Werner Krauss) who uses a somnambulist (Conrad Veidt) to commit murders in each village they visit, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari contains unique sets in every scene, made up of strange shapes, roads that lead to nowhere and strangely curved buildings looking as though the town is about to collapse on itself. Wiene used the sets to create an unsettling experience, letting the visuals convey the themes of the story that could not be provided by dialogue. He hired Expressionist painters Walter Reimann and Hermann Warm to create these artificial sets.

With the use of paranoia and uncertainty in the plot along with the unreliable main characters, historians have long argued that The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari reflects many of the German post-war anxieties.

Lang and Freund

Other classics followed, including Karl Heinz Martin’s From Morn to Midnight (1920), regarded as one of the most radical films of the German Expressionist movement. The film has stylized distorted sets which are more avant-garde than the those used in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. One of the most notable Expressionist films was the third Golem film in 1920, entitled The Golem: How He Came into The World.

All three Golem movies were directed and starring Paul Wegener, but the first two have been partially lost. The Golem: How He Came into The World is a prequel to the previous two and is an excellent example of German Expressionist Cinematographer Karl Freund, a key innovator within the movement, who would soon bring his special talents to Hollywood.

One of the greatest Expressionist directors was Fritz Lang, whose fantasy romance Destiny was released in 1921. Entitled Behind the Wall in the US, Destiny is an Expressionist fantasy romance film directed by Fritz Lang about a woman desperate to be reunited with her dead lover. The ghostly appearance of Death in Destiny recurs in many of Lang’s films and the notion of humans acting as machines.

Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror

One of the great masterworks of Expressionist cinema, Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror is an unauthorized version of Dracula, but it struggled to get a general release in 1922 because it faced an intellectual property lawsuit. All copies of the film were instructed to be destroyed, but a few prints were already in international distribution. Nosferatu was able to make a massive impact on the horror genre, although it was unable to save its studio (Prana) from bankruptcy.

The character of Count Orlok, who was based on Dracula, was played by German actor Max Schreck, who had previously been working in an Expressionist theatrical production of Bertolt Brecht’s “Drums in The Night.” Shreck’s memorable monster is disturbing and at times rather frightening.

Nosferatu is the ultimate German Expressionist film. With his use of shadow and effective use of light and dark, director F.W. Murnau created a rat-infested world of death and decay which seems to have parallels with the recent devastation from the war.

The Last Laugh

F.W. Murnau’s 1924 classic drama The Last Laugh is an example of Kammerspielfilm, a type of German film that explores the intimacy of middle-class life. The Last Laugh is a moving portrait of a nameless hotel doorman (Emil Jannings) who loses his job and has to deal with the shame of his demotion. The film uses no intertitles, therefore relying almost completely on the visuals. It also shares the sense of humiliation that the country had been feeling since the war.

Karl Freund’s camerawork is particularly impressive. Freund pioneered the use of elaborate camera movements called the “unchained camera technique,” where the camera seems to glide, zoom, fall and weave, along with focusing and defocusing. For one sequence, Freund had attached the camera on his chest as he rode his bicycle into the elevator and into the streets.

The critical and commerical success of The Last Laugh launched cooperative ventures between Hollywood producers and German directors, including a trip by young Alfred Hitchcock to Berlin to cooperate with F.W. Murnau. Hitchcock was so impressed with Murnau’s visual style and Freund’s unchained camera techniques that he referred to this trip as “a key reference point” in his career.

Doctor Mabuse and Die Nibelungen

By 1922, Fritz Lang had become increasingly inventive and ambitious, especially with his two-part epic entitled Dr. Mabuse the Gambler. Based on the character from Norbert Jacques’ novels, arch criminal and master of disguise, Dr. Mabuse (Rudolf Klein-Rogge) uses his power of hypnosis and mind control with the purpose of making a fortune and running Berlin. Prosecutor Von Wenk (Bernhard Goetzke) sets out to stop him.

One notable German Expressionist technique used in Doctor Mabuse the Gambler is the exaggerated portrayal of the difficult post-war living conditions and the worthless counterfeit money reflecting the hyperinflation of the Deutsche Mark.

By 1924, Lang had released his lavish fantasy epic Die Nibelungen in two parts. Adapted from the Norse sagas and the operas of Wagner, Die Nibelungen is an extravaganza of impressive visuals and special effects. The film is full of Expressionist devices, and is great to look at, but the story is more familiar to German audiences.

Other notable Expressionist films from 1924 includes Paul Leni’s Waxworks (1922) and Robert Wiene’s The Hands of Orlac (1924), both starring Conrad Veidt.


Fritz Lang’s 1927 science-fiction drama Metropolis is an Expressionist tour de force, with lots of the genre’s expressive and enormously impressive visuals, dark and light contrasts and large sets.

Metropolis poster

One of the most influential pictures from the Weimar period, Metropolis is set in a futuristic city which is controlled by the city master Joh Fredersen (Alfred Abel). Fredersen’s wealthy son Freder (Gustav Fröhlich) meets the saintly Maria (Brigitte Helm), and they attempt to bridge the huge gulf between the workers and the management of the city.

