The clock was ticking outside Joseph Goebbles’ office. Fritz Lang watched it through the window while the Nazi Minister of Propaganda flattered him. According to an interview with William Friedkin in 1975, Goebbles had just told Lang that “The Fuhrer and I have seen your films and the Fuhrer made clear that ‘this is the man who will give us the national socialist film.’” Lang was watching the clock to see if he could make it to the banks in time to withdraw his money and flee Germany. Though raised Roman Catholic, Lang’s mother was born Jewish.
It was 1933, when Hitler was appointed chancellor and Lang was one of the most celebrated directors in the country. By 1934, he would be making movies in Hollywood. Lang arrived in America with a unique visual sensibility haunted by the social, cultural and political climate of post-WWI Germany. Along with F.W. Murnau and Robert Wiene, Lang was one of the key figures of German Expressionist cinema. Like Lang, the influence of Murnau and Weine crossed borders and is alive today in the cinema tropes, camera techniques and narrative themes still used by filmmakers, game designers and artists.
Art imitates life
While Goebbles enjoyed Lang’s Metropolis (1927), he wasn’t a fan of the director’s most recent effort, The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (1933), a sequel to his 1922 film, Dr. Mabuse The Gambler. According to film critic Siegfried Kracauer, Lang renders his criminal Mabuse as a tyrannical figure evading easy identification and capture, who “heads a gang of killers” and terrorises society, particularly “the postwar multitude” (Kracauer, pg 81). In the sequel, Mabuse has been driven into an asylum by the ghosts of his victims, yet still controls his criminal enterprise from his padded cell, summoning lackeys who can’t see him while pulling their strings from the shadows.
The film succeeds in making of Mabuse an omnipresent threat which cannot be localized (sic), and thus reflects society under a tyrannical regime – that kind of society in which one fears everybody because anybody may be the tyrant's ear or arm."
Recognising the parallels to Hitler, Goebbles banned the film.
The ills of German society aren’t only crystalised in the immorality (and insanity) of Mabuse, but the visual style of the film, which has all the hallmarks of German Expressionism – shadowy and surreal atmospheres, chiaroscuro lighting, grotesque characters and nightmarish sets – itself a dark mirror of the German psyche. Like the expressionist movement in art, German Expressionist cinema foregoes representing realism in favour of a distorted reality that illuminates subconscious feelings, thoughts and ideas.
Sickness and shadows
During the 1920s, Lang saw a banner flying on a building in Berlin of a woman dancing with a skeleton. “Berlin, you're dancing with death” was scrawled across it like an epigraph. In the beginning of the decade, Germany was gripped by “political instability, economic crises, social problems and collective traumatisation” after World War 1. With war reparations owed, debt spiraled and inflation soared during the decade, stretching the country’s social security system and forcing many into poverty. Then the New York Stock exchange crashed in 1929 and loans keeping Germany afloat were “largely withdrawn”. These dire conditions were exploited by the Nazis, but they also birthed some of the 20th century’s most influential moving pictures. As William Burns notes, “All around Germany, and in various forms, art was mimicking the unrest and uncertainty of the people.”
Two years before Lang’s first Mabuse film, Robert Weine projected Germany’s fractured spirit in theatre houses across the country with his silent horror The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920).
In the film, a small town is stalked by the sleepwalker Cesare (Conrad Veidt), who murders citizens while under the control of the mysterious hypnotist Dr. Caligari (Werner Krauss). It’s a macabre hallucination framed through unreliable memories and madness, characterised by a non-linear story, surreal sets, elongated shadows, peculiar camera angles and sick colours that help “reveal a disconnect between subjectivity and reality".
With its labyrinthine and murderous plot, uncanny visions of ghastly white faces and buildings perpetually poised to collapse, the overall impression is one of unease and anxiety, reflective of German society at the time. Routinely interpreted as a condemnation of blind obedience, "modern dehumanisation and mind-numbing authority", it now appears both a lament of WWI and an omen, while its story and style embody many of the elements that have since defined cinematic horror. Roger Ebert has called it “the first true horror film” and as Steffan Hantke notes, some early Hollywood horrors featured a Caligari-like antagonist (Hantke, pg. 5) using mind control to dominate victims, including Dracula (1931), Svengali (1931) and The Mad Genius (1931).
