German Expressionism and the Birth of American Horror

This year marks the centennial anniversary for two of the most significant films in the horror canon. Though suggestions of the genre existed already in the fantasy films of George Méliès or the experimental films of Thomas Edison, horror had yet to find a defining example as the film industry began to be seen as more than the speculative form of low brow entertainment it began as. The first real significant movement in horror came from Germany in the wake of World War I. While the country was struggling to get back on their feet financially, German art culture was radically invigorated. Filmmakers were largely turning away from the prospects of reality in film and seeking to realize bold, esoteric themes through wildly inventive cinematic techniques that pushed the visually expressive capabilities of the medium to unseen heights. These films were largely fantastical in nature, drawing from mythic allegories to reflect upon the struggles of the day. They were generally dark in nature, capitalizing on the deep contrast of light and darkness to emphasize the morbidity and nihilism inherent to their stories. This highly influential movement, dubbed “German Expressionism”, would be the flashpoint for the macabre subject of horror in cinema. Its influence would become far-reaching and long lasting, continuing to be a subject of inspiration and study more than one hundred years later. But it didn’t take a century for its influence to make an impact. The effects of German Expressionism began almost immediately, with the galvanizing forebearer of the movement making global waves with its inception of the horror genre. 

Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari. Dir. Robert Wiene.

Few films have broken the mold like Robert Wiene’s Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari (1920). Its visual genius remains unparalleled even today, eschewing any hint of convention entirely to fabricate a nightmarish dream world which reflects the darkness and horror of our hearts with unimaginable theatricality. Though the production design is stripped down to resemble more of a stage than a set, the visual style of the hand-painted backdrops and jagged architecture are more commonly associated with the canvas, transplanting the techniques of expressionism on screen in the truest form. The surrealistic environment of Caligari was the perfect conduit for the story’s dark themes and abject terror, embodying the visual morbidity of its subject through the most striking and effective means possible. With it, the visual template was set for the decade of expressionist films to pour out of Germany, and although none would attempt to be quite as bold and unreal as Caligari, their expressionistic aims were just as instrumental in pushing the shadowy subject of horror into the mainstream. The same year as Caligari, director Paul Wegener released Der Golem, wie er in die Welt kam (The Golem, How He Came into the World), a film about a clay goliath brought to life to protect the Jewish people of the country from religious persecution. It, too, would establish crucial hallmarks for the horror genre, particularly in the way it outlines religious undercurrents as a key subtext for films to come. Other notable filmmakers from this time include F.W. Murnau, whose unauthorized adaptation of Dracula caught considerable ire from Bram Stoker’s estate, but nonetheless saw significant influence throughout the world. The shadowy silhouettes of Nosferatu (1922) translated the hand-painted imagery of Caligari’s darkness to the cinematic palette of light. Soon enough, Hollywood lured Murnau and a number of other prolific German filmmakers to bolster the American movie market, blending the influence of their works with the burgeoning horror scene beginning at that time from one particular studio.   

The Man Who Laughs. Dir. Paul Leni.

While Fox had snagged Murnau in 1927 to start work on his grand melodrama Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans, Universal had enlisted the talents of Paul Leni, whose film Das Wachsfigurenkabinett (Waxworks, 1924) had impressed Carl Laemmle, the president of Universal Pictures, which prompted him to offer Leni the opportunity to continue making horror films in the United States. Universal was essentially the only studio at the time with a vested interest in the horror genre. This was largely thanks to the prestige of their most prominent contract star, Lon Chaney, who specialized in grotesque makeup transformations with tragic undercurrents for his characters, like in the case of The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923), which gave the studio its greatest success of the decade. Capitalizing on this popular trend, Chaney starred in another adaptation of a classic French novel: The Phantom of the Opera (1925). The disturbing look he’d carve for the famed Parisian catacomb dweller would become his most iconic image: a skull-like deformation which, when first revealed to audiences in his climactic unmasking, is purported to have horrified viewers so badly that many fainted at the sight of his inhuman visage. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Chaney was lured by the riches promised at the prestigious MGM, leaving a chasm at Universal which Laemmle intended to fill with the recruitment of his newest German emigre. After proving himself capable with the foundational haunted house classic, The Cat and the Canary (1927), Leni was assigned to direct an adaptation of Victor Hugo’s The Man Who Laughs with Conrad Veidt fulfilling the role initially intended for Chaney. Veidt was another crucial contributor to the German Expressionist movement as a prominent player in front of the camera, starring in such crucial roles as Casare, the murderous somnambulist of Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari and Ivan the Terrible in Leni’s Das Wachsfigurenkabinett. The Man Who Laughs would solidify Universal’s reputation for propagating gothic melodramas as the blueprint for American horror films. Their ideals would further crystallize in the sound era, as German influence poured even more directly into a wave of horror films which would forever define the studio’s legacy as a refuge for gods and monsters. 

Dracula. Dir. Tod Browning.

