Terror Cult: German Expressionism

Devon Ashby introduces you to the very first horror genre, from which all your favorite movies were born.

Devon Ashbyby Devon Ashby

Each week, Terror Cult strives to enlighten your brain and enhance your palate by delving into the disgusting depths of a single, isolated facet of the horror genre. Often dismissed as silly, mindless diversionary entertainment, horror cinema in fact boasts a proud and diverse heritage, and its contributions to the art of film are many and varied. This week, Terror Cult highlights the early cinematic offerings of the German Expressionist movement, which gave birth to some of the very first feature-length horror movies ever made.

The German Expressionist movement took place near the start of the 20th century, encompassing all forms of creative expression from painting to architecture to experimental dance. Conveniently, it also coincided with the international rise in popularity of feature filmmaking, meaning that just as cinema technology was beginning to come into its own, Germany was developing a cross-medium propensity for a highly dramatic, intense, and surreal visual sensibility that bled over into the emerging medium with unique and visually striking results. German Expressionist cinema remains one of the most distinctive and influential film movements of the silent era. Because of its tendency to emphasize dark, twisted psychological realities, and to incorporate horrifying and fantastical themes, many of the subgenre’s most notable examples have become recognized as the earliest feature-length horror films ever made.

While Russian cinema was developing a seminal emphasis on editing and montage, and American film slowly matured into the starry-eyed glamour factory it would ultimately become during the sound era, German cinema underscored artistic flourish, stark and powerful cinematography, and evocative set design to produce movies that were deeply bone-chilling, provocatively violent, and often sexually taboo. This stylistic approach was tailor made for stories of fantasy, terror, social chaos, and spiritual desecration. The emotional power of these films would prove heavily influential for American filmmakers – directors like Fritz Lang and F.W. Murnau have been cited as direct inspiration for the film noir movement of the 1940s, as well as for more traditionally genre-affiliated offerings like the Universal Monster films of the 1920s – 1950s.

A lot of German silents haven’t aged well, but many of them are still surprisingly watchable, particularly ones by directors like Murnau and Lang who had a clear vision and knew what they were doing. Expressionist cinema was unfortunately short-lived, and dissipated fairly quickly with the dawn of sound. Its most memorable entries, however, deserve recognition not only for their pioneering artistry, but for helping to give birth to the modern horror genre as we know it today.

The Student of Prague (1913)

Student of Prague’s longest surviving iteration is only 41 minutes long, but a big chunk of its original footage was lost or destroyed, so it’s pretty widely assumed that the movie was originally feature-length.Student of Prague is therefore very probably the first feature-length horror movie ever made, a distinction more often publicly attributed to Robert Weine’s 1919 surrealist feature The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Student of Prague’s plot, like many early films dealing with the daemonic, involves a pact with Satan that goes awry and results in spiritual and worldly ruin for its protagonist. The film is plodding and jerky by today’s standards, but its story influences would clearly resonate with later genre filmmakers such as Murnau, whose depraved, Gothic interpretation of Faust incorporated similar themes. Student of Prague was remade in 1926 by German screenwriter and occasional director Henrik Galeen, whose interpretation was far more technically bold and emotionally nuanced than this original attempt.

The Golem: How He Came Into the World (1920)

The third in a series of films based on ancient Jewish legend (the first two of which, unfortunately, are lost), The Golem: How He Came Into the World tells the story of a Jewish Rabbi who uses black magic to create a hulking monster out of mud and clay. Hoping to defend his people from the hostilities of the surrounding community, the Rabbi’s plan backfires when the monster escapes his control and starts running amok through the village. The Golem’s distorted and surrealistic sets, designed by painter and architect Hanz Poelzig, are typical of the expressionist period, seeming to pulse with strange undulations as the characters move through them. The film’s story bears many striking similarities to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and even moreso to Universal’s iconic sound adaptation of Shelley’s novel, released nearly a decade later.

Nosferatu: Eine Symphonie des Grauens (1922)

Nosferatu is an unofficial and unauthorized re-imagining of Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula, which cemented the popular Western vampire archetype. In Murnau’s Nosferatu, the aristocratic bloodsucker is named Count Orlok, and is portrayed with memorably eerie intensity by Max Schreck. Nosferatu’s script was penned by Henrik Galeen, one of the most influential screenwriters of the German Expressionist period, who was also responsible for The Golem, and the 1926 remake of Student of Prague. Like Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Nosferatu has aged well, and still has the ability to unnerve and unhinge, particularly thanks to Schreck’s ruthless, penetrating rendering of the title villain.

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919)

Caligari is without a doubt the single most compelling and influential film to come out of the German silent era. It has often been referred to as the first feature-length horror movie, and although that description isn’t entirely accurate, it’s definitely the most fully realized and emotionally affecting genre film made prior to the 1920s, and one of the most accomplished and psychologically devastating films of the entire silent era. The movie is told in flashback, related by a mental patient suffered from paranoid delusions, and his perceptions are reflected in the film’s highly stylized sets and lighting, replete with topsy-turvy, off-kilter framing effects, and foreboding lattice-works of light and shadow. Caligari’s spiky, angular sets and gaunt, hollow-eyed antagonist have haunted generations of viewers for nearly an entire century, making it one of the most entertaining and terrifying movies of the early silent era.

Metropolis (1927)

Metropolis is more often categorized as early science fiction than horror, but its dystopian of a future society characterized by rigid class divisions and disrupted by the arrival of intelligent robotics technology places it squarely within the paranoid realm of the horror film as well. Like Caligari, the influence of Metropolis is immeasurable – it has influenced genre filmmakers for decades, and has been adapted into a stage musical and a Japanese manga. It’s also been periodically reissued with fresh original scores by a host of different musicians, most famously by Italian electronica pioneer Giorgio Morodor.

Waxworks (1924)

One of the earliest anthology-style films, incorporating several short vignettes under the banner of a framing narrative, Waxworks tells the story of a writer hired to invent backstories for several figures in a sideshow wax museum. Waxworks was scripted by Henrik Galeen, and was directed by Paul Leni, who would go on to direct the iconic American horror film The Cat and the Canary a few years later.

Faust (1926)

Adapted from the epic German morality play of the same title, Faust was a later entry for Murnau, and was in fact the last of his films to be produced in Germany before his career-defining move to Hollywood in 1927. Like Student of Prague, Faust tells the story of a daemonic pact (in this case with Mephisto, Satan’s unholy representative) resulting in eventual chaos and spiritual desecration for everyone involved. Murnau was a talented filmmaker, and aside from a few poorly timed sequences, Faust still plays well and is shockingly entertaining considering its age. Packed full of disturbing imagery, from scores of open-sored plague victims, to the bastions of Hell riding on horseback through stormy cloudscapes, Faust is simultaneously a religious melodrama, and a lurid excursion into the unspeakably grotesque.

Follow Devon Ashby at @DevAshby and return next week for another pulse-pounding, mouthwatering installment of Terror Cult!