Metropolis has received huge acclaim over the decades, but it had received mixed reviews on release. Lang was also uncomfortable with the respect the film received from senior Nazis.
However, Metropolis is a huge influence on modern science fiction films, such as George Lucas’ 1977 classic fantasy Star Wars and Ridley Scott’s 1982 classic science fiction Blade Runner and is now rightfully regarded as one of the most important and greatest films ever made.

M – A City Searches for a Murderer

One of the finest Expressionist films is Fritz Lang’s 1931 drama/thriller entitled M (German title: M – Eine Stadt sucht einen Mörder) or M – A City Searches for a Murderer.
Boasting an incredible career-making performance from Peter Lorre, and memorable cinematography from Fritz Arno Wagner, Fritz Lang’s first sound film tells the chilling story of a serial child killer (Peter Lorre) and the manhunt for him conducted by the police and the criminals.

M has all the hallmarks of Expressionist filmmaking such as the use of contrasts between dark and light, harsh lighting and clashing colours, themes of madness, identity and insanity.

Fritz Lang considered M to be his masterpiece, and the film certainly ranks amongst his finest work.

There is a clear message in the film for parents to look after the welfare of their children, but other social themes are involved, such as the question of social order itself. The criminals conduct the kangaroo court case against the killer; the Nazi-like leather worn by the judge/the safecracker suggests a darker ruling menace (the Nazis perhaps?) conducting law and order.

Fritz Lang was initially stopped from entering the studio because the Nazis had thought the film was to be a depiction of them, but they lost interest when Lang told them that it was a story about a child murderer.
M is a very disturbing film, but it is also brilliantly made and is deservedly considered one of the greatest films of the century.

Expressionist Legacy

German Expressionist motifs continued to be used in some remarkable films at the end of the decade, most notably in Expressionist director G.W. Pabst’s Pandora’s Box, starring Hollywood star Louise Brooks.

Hollywood was soon to influenced by German Expressionist cinema. The thirties’ horror films from Universal Pictures were heavily influenced by the genre. Karl Freund was cinematographer in Tod Browning’s Dracula in 1931, and then added his unique visual style as the director in the horror classic The Mummy in 1932. Director James Whale used Expressionist techniques for his acclaimed horror masterpieces Frankenstein (1931) and Bride of Frankenstein (1935).

German Expressionist cinema influenced the entire film noir genre. It was certainly influential in Orson Welles’ landmark film Citizen Kane (1941), in Charles Laughton’s horror classic The Night of the Hunter (1955) and even much later in Paul Verhoeven’s acclaimed cyberpunk film Robocop (1987) or in the fantasy films of Tim Burton. It goes without saying that Alfred Hitchcock was deeply influenced by the genre.

Exile and Future

By the time Joseph von Sternberg’s brilliant The Blue Angel (1930) and Carl Dreyer’s visually arresting Vampyr (1932) were released, the glory days of the Weimar Cinema era were over. Both these films had Expressionist characteristics (the strangely angled rooftops at the beginning of The Blue Angel, the strange visuals in Vampyr, etc.), but Hitler would soon become German Chancellor and therefore, many of those wonderful Expressionist artists had to flee.

F.W. Murnau travelled to Hollywood and directed the hugely acclaimed Sunrise: The Song of a Two Humans in 1927, but he was tragically killed in a road accident shortly afterwards.

Fritz Lang fled Nazi Germany for the United States and signed with MGM in Hollywood in 1936. He immediately filmed the crime drama classic Fury. Lang’s American films are compared unfavourably to his German films, but his work is a huge influence on the film noir genre of the forties, including his own The Big Heat (1953).

Other Expressionist Cinema talents who fled Nazism included Carl Meyer (writer), Erich Pommer (producer), Conrad Veidt (actor), Marlene Dietrich (actor), Peter Lorre (actor), Karl Freund (cinematographer), Curt Siodmak (writer), Robert Siodmak (director), Marie Harder (director), Ernst Lubitsch (director) and Robert Wiene (director), Josef Von Sternberg (director), Max Reinhardt (director), Fred Zinnemann (director), Billy Wilder (writer/director) and many more.

Some artists, such as Emil Jannings and Werner Krauss, collaborated with the Nazi regime and watched their careers wither after the war. Metropolis star Brigitte Helm quit acting in 1936 because she was disgusted with the Nazi takeover of the film industry.
Germany was experiencing darker times again, but all those exiled Expressionist filmmakers and actors from the Weimar Republic era continued to elevate the motion picture as an art form. They brought with them their techniques, skills and talents to Hollywood, which in turn enhanced the artistry of the great American film.

Paul J. Bradley

Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans

Please also listen to the informative Classic Movie Recall podcast on Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans from accomplished broadcaster Lara Scott, Oscar-winning documentary maker James Moll and widely respected producer/writer Melanie Hooks. The article is also available on the Classic Movie Recall website.


Be sure to visit our blog for even more thoughts about these great vintage movies and their writers, directors, producers, cinematographers, composers, actors and everyone who brought these classics to the screen.

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