The horror elements are even more obvious in Murnau’s Nosferatu (1922), an unauthorised adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula. While Bela Lugosi’s Dracula was as smooth as a gravestone, Nosferatu’s Count Orlok's monstrosity is plain to see, his rodent teeth and bat-like ears amplify grotesqueness beyond even Cesare’s mortuary make-up in Caligari. Nosferatu’s terror isn’t always so overt though. Lauded for its use of shadow, one of the film's most iconic scenes features Orlok’s silhouette gliding up a flight of stairs to his victim Nina's bedroom door. In this climactic scene, the vampire isn't even seen, only his shadow, which is all Murnau needs to instil an existential terror in the audience.
The shadows on the screen that would tell the story of the cinema’s first vampire are perhaps so terrifying because of what shadows mean to the human mind... Hidden in the darkness, alongside the vampire, lurks the paralyzing (sic) fear of disorder, uncertainty, upheaval, and the unknown."
Fritz Lang wasn’t the only German director to have a film banned by the Nazis. After Hitler came to power in 1933, Robert Weine’s last film Talfun, was banned for depicting Asian characters as honourable and Europeans as unflattering. Though he had collaborated with Nazi sympathisers earlier in his career, Weine traveled to London and then Paris, where he died in 1938.
When Lang arrived in Hollywood in 1933, he was preceded by Marnau, who emigrated in 1926, when he made Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1926), which was nominated for Best Picture in the first Academy Awards. After making a series of drama films, he died after a car accident in 1931. Entombed in Germany, his funeral was attended by Fritz Lang, two years before fleeing Germany.
Hollywood was also home to a growing milieu of European filmmakers who had fled the Nazis, including Billy Wilder (Sunset Boulevard, Some Like It Hot, The Lost Weekend) Henry Koster (Harvey), Fred Zinnemann (High Noon, From Here to Eternity) and Robert Siodmak (The Killers), as well as actors Hedy Lamarr, Conrad Viedt (Caligari’s Cesare) and Peter Lorre, who had starred in Lang’s proto-serial killer thriller, M (1931).
Among these expats was Karl Freund, a German director and cinematographer who had shot Lang’s masterpiece Metropolis and Tod Browning’s Dracula (1931), and who went on to direct The Mummy (1932). With its Gothic sensibilities and shadowy atmosphere, Dracula borrowed heavily from German Expressionism, which influenced many of Universal’s horror films from the 1930s.
Alfred Hitchcock also helped import German Expressionism to Hollywood after absorbing filmmaking techniques in Germany between 1924 and 1926, when he worked on The Blackguard, among other movies. The film was produced by Universum Film-Aktien Gesellschaft (UFA), the German state film company that had made Caligari, Murnau's Faust (1926), and Lang’s Dr. Mabuse the Gambler (1922) and Metropolis (1927). During this time, Hitchcock was even advised by Marnau, who was shooting The Last Laugh (1926) in the same studio. Looking at Hitchcock’s storyboards for Shadow of a Doubt (1943) with the curator of the exhibition, Casting a Shadow: Alfred Hitchcock & His Workshop, the Guardian’s William Cook remarks, “the claustrophobic perspectives and long shadows in these moody storyboards look like something from a silent movie by Fritz Lang.”
These characteristics were truly on show 15 years before Shadow of a Doubt in the silent The Lodger (1927), Hitchcock’s first “suspense thriller” and the “first true Hitchcock movie”. With its shadows, spectral figures, claustrophobic sets and odd camera angles, it "showed a strong German influence” according to Hitchcock, who also credits his time in Germany with informing his signature style.
I've always believed that you can tell as much visually as you can with words. That's what I learned from the Germans."
But horror and Hitchcock’s thrillers weren’t the only thing influenced by German Expressionism. Film noir similarly reflects the anxieties of a population that endured years of global warfare, with its golden age stretching from the 1940s to 50s, though largely inspired by the hard-boiled fiction popular during the Great Depression of the 1930s. Murder, sex, money and betrayal, as well as low-production values, define these films and cast a light on the darker aspects of human nature and the unfairness of the fates, as well as the trauma of the Second World War.
...more than a quarter of the total films have a protagonist who identify themselves as war vets, and what he discovers when he comes back from war is not a secure place in society, but rather quite the opposite. One sees it, in a sense, as the continuing experience of wartime trauma in a domestic situation.”
