German Expressionism refers to a number of related creative movements beginning in Germany before the First World War and reached its peak in the 1920's. German Expressionism involves architecture, painting, and cinema, though I will only focus on cinema. Expressionism was largely confined to Germany due to the isolation it experienced during World War I. Germany had also banned any foreign films from being shown starting in 1916, so the country was in need of some homegrown cinema. Indeed, the amount of movies produced in Germany went from 24 films in 1914, to 130 films in 1918. By the early twenties, German cinema had gained an audience all around Europe and when Germany finally lifted its ban on foreign films, it found itself as an important player in the international film industry. Why were these early Expressionist films so popular, though?
European culture was in need of a change. It desired for something different, something that experimented with bold new ideas and artistic styles. German Expressionism fit that niche. The first Expressionist films made up for their lack of lavish budgets by using set designs with wildly non-realistic, geometrically absurd sets, along with designs painted on walls and floors to represent lights, shadows, and objects. These films often dealt with madness, insanity, betrayal, and other "intellectual" topics, very much unlike the action-adventure films that Hollywood was churning out. This trend was a direct reaction against realism. Its practitioners used extreme distortions in expression to show an inner emotional reality rather than what was on the surface. Famous examples of German Expressionist films are Nosferatu (1922), The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), The Golem: How He Came Into the World (1920), Metropolis (1927), and M (1931). The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is probably the best example of German Expressionism. The whole story is told by a man in an insane asylum, so the recounted action takes place in a distorted world. Windows are jagged, buildings are at funny angles, and everything just looks wrong.
The anti-realism of Expressionism quickly died out, fading away after only a few years. Though the movement was short, its effects are still felt today. Directors, influenced by the look of these intellectual films, now asked for more creative control on how the lighting and scenery were set up as ways to affect the mood of the film. Expressionism gained more influence over Hollywood when the Nazis gained power and many German filmmakers emigrated to the United States. The two genres that were most influenced by German Expressionism were horror films and film noir. Carl Laemmle and Universal Studios made a name for themselves by producing such famous horror films of the silent era as Lon Chaney's The Phantom of the Opera. German filmmakers such as Karl Fruend (the cinematographer for Dracula) set the style and mood of the Universal monster movies of the 1930s with their dark and artistically designed sets, providing a model for later generations of horror films. Directors like Alfred Hitchcock, Billy Wilder, Orson Welles, and Carol Reed introduced the Expressionist style to crime dramas of the 1940s, expanding Expressionism's influence on modern film making.
German Expressionism still is used in cinema to this day, with many directors paying homage to those silent movies that had to use camera tricks, lighting, and unique sets to help tell their story and establish a mood. Woody Allen's 1991 film Mirrors and Fog is an homage to German Expressionist filmmakers such as Fritz Lang, F. W. Murnau, and Georg Wilhelm Pabst. Ridley Scott's Blade Runner borrows stylistically from German Expressionism masterpiece Metropolis. Tim Burton is probably the biggest proponent for the use of German Expressionism in film today. Batman Returns is considered a modern attempt to capture the essence of the movement. The angular building designs and severe-looking city squares of Gotham City evoke the loom and menace present in Metropolis. Edward Scissorhands borrows much from The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, even modeling the eponymous character after Caligari's somnambulist servant, Cesare. Similarly, Dr. Caligari was the inspiration for the grotesque, bird-like appearance of The Penguin in Batman Returns. Other works of Burton's that would be considered examples of German Expressionism would be Sweeney Todd, The Nightmare Before Christmas, The Corpse Bride, Batman, and Beetlejuice. There are many, many other films that borrow heavily from German Expressionism, but that would take forever just to name them all. Just know that every time you watch a horror movie, there is a good chance that it was influenced in some way by German Expressionism.