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German Expressionist Cinema – From Caligari to Metropolis

German Expressionist Cinema – From Caligari to Metropolis

After theWorld War I and until the arising of the Nazism at the beginning of the 1930s, Germany was the birthplace of a new movie style based in the stylistic features of the expressionist movement such as the use of the chiaroscuro, oneiric atmospheres and exaggerated angles and compositions. The exact birth date of this movement must be placed at the end of 1917, when the Universum Film AG (UFA) was founded by the German government and military.

There are a lot of in-depth studies about this movement on books, magazines and even in the WWW, but this little essay is only my original and personal reflection about the films I had the opportunity to watch -and love.

Caligari! CALIGARI!!

Directed in 1919 by Robert Wiene, The cabinet of Dr. Caligari is the most paradigmatical film of the early German expressionism.

Brief synopsis: an ambulant fair visits a small German town. Main attraction at that fair is Dr. Caligari’s stand, where a somnambulist named Cesare (Conrad Veidt) is advertised. One of the visitors asks the somnambulist an extremely brainy question: “How long will I live?” The freak answers: “You will die tomorrow…” Interestingly, the man -instead of laughing- seems very worried about the somnambulist’s prediction. Even more interestingly, he dies the day after…

The art direction was managed by Walter Reimann and Walter Roehrig, fellow members of the “Der Sturm group”, a Berlin expressionist art group, featuring world famous artists such as Bruno Taut and Herwarth Walden. They created an original, fantastic makeup that fills the film with a delirium-like imagery, and emphasizes the protagonist’s own psycho-destruction.

Caligari’s brutal domination over the half-somnambulist/ half-zombie Cesare is easily interpretable as a metaphor of the fascist and authoritarian governments that arose in Europe in the first half of the XX century, as Siegfried Kracauer explains in his famous book From Caligari to Hitler.

Murnau’s Nosferatu

Don’t ask me how, but some years ago I was lucky enough to obtain a copy of Friedrich Murnau’s earliest surviving film, Schloß Vogeloed (The Haunted Castle, 1921). I was not really thrilled by it, but the beauty of the makeup, the strange and disturbing ending and the stunning use of the chiaroscuro were enough to make me to introduce in Murnau’s light/dark universe, which will reach its zenith in the movie I’ll review now.

One year after filming Schloß Vogeloed, Murnau was ready to film his undisclosed masterwork: Nosferatu, eine symphonie des grauens is based on Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula , but a lawsuit with the writer’s widow forced Murnau to change some aspects of the movie, such as the title or the name of the protagonist (Count Orlok) Nevertheless, it was not enough, and, due to the lawsuit, almost all copies of the film were destroyed. The Deutsche Film Production was able to save one of them, and the movie was finally premiered in the USA in 1929.

Max Schreck’s incredible performance as sinister Count Orlok(extremely slim, pale, rat-like teeth, crow-like nose, like a Transylvanian version of The Simpson’s Mr. Burns), the charm and painterly of its landscapes, and the lyrical beauty of the texts place the film at the pinnacle of the horror genre. Nosferatu is the most cryptical and necrophilic, but also oneiric and romantic film based on the Transylvanian vampire, a true masterwork that neither Tod Browning, Terence Fisher or Francis Ford Coppola have never surpassed.


Along with Stanley Kubrick’s 2001, a space odyssey (1968) and Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982), Fritz Lang’s Metropolis is considered the height of the then called sci-fi cinema. The influence in both posterior films is evident: Blade Runner ‘s opening sequences of the dark, futurist, neo-industrial L.A. seems to pay tribute to Metropolis astonishing cityscapes (see picture left), while in Kubrick’s masterpiece the tribute is even in the title: Metropolis story line occurs in year 2000, and Kubrick place his film one year after as a tribute.

But while Blade Runner and 2001 predictions had been quite erroneous (I haven’t seen any replicant out there, and Saturn is still a bit difficult to reach) Metropolis fatalist vision of the working class is a cruel metaphor still valid in our times. Almost 40 years later, and with no direct relationship with this film, Julio Cortázar wrote a sentence that resumes by itself Metropolis tragic message: “…mankind will begin to be worthy of his name the day in that the exploitation of the human being by the human being stop”