Monday, 9 February 2015

The German Expressionism Aesthetic: A Research Project

The hard and broken transparency of the sets promotes a crooked and confused and unreal world - one which mirrored an increasingly frustrated Germany at the time. The First World War, by all accounts, had been a wasteful and pointless war putting the world long after into a state of social trauma. Germany especially suffered becoming distraught both through its society and its economy. Caligari can be viewed as a visual representation of the social turmoil that Germany was experiencing. The slanted, sharp and noticeably bleak sets present a once serene Germany, which now festers as deranged and dysfunctional due to the horror underpinning its disposition.

As part of my second year A-Level Film Studies course back in 2008, I had to produce a research portfolio that demonstrated my competence in acquiring a broad range of relevant information and then presenting that information in a compelling argument as a presentation.

German Expressionism was an obvious choice for a research topic, as it was a movement of cinema I had recently discovered and had become greatly enthused by and because it fit nicely into the focus on shocking cinema that we were studying in the second year of Film Studies.

Nosferatu - a HUGE influence.

In this post I have compiled all of the original materials I produced for my research portfolio: my Research project Evaluation, my Research Project Presentation Plan and my Research Project Catalogue (Bibliography, Filmography, etc.), which king all structures itself into a standalone essay. My writing is still very rough around the edges, but legible throughout.

Ultimately, my portfolio was awarded an A and it came with the added advantage of not actually having to present my presentation, which was a prospect that absolutely terrified me at the time. 

Research Project Evaluation

In my research project I have been looking into the German horror films of the pre 1930s period; specifically I have been exploring how these films were influenced by the horrors of the First World War. Firstly, I think it should be said that I am happy with the subject I chose to explore. I never considered an alternative as I have quite a passion for the early horror films and because of this felt that this seasoning would add to the overall flourishing of my outcome. The sources I selected were a mixture of books, documentaries, commentaries and articles all of which I had previously explored and, therefore, could use to my advantage as they could be easily navigated and dissected for the purpose of my presentation. The process of researching this presentation also allowed me to further explore and discover and enrich my own understanding of a subject I take great joy of looking into. 

The actual writing of my presentation I found to be somewhat daunting as there were three options to pick from. However, I picked the script option as I felt it would be easier and more effective for me to lay down exactly what I would say opposed to a compressed version, which I feel would lack clarity or real insight into the subject. I am happy with the outcome of my presentation and while it can not be said that it does not explore its relative themes: World War One, German Expressionism, the German film industry the horror genre and the human condition on a vast scale it does allow, what I consider to be, a brief and insightful glimpse into these areas. I feel that various aesthetic values are touched upon in the three films I explored and in addition to this the influences from The Great War and its aftermath of social trauma and economic decline. 

The presentation is not as open ended or as eye opening as I would have liked it to be and by this I mean, while I did say enough of what I believe, I did not ask enough questions and allow the audience to explore the subject from there own view point of personal beliefs. If I had done this then it would have supplied the presentation, from the viewpoint of the spectator, with a much more vast approach as it would have opened it up for the audience to place their own ideas within it and thus engage the audience to wrestle with the opinions. However, saying this, while I did not directly or clearly address the audience to question with or against me, I think that this process would come naturally to any keen spectator with an interest in the subject I was exploring. For in my presentation many points are touched upon and yet at the end no specific conclusion is provided, therefore, what I have been saying is left open ended and applicable for the spectator to come to their own conclusion. 

The First World War’s influence on the German Horror Film - Research Presentation Plan


In the earliest years of cinema leading up to the First World War Germany provided little contribution to the growing medium. Early German cinema consisted mostly of a shambles of films bought from other countries. Germany, however, would establish a shocking and lasting effect on the whole of cinema in the years immediately following the conclusion of the First World War. (Item 6) In my research project I will ask how the events of World War One influenced the German expressionistic film movement as portrayed in the German horror films of the pre 1930 period. Specific textual reference will be made to Robert Weine’s 1919 classic The Cabinet of Dr Caligari as well as Paul Wergener’s 1920 The Golem: How he came into the world and F.W. Murnau’s 1922 Nosferatu

Video clip:

Scene with Cesare approaching Jane upon the bed (Item 1)


The Cabinet of Dr Caligari, considered by many to be the first horror film and the quintessential German expressionistic presentation, aided in bringing the German cinema to prominence in the years following the Great War. The film is notable for its distorted sets produced in the vein of German expressionism, thus, promoting a very intimate film of expression that plays heavily on the emotions of the spectator. (Item 5)


Screen grabs will show various iconic images from Caligari (item 1)


