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In the 1910s and 20s, the artistic movement known as German Expressionism flourished in theater, dance, architecture, and painting, but perhaps made its biggest impact on the young medium of cinema. The mark of these visually striking, often creepy films can be seen in many later American productions, not merely through artistic influence but also the importation to Hollywood of many of the major German directors themselves, as they began fleeing Europe with the rise of Adolf Hitler. The chiaroscuro shadows that characterize film noir, for instance, descend directly from expressionist cinematography. In their depiction of demons, madness, and the uncanny, these films also set the groundwork for the horror genre.

Following World War II, the critic Sigfried Kracauer wrote a seminal book entitled “From Caligari to Hitler” that traces the parallels between these cinematic journeys into darkness and the ominous political developments unfolding simultaneously in the Weimar Republic. There is a palpable feeling of unease in these works, heightened by the daring cinematographic techniques pioneered by German directors. While the Russians were making their mark by inventing modern editing or “montage” (the relation of individual shots to each other), the Germans were deepening the possibilities of what each shot could contain, the fancy word for which is “mise en scene.” Turn off your lights when you queue up these fantastic and spooky Teutonic tours de force:

1. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)

A masterpiece of what we now call “production design,” Caligari remains one of the most visually distinctive films of all time. The film’s warped sets were constructed and painted to evoke the turmoil of a madman’s mind. Tim Burton owes his entire career to this movie. I bet Dr. Seuss even saw it a couple of times.

2. The Golem (1920)

Director and actor Paul Wegener had made two earlier Golem pictures, both of which are now unfortunately lost, but this one seems to have been the best anyway. Wegener plays the title creature from Jewish folklore (one of the inspirations for Mary Shelley’s original Frankenstein), brought to life by the incantations of a rabbi. Unintended consequences ensue.

3. Faust (1926)

This adaptation of German national poet Goethe’s telling of the cautionary tale of Dr. Faustus becomes a mind-bending special effects showcase in the hands of F.W. Murnau, one of the greatest directors to never make anyone’s list of the greatest directors. His much more famous Nosferatu (1922), and The Last Laugh (1924), with its groundbreaking lack of written intertitles, are also available as of now on Instant Queue, but Faust is my personal favorite.

4. Metropolis Restored (1927)

Fritz Lang’s visionary science fiction epic has been rereleased many times, including a souped-up 80s version with music by the likes of Freddie Mercury and Pat Benatar. But just in the past five years, prints of the film were discovered in Argentina and New Zealand that contained scenes that had been lost for many years. This newly restored version, reflecting director Fritz Lang’s vision more faithfully than any version audiences have seen in the past 85 years, is the one streaming now on Netflix. It clocks in 153 minutes, but don’t let that dissuade you; the world Lang creates is astonishing and absorbing, on a par with any of the screen’s greatest sci-fi.

5. Diary of a Lost Girl (1929)

Ah, Louise Brooks. Spunk, intelligence, sex appeal…and that haircut. Every hipster girl you know is still trying to replicate it, by way of Uma Thurman in Pulp Fiction, who stole it from Godard’s muse Anna Karina, who stole it from Brooks. This rather deliciously lurid melodrama is less known than her other collaboration with director G.W. Pabst, the previous year’s Pandora’s Box (not currently streaming, alas). Read her memoir “Lulu in Hollywood” for a shockingly candid glimpse at showbiz.


This is a guest post by Kristie Lewis from construction management degree. You can reach her at: Kristie.Lewis81 @ gmail. Com.