Expressionism and Early German Cinema

Today, following the film historian Siegfried Kracauer in his claim that the screen brings forth the “inner life of the nation from which the films emerge,” we will try to unfold this peculiar period’s inner dynamics by stressing upon the Expressionist masterpiece of Early German cinema: The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari!

“The Germans have developed a native humor that holds wit and irony in contempt and has no place for happy-go-lucky figures. Theirs is an emotional humor which tries to reconcile mankind to its tragic plight and to make one not only laugh at the oddities of life but also realize through that laughter how fateful it is.” “Kracauer, S. (1947). 

Expressionism and Early German Cinema

From 1910 and onwards, Germany went through a dense period of hope and disaster. That revealed itself in thought and arts also as Expressionism. From Frankfurt Institute to Der Sturm group of Berlin, there was a critique and rejection of the tradition. Because rational construction of the world fed the terror and oppression that human beings suffered. In art, the Expressionist circle gathered around Der Sturm (The Storm) Magazine to rebel against the convention.

Following the film historian Siegfried Kracauer in his claim that the screen brings forth the “inner life of the nation from which the films emerge,” we will try to unfold this peculiar period’s inner dynamics by stressing upon the Expressionist masterpiece The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari in this essay.

The Cabinet of Dr Caligari, 1920
Concept drawings by Hermann Warm (1889-1976)

Roots of Expressionism in Cinema

Siegfried Kracauer emphasized the screen’s peculiar potential in reflecting the “unseen dynamics of human relations” through “visible hieroglyphs,” stories, and visual signifiers. The allegories in the sense of elements that speak of beyond themselves. Indeed, especially when one looks at how numerous films of such a thematic diversity emerged in this period.

In the preceding years of WWI, there was already a small group of cinematic intellectuals in Germany. Their artistic tendency was to create a cinematic world wherein unreality promotes subversion. This promoted image of subversion was coherent with the Empire’s warmongering, believing that the war was necessary for German resurrection.

As early as 1913, Wegener’s The Student of Prague (whose narrative is a hybrid of Poe’s story William Wilson, Musset’s poem The December Night and Faust) casts a light upon the psychological landscape of German society. Hence, it tells the story in which a student deals with a sorcerer who tricks him into creating his doppelgänger. Through this story, it reflects “deep and fearful concern with the foundations of the self.” (Kracauer, S.,1947. p.30)

This fearful concern with the foundations was symptomatic of the collective frustration of those times. For instance, the upcoming war, antisemitism, political extremism, economic stress, and foreign producers’ invasion. All these were enough to boost alienation, a withdrawal into the foundations whose stability is continuously at stake.

A scene from The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari via

Film Industry and the Expressionist Cinema

During the war period, the film industry enjoyed high demand from the government. It was because the government headed to make propaganda films to compete with the Allies’ films. To realize this end, the government formed UFA (Universum Film A.G). One-third of the UFA belonged to the Reich.

Since UFA wanted to initiate a collective enterprise in the cinema industry to increase the domestic output, backed by “prominent financiers, industrialists, and shipowners,” they brought many producers and artists together. Of course, this had a tremendous effect on the development of the industry: “The decisive contribution of the war and prewar years was the preparation of a generation of actors, cameramen, directors and technicians for the task of the future.” (Kracauer, S., 1947 p.24) These explain how the camera acquired its full mobility in German cinema or how Lubitsch shot his pageants with such an artistic elegance.

Flourishing Ideas

Germany lost the war. However, there was an excitement in thought accompanied by a sense of hope. The word “Aufbruch” describes it best. The term used to signify “the departure from the shattered world of yesterday towards a tomorrow built on the grounds of revolutionary conceptions.” (Kracauer S., 1947)

Many artists and producers captured the feeling that something truthful lies at the very interiority of our existence. For instance, in Frankfurt, Schöneberg’s atonal or “expressively tonal” music was flourishing. Additionally, Robert Wiene shot The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari in Decla-Bioscop film studio.

Accordingly, we see a series of “critiques” in all domains in this period, from music to social sciences, from painting to cinema. This is because infiltrating into this interiority required different methods than the ones derived from the conventional reasoning. As Richard Murphy put it: “they deconstruct the ideological dimension of the conventional system of representation itself, namely its central principle of rationalism and the unshakable positivism of its belief in empirical, knowable forms of truth.” (Murphy, R., 1999). Theorizing the avant-garde: Modernism, expressionism, and the problem of postmodernity. (Cambridge University Press. p.203)

By that time, many influential figures proved that the cinematic apparatus could manifest what lies beneath and beyond the structure. Through the screenplay, we could glimpse the limits and capacities, the passions and anomalies, and the colors of human beings’ subjectivity.

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari

The Expressionists were highly appreciative of this apparatus. When Robert Wiene become the director of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, he wanted to work with three expressionist artists from the Berlin Sturm group (instead of Alfred Kubin). “‘Films must be drawings brought to life”: this was Hermann Warm’s formula at the time that he and his two fellow designers were constructing the CALIGARI world.”(Kracauer S., 1947)

A scene from the movie taken from

At the end Expressionism prevailed over the each element of the production. It affected everything fromFrom the typography of inter-titles to “the zigzag delineations designed to efface all rules of perspective”, from the costume design to the gestures, postures and attitudes of the stage-actors.

At the hands of Wiene, the story went through a subtle mutation. In the new script, he framed the original script of Janowitz and Mayer within a madman Francis, the seemingly anti-authoritarian protagonist of the earlier writing.

The first script’s authors highly disputed the latest version. However, framing the first story into a delusional one made Caligari a true masterpiece of Expressionist cinema. Kracauer, for example, interprets this framing technique as a reflection of the apathy that Germans had towards the harsh and destructive outer world, of the tendency withdrawing into one’s shell.

The Expressionists made visible the schizo-political potentiality of the individual in the face of psychiatric authority. That is the institution of conventional rationality.

In the end, the Expressionists of Dr. Caligari succeeded in “externalizing the fermentations of inner life” through a madman’s fantasy.


Kracauer, S. (1947). From Caligari to Hitler: A psychological history of the German film. London: D. Dobson.
Murphy, R. (1999). Theorizing the avant-garde: Modernism, expressionism, and the problem of postmodernity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.


Baran Acıdere is a philosophy student from Turkey, who has specialized in film studies, art history,  and contemporary thinking.


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