During WWII, women increasingly entered the labour market and discovered greater agency and independence. This is primarily expressed in film noir through the femme fatale trope – the seductive and dangerous woman more interested in material gain than men – which “was an attempt to demonize [sic] the independent woman of the war years” (Jancovich, 2011). Meanwhile, the loner male characters popularised in film noir – private detectives, insurance investigators, boxers, gangsters, etc. – represent the pessimism, paranoia and fatalism of men battling the brutality of war and its traumas, as well as changing gender roles and their place in society. They're often adrift, violent, morally compromised and inevitably doomed.
These social and psychological concerns are expressed in film noir through stories and styles hugely influenced by German Expressionism – claustrophobia, obsession, madness, peculiar narrative frames and importantly, chiaroscuro lighting and the juxtaposition of light and shadow. Curiously, the focus on lighting in film noir was influenced by technological advancements fueled by the war as much as German Expressionism. As cinematographer John Bailey notes, during the war faster film stocks were developed, alongside more portable cameras, smaller dollies and more contained lighting units, which allowed filmmakers to shoot on streets at night. This focus on lighting became a signature of film noir and helped filmmakers express psychological states while also symbolising light against dark and good against evil.
There’s an element in film noir the way that light and shadow is used in such extreme contrast that’s almost religious, spiritual of philosophical.
Bailey goes on to point out that film noir owes much to the German filmmakers who “brought with them both a dramatic and visual tradition”, and indicates Lang’s Mebuse trilogy and Caligari as enormously influential. As seen in the images below, Lang continued to use the techniques that he established in German Expressionism once he was making film noir pictures.
Legacy of darkness
While many posit that film noir and German Expressionism are historical movements from the past, their influence continues to this day.
Jennifer Kent's domestic horror The Babadook (2014) not only borrows the frightful black-and-white silent-era pallet of expressionist villains for its monster, it explores trauma through allegory – in this case, grief as a monster – and features cold, dreary tones to express Amelia's (Essie Davis) detachment, as well as the sullen and shadowy setting of the house to reflect the darkness enveloping Amelia. Overall, the film's atmosphere is one of unnerving dread.
A house reflects so much of who we are and it’s interesting to explore that on film. It’s another character. I think with a lot of the German Expressionist films, which are also really appealing to me, the space around those characters is very important as well."
Perhaps the most famous contemporary director to harness the macabre style of German Expressionism is gothic maestro Tim Burton. Any Burton film could be cited as an example, from the make-up in Edward Scissorhands to the nightmarish sets in Beetlejuice (and everything else), but he also sometimes seems to directly honour individual shots from expressionist filmmakers, as below.
The influence of The Cabinet of Dr Caligari is also apparent in Martin Scorsese's Shutter Island (2010, based on the book by Dennis Lehane), which deals with the madness of trauma through a gum-shoe, hard-boiled storyline that shares the gothic sensibilities of German Expressionism, with the latter's final twist echoing the end of a film made 90 years earlier.
These are just some examples of the long shadows German Expressionism has cast over cinema, which has become so prevalent that it's easy to overlook, making it unlikely that casual cinema-goers would appreciate that without the migration of German filmmakers to Hollywood, there would be no Burton or Blade Runner.
So while Lang turned down Goebbles and left his money behind, the investment that he and his contemporaries made in Hollywood changed cinematic history forever.
Matt Millikan is the senior writer/editor at ACMI. He is responsible for writing, editing and curating the content that appears in the Constellation, the Visit-Extension experience and the wall labels throughout The Story of the Moving Image.
Burns, William F, 2016, "From the Shadows: Nosferatu and the German Expressionist Aesthetic", Mise-En-Scène: The Journal of Film and Visual Narration
Darsa, Allissa, 2013, "Art House: An Introduction to German Expressionist Films", Artnet.com
McCann, Ben, 2020, "100 years of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari: the film that inspired Virginia Woolf, David Bowie and Tim Burton", The Conversation
Ebert, Roger, 2009, "A world slanted at sharp angles", RogerEbert.com
Kemp, Phillip, 2017, "The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog: The First True Hitchcock Movie", The Criterion Collection
King, Susan, 2009, "Fleeing the Nazis for a haven in Hollywood", LA Times
Hitchcock, Alfred and Thomas, Bob, 1973, "Alfred Hitchcock: The German Years", Action (Jan/Feb 1973)
Paul Arthur, 1995, "American Cinema, episode four", PBS
John Bailey, 1995, "American Cinema, episode four", PBS
Hunter, Alex, 2014, "'The Babadook' Director Jennifer Kent Discusses Her Nail-Biting Directorial Debut", Film at Lincoln Center
German Expressionism, Chronology, Museum of Modern Art