When viewing Caligari one is immediately taken by an all too apparent feeling of unease. The hard and broken transparency of the sets promotes a crooked and confused and unreal world one which mirrored an increasingly frustrated Germany at the time. The First World War, by all accounts, had been a wasteful and pointless war putting the world long after into a state of social trauma (Item 13). Germany especially suffered becoming distraught both through its society and its economy. Caligari can be viewed as a visual representation of the social turmoil that Germany was experiencing (Item 4). The slanted, sharp and noticeably bleak sets present a once serene Germany which now festers as deranged and dysfunctional due to the horror underpinning its disposition. (Item 11)

Video clip:
Climatic scene with Francis in the insane asylum with all the characters walking distraught about him (item 1)


The expressionistic art aesthetic was an attempt to place man at the centre of the universe and Caligari conveys these psychological ideologies of the War stricken world, albeit in a pessimistic fashion. Philosophical and scientific enquiry in the previous century had established further knowledge into the realms of evolution and religion. The concept of God began to diminish as mankind claimed his own destiny through the advancement of technology and Darwin’s evolutionist belief and theory. The dawn of the Twentieth century promoted only further promise in the human adventure. The Great War, however, put a stark and bleak end to this as the world was suddenly struck by inconceivable technological and human horrors (Item 9). For the first time the world saw rotting corpses riddled with bullets and barbed wire wreaked together with the stench of disease and death. Battles, such as the Somme, presented mankind being destroyed by the very technology they had engineered to better themselves. In Murnau’s Nosferatu the benevolent Count Orlok is a plague carrying figure whom seeks to corrupt and destroy everything his web engulfs. As with the very nature of War and technology he descends upon the rural town of Wisborg and brings with him the initiative for change with the prospect for dominion. (Item 12) Murnau presents the dark psyche of Humanity; something which Freud had only recently bought to light (Item 7). Orlok is the embodiment of progress; Humanities hunger to survive, to grow and to indulge their desires. He is the startling figure and personification of man’s subconscious concerns and worries. He is himself a Vampire, someone who survives only by consuming the lives and resources of others. (Item 8)

Video clip:
Sequence of sailor breaking into Count Orlok’s coffins with rats streaming out; the rising up out of coffin and then causing havoc upon ship. (Item 3)


Like Orlok man has an urgency to consume and in what was becoming an increasing age and world of consumerism Humanity was reliant on this hunger (Item 6). A hunger that would lead humanity into a state of decay as poverty grew and the climate warmed. Orlok’s physical appearance is deliberately reminiscent of a rat; the Count, by his very nature, has become disfigured and gruesome he is the visual ensemble of Humanities nature turned in upon itself and transfigured into something destructive and something ugly (Item 9). Nosferatu, therefore, can be seen as allegorical in its conveyance of a starkly pessimistic view of Germany’s own social toil unto the rest of the world. The world around began to redevelop whereas Germany was left to rot and decay into plague and economic disaster. Count Orlok then is the embodiment of all that is resentful and angered and bleak about German society and which Adolf Hitler would soon enrage further. (Item 12)


All German horror films of this period deal with an impending doom; a horrific disaster that will soon befall the characters of the narrative. In Caligari it is the madness of Francis, In Nosferatu it is Orlok and the plagues he unleashes on Wisborg and in Paul Wergener’s 1920 film of Jewish mysticism it is the Golem. In the third of three films made about the mythological figure the Golem’s origin story is revealed. The stars forebode the warning of a great calamity that will soon befall the Jewish community of the 16th century Prague Ghetto. Therefore, the Rabbi Loew constructs a saviour from clay and once installed with life the Golem is put to work. But as with all tools and forms of technology they can be used for great harm as well as great good. 

Video clip:

Sequence where the Golem is instructed to go and seize Miriam but ends up throwing Miriam’s lover of the roof – sequence should climax with this action (Item 2).


The Golem is technology gone wrong; it was created to protect the Jewish community but in many ways was the catalyst for its destruction. To put it simply the Golem is a self fulfilling prophecy: Humanities urge to better themselves but the process of which always detracts something from the overall outcome (Item 10). As with the First World War this view can be starkly realised and in many ways The Golem can be seen as a reminder and warning to another Jewish community that a new impending doom was coming as a result of the First World War (Item 13).

This impending doom was present in all the early German horror films as it was a reflection, though the art form of German Expressionism, of the anxiety that Germany felt towards the rest of the world, and as result it filtered throughout the films it produced. Dark themes concerned with the mutilation of humanity and the corruption of the soul: the madness inside the cabinet, Orlok’s undying urge and the Golem’s unbounded strength. All themes that fascinated a growing world and all themes brought about because the world could not and would not stop growing. 

Research Project Catalogue


Item 1:

The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (Cabinet Des Dr Caligari, Germany, 1919, Dir. Robert Weine). 

