Expressionism In Films

by Russ Buchanan
Paul Verhoeven has said that the expressionistic film

Paul Verhoeven has said that the expressionistic film "Metropolis" was an inspiration during the making of Verhoeven's "Robo Cop."

Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images Entertainment/Getty Images

Expressionism or "Formalism" in movies might best be described in contrast to its filmic cousin, Realism. While filmmakers of the Realism school attempt to make films appear as objective and undistorted representations of life, expressionistic films purposely draw attention to the filmmaking process, offering the audience a highly subjective, idiosyncratic experience.

Conveying the "Inner Event"

According to Washington State University professor of Film Dr. Michael Delahoyde, expressionistic directors feel that distorting the material world on film helps to convey psychological, emotional and spiritual truths. The director of 1924's impressionistic "Waxworks," Paul Leni, said that communicating the reality of the "inner event" is far more profound and moving to the audience than slavishly reproducing what is seen every day. Accordingly, Leni strove to create sets for "Waxworks" that were so stylized that they "evince no idea of reality."

"The Cabinets of Dr. Caligari"

Nehrain Khalifa at cites Robert Wiene's masterpiece "The Cabinets of Dr. Caligari" as the first film of the expressionism genre and the first of many impressionistic movies that came out of Weimar Germany. Others include "Nosferatu," directed by Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau, "Dr Mabuse the Gambler," directed by Fritz Lang, and Wiene's "Genuine." Wiene's use of an exaggerated acting style in Caligari, along with super-contrasting light and shadow (chiaroscuro), odd-looking sets and dark storyline set the tone for future expressionistic films. As an example of Weine's expressionistic depiction of emotion, Khalifa describes the scene in Caligari in which the town's clerk sits on an exaggeratedly large stool, making the clerk look cramped, tense and claustrophobic.

Alfred Hitchcock discusses the many impressionistic elements used by English-American director Alfred Hitchcock to convey his signature themes of horror and suspense. According to, Hitchcock's use of heavily saturated shadow and acute camera angles in movies, such as "The Lodger" and "Psycho," were impressionistic techniques the young Hitchcock picked up during the 1920s while working on "The Blackguard" and other films for Germany's UFA Studios. Hitchcock himself publicly acknowledged the influence German Expressionism had on his directing style.

Influence of Expressionism

According to, the influence of German Expressionism can be found in such movies as Orson Welles' masterpiece, "Citizen Cane," with its low angles and heavily contrasting lighting, and later movies, such as Ridley Scott's science fiction classic, "Blade Runner," which employed highly stylized sets and exaggerated acting. Director Paul Verhoeven acknowledged that the early German expressionistic "Metropolis" served as a continuous inspiration to him during the shooting of his science fiction hit "Robo Cop."

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