In 1928, Carl Laemmle passed control of Universal Pictures onto his son, Carl Laemmle Jr, who immediately sought to turn fortunes around for the struggling studio as the market was rapidly changing with the advent of talking pictures. He was compelled by the success of the Chaney horror films to continue pursuing their production, with the presumption that bigger budgets for these projects would result in higher quality films, and thus more success at the box office. Continuing with the precedent of adapting classic gothic literature to the screen, Junior obtained the rights to a successful Broadway run of Bram Stoker’s Dracula. It was to be the first major horror film of the sound era, and with its resounding success in early 1931, Universal overtook the zeitgeist and set the stage for the next major development in horror history. The look of Dracula emphasized the deep contrast of expressionistic lighting to an even greater degree than many of the German predecessors. Nosferatu is an unmistakable influence, both in the usage of shadowed imagery throughout and as a narrative template, merging original elements of Murnau’s adaptation with a more faithful adherence to Stoker’s text. But another German pioneer had a more direct hand in sculpting the tenebrous look of Dracula. As the cinematographer for Der Golem, Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927), and now, Dracula, one could argue that Karl Freund had a greater impact on the legacy of German Expressionism than any other individual. The iconic strip of light Freund used to accentuate the haunting gaze of Bela Lugosi’s piercing eyes was but one innovation he brought to the look of horror cinema. Between his foundational vision of the genre established during the expressionist period to the expansions he made in photographing Dracula, Murders in the Rou Morgue (1932), and then directing by taking the helm of Universal’s next major monster property, The Mummy (1932), Freund had solidified German influence as the most important ingredient in birthing American horror. 

Director Fritz Lang and cinematographer Karl Freund on the set of Metropolis.

The distinction between expressionist influence and the originality of America’s first wave of horror films would coalesce with the release of Universal’s most essential film of the decade. After Dracula single handedly turned the studio’s fortunes around, they began looking for a similar property they could adapt to echo its success. What they found was Mary Shelley’s 1818 gothic novel, Frankenstein. This was a bigger risk than Dracula, which was both a more recent novel audiences were familiar with and had a proven success on stage whereas Frankenstein had an earlier unsuccessful adaptation in 1910 from the Edison Studios. Additionally, Frankenstein was assigned to the relatively unproven director James Whale, while Dracula had the talents of veteran filmmaker Tod Browning, who had already proven himself fluent in gothic storytelling through a fruitful ten-film partnership with Lon Chaney. Credentials make not a masterpiece, however, and what Whale lacked in firsthand experience he made up for in vision. He had a new treatment drawn up for the script, one that emphasized the tragedy of the monster in tandem with his corporeal terror. The audience is made to feel an unsettling mixture of fear and empathy, for a creature who fights his unnatural existence with each defiant breath he takes. The monster was a mirror of the film in many ways, a protean creation of unimaginable influence released upon a world that would never again be the same. Whale was the mad genius behind its construction, sewing together disparate pieces to create an artistic amalgamation of horror filmmaking as it had grown throughout the years. The revolutionary visual language of German Expressionism; the dark and sinister themes of gothic fiction; the pioneering makeup techniques of Lon Chaney; and now, the game-changing innovation of atmospheric soundscapes to emphasize the horror of these nightmarish monster monoliths. Though the stayed hands of German masters like Paul Leni and Karl Freund were not involved in the production of Universal’s greatest horror success, their impact on the genre was immeasurable in paving the way for its decisive consecration within the cultural mind. Frankenstein was the highest grossing of any film of its year, and continues to be the most visually distinctive monster in all of cinema. 

The Bride of Frankenstein. Dir. James Whale.

And so the horror genre boomed in Hollywood. Whale became the undisputed king of the monsters, following up Frankenstein with a haunted manor thriller, The Old Dark House (1932), then setting the bar for yet another staple movie monster in The Invisible Man (1933), and finally, resurrecting his most famous creation with what is generally considered to be not only one of the best sequels of all time, but the crown jewel of Universal’s monster movies, The Bride of Frankenstein (1935). Excitement briefly fizzled out in the mid-‘30s as the hammer of censorship came with the Breen office’s enforcement of the Hays Code, as well as a blanket ban of horror films from the British Board of Censorship overseas, but was back soon enough at the end of the decade as Universal began churning out formulaic romps which, if not strictly artistic in their aims, at least kept the genre alive during a period of general indifference. The 1940s saw a reactionary shift back to the expressionistic influence in horror, as maverick producer Val Lewton sought to reinvigorate the genre with a focus on psychosexual themes rendered through dark dreamscapes in films like Cat People (1942) and I Walked with a Zombie (1943). Lewton’s course correction revived the horror genre by way of the influential Germanic darkness which had structured the prolific American films that he was now expanding upon. Even after its total assimilation into the American lexicon, German Expressionism remains one of the most identifiable and critical points of influence in genre filmmaking. It extended beyond the realm of horror, as the distinctive characteristics of Film Noir were entirely indebted to the movement as well. Though the fervor of the horror genre begins with the Universal Monsters of the 1930s, their progenitors were the indelible architects from which the style, themes, motifs, influence, and language of horror all derive.


4 thoughts on “German Expressionism and the Birth of American Horror

Leave a Reply