This film is considered to be a landmark in film history as it is the film that gave a sudden push for German Expressionism in the movies.  It was also quite unique because of its complex narrative and explorations into the Human psyche.

Item 2:

The Golem: How He Came Into The World (Der Golem, Germany 1920, Dir. Paul Wegener)
Considered to be the best version, of the three that were made around the Golem myth and by Wegener, this film is a perfect example of German Expressionism set design. It also conveys the bleakness of the German Urban landscape in the very stark and gritty design of the Jewish ghetto. 

Item 3:

Nosferatu (Germany 1922, Dir. F. W. Murnau)

A perfect example of cinema at its darkest, Nosferatu is an insight to just how bleak the world was in the 1920s. The film’s narrative offers little hope and contains countless occult references throughout. This film can also been seen as a major landmark as it would greatly inspire many films to come in the following decades. 


Item 4: 

The Rough Guide to Horror Movies (Alan Jones, Rough Guides ltd, Penguin, 2005)

This aided greatly in my research as it presents all there is to know about the horror genre in a nut in the shell fashion. The book provided easy and coherent access to a vast and vibrant genre. 

Item 5:

Horror: The Definitive Guide to the Cinema of Fear (James Marriot & Kim Newman, Andre Deutsch Limited, 2006)

A highly detailed book covering all the decades of horror cinema from its birth right up to the present day.  Providing insightful information on perhaps every horror film ever made as well as articles on issues concerned with the genre, such as the occult, this book inspired my presentation greatly.  Also Provided much insight upon German Expressionism in the movies. 

Item 6: 

Silent Movies: The Birth of Film and the Triumph of Movie Culture (Peter Kobel and the Library of Congress, Hachette Book Group USA, 2007)

In many ways the most definitive book on the silent cinema, produced by the library of congress, it gives an over view of the entire silent filmmaking era. This was especially useful to me as it allowed me to place the genre of horror into the context of its time. The book also allowed insightful information on the growth of the early German filmmaking industry. 

Item 7:

Eyewitness Companions - Film (Ronald Bergin, Dorling Kindersley Limited, 2006) 

A reference book that essentially contains all the need to know information on films and their makers, from the birth of cinema to the present day. This book was useful when I needed to review dates or the career of a film maker, such as F.W. Murnau.


Item 8: 

Universal Horror (Dir. Kevin Brownlow, Universal Home Video, 2004)

An enjoyably easy introduction to the genre of horror in its youth and this informed me simply of the major films and their inspirations in the genre as well as how they would later influence other films. 

Item 9:

Kingdom of Shadows: The Rise of the Horror Film (Dir. Bret Wood, Kino International Corp. 1998)

Providing a highly rich context and historical setting to the films it explores, this documentary allows the aesthetical workings behind the early horror films and the German expressionistic movement to be revealed. Through relevant examples from a whole variety of horror films of the pre-1930s the documentary determines why these films have the power to continually frighten and intrigue. 

Item 10:

The Kingdom of Ghosts: Paul Wergener’s The Golem and the Expressionistic Tradition (Dir. R Dixon Smith, Eureka Video, 2007)

As this documentary was largely focused upon The Golem it allowed its aesthetic qualities to be revealed and established just how the film fits into and was inspired by the Germen expressionistic film movement. 

Audio Commentaries

Item 11:

The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (Mike Bird, Eureka Video, 2000)

This audio commentary provided me with much explanation of the film’s narrative and its various links to the psychological studies of Freud and other contemporaries of the time. The commentary also went to great lengths to explain how current events, such as the First World War, would have played an influence on the film. 

Item 12: 

Nosferatu (R. Lokke Sciss, Eureka Video, 2000)

This audio commentary brought much light to the mysteries that shrouded the production of Nosferatu as well as the various occult intricacies that the film contains. The audio commentary also laid out insight to the inspiration for the film aside from the original Dracula novel. 


Item 13: 

Wikipedia article on the First World War (
While largely unused, this source was imperative in establishing that my comments about the First World War were correct. The article also gave some insight to the social trauma the First World War caused around the world after its conclusion.

Unused Material 

CINEMA - Year by Year: 1894 – 2005 (Robyn Karney, DK, 2005)

While this book was insightful the information it held was incredibly repetitive of the previous sources I had researched, therefore, because of this I did not feel that it warranted being referenced as a true source. 

A History of Horror (Eli Roth, Neil Marshall, James Wan and Greg Mclean, Total Film – issue 134, 2007)

While this magazine article included good points, relevant facts and views from the filmmaker Eli Roth I did not feel the information was providing anything new to what I had already collected and included within the presentation.  

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