10 Great German Expressionist Films: From Nosferatu to The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari

In 1913, Ger­many, flush with a new nation’s patri­ot­ic zeal, looked like it might become the dom­i­nant nation of Europe and a real rival to that glob­al super­pow­er Great Britain. Then it hit the buz­z­saw of World War I. After the Ger­man gov­ern­ment col­lapsed in 1918 from the eco­nom­ic and emo­tion­al toll of a half-decade of sense­less car­nage, the Allies forced it to accept dra­con­ian terms for sur­ren­der. The entire Ger­man cul­ture was sent reel­ing, search­ing for answers to what hap­pened and why.

Ger­man Expres­sion­ism came about to artic­u­late these lac­er­at­ing ques­tions roil­ing in the nation’s col­lec­tive uncon­scious. The first such film was The Cab­i­net of Dr. Cali­gari (1920), about a malev­o­lent trav­el­ing magi­cian who has his ser­vant do his mur­der­ous bid­ding in the dark of the night. The sto­ry­line is all about the Freudi­an ter­ror of hid­den sub­con­scious dri­ves, but what real­ly makes the movie mem­o­rable is its com­plete­ly unhinged look. Marked by styl­ized act­ing, deep shad­ows paint­ed onto the walls, and sets filled with twist­ed archi­tec­tur­al impos­si­bil­i­ties — there might not be a sin­gle right angle in the film – Cali­gari’s look per­fect­ly mesh­es with the nar­ra­tor’s dement­ed state of mind.

Sub­se­quent Ger­man Expres­sion­ist movies retreat­ed from the extreme aes­thet­ics of Cali­gari but were still filled with a mood of vio­lence, frus­tra­tion and unease. F. W. Mur­nau’s bril­liant­ly depress­ing The Last Laugh (1924) is about a proud door­man at a high-end hotel who is uncer­e­mo­ni­ous­ly stripped of his posi­tion and demot­ed to a low­ly bath­room atten­dant. When he hands over his uni­form, his pos­ture col­laps­es as if the jack­et were his exoskele­ton. You don’t need to be a semi­ol­o­gist to fig­ure out that the doorman’s loss of sta­tus par­al­lels Germany’s. Fritz Lang’s M (1931), a land­mark of ear­ly sound film, is the first ser­i­al killer movie ever made. But what starts out as a police pro­ce­dur­al turns into some­thing even more unset­tling when a gang of dis­tinct­ly Nazi-like crim­i­nals decide to mete out some jus­tice of their own.

Ger­man Expres­sion­ism end­ed in 1933 when the Nazis came to pow­er. They weren’t inter­est­ed in ask­ing uncom­fort­able ques­tions and viewed such dark tales of cin­e­mat­ic angst as unpa­tri­ot­ic. Instead, they pre­ferred bright, cheer­ful tales of Aryan youths climb­ing moun­tains. By that time, the movement’s most tal­ent­ed direc­tors — Fritz Lang and F.W. Mur­nau — had fled to Amer­i­ca. And it was in Amer­i­ca where Ger­man Expres­sion­ism found its biggest impact. Its stark light­ing, grotesque shad­ows and bleak world­view would go on on to pro­found­ly influ­ence film noir in the late 1940s after anoth­er hor­rif­ic, dis­il­lu­sion­ing war. See our col­lec­tion of Free Noir Films here.

You watch can 10 Ger­man Expres­sion­ist movies – includ­ing Cali­gari, Last Laugh and M — for free below.

  • Nos­fer­atu — Free — Ger­man Expres­sion­ist hor­ror film direct­ed by F. W. Mur­nau. An unau­tho­rized adap­ta­tion of Bram Stok­er’s Drac­u­la. (1922)
  • The Stu­dent of Prague — Free — A clas­sic of Ger­man expres­sion­ist film. Ger­man writer Hanns Heinz Ewers and Dan­ish direc­tor Stel­lan Rye bring to life a 19th-cen­tu­ry hor­ror sto­ry. Some call it the first indie film. (1913)
  • Nerves — Free — Direct­ed by Robert Rein­ert, Nerves tells of “the polit­i­cal dis­putes of an ultra­con­ser­v­a­tive fac­to­ry own­er Herr Roloff and Teacher John, who feels a com­pul­sive but secret love for Rolof­f’s sis­ter, a left-wing rad­i­cal.” (1919)
  • The Cab­i­net of Dr. Cali­gari — Free — This silent film direct­ed by Robert Wiene is con­sid­ered one of the most influ­en­tial Ger­man Expres­sion­ist films and per­haps one of the great­est hor­ror movies of all time. (1920)
  • Metrop­o­lis — Free — Fritz Lang’s fable of good and evil fight­ing it out in a futur­is­tic urban dystopia. An impor­tant clas­sic. An alter­nate ver­sion can be found here. (1927)
  • The Golem: How He Came Into the World — Free — A fol­low-up to Paul Wegen­er’s ear­li­er film, “The Golem,” about a mon­strous crea­ture brought to life by a learned rab­bi to pro­tect the Jews from per­se­cu­tion in medieval Prague. Based on the clas­sic folk tale, and co-direct­ed by Carl Boese. (1920)
  • The Golem: How He Came Into the World — Free — The same film as the one list­ed imme­di­ate­ly above, but this one has a score cre­at­ed by Pix­ies front­man Black Fran­cis. (2008)
  • The Last Laugh Free — F.W. Mur­nau’s clas­sic cham­ber dra­ma about a hotel door­man who falls on hard times. A mas­ter­piece of the silent era, the sto­ry is told almost entire­ly in pic­tures. (1924)
  • Faust — Free - Ger­man expres­sion­ist film­mak­er F.W. Mur­nau directs a film ver­sion of Goethe’s clas­sic tale. This was Mur­nau’s last Ger­man movie. (1926)
  • Sun­rise: A Song of Two Humans — Free — Made by the Ger­man expres­sion­ist direc­tor F.W. Mur­nau. Vot­ed in 2012, the 5th great­est film of all time. (1927)
  • M — Free — Clas­sic film direct­ed by Fritz Lang, with Peter Lorre. About the search for a child mur­der­er in Berlin. (1931)

For more clas­sic films, peruse our larg­er col­lec­tion, 4,000+ Free Movies Online: Great Clas­sics, Indies, Noir, West­erns, Doc­u­men­taries & More.

Note: An ear­li­er ver­sion of this post appeared on our site in Decem­ber, 2014.

If you would like to sign up for Open Culture’s free email newslet­ter, please find it here. Or fol­low our posts on Threads, Face­book, BlueSky or Mastodon.

If you would like to sup­port the mis­sion of Open Cul­ture, con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion to our site. It’s hard to rely 100% on ads, and your con­tri­bu­tions will help us con­tin­ue pro­vid­ing the best free cul­tur­al and edu­ca­tion­al mate­ri­als to learn­ers every­where. You can con­tribute through Pay­Pal, Patre­on, and Ven­mo (@openculture). Thanks!

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Metrop­o­lis Restored: Watch a New Ver­sion of Fritz Lang’s Mas­ter­piece

Fritz Lang’s “Licen­tious, Pro­fane, Obscure” Noir Film, Scar­let Street (1945)

Free: F. W. Murnau’s Sun­rise, the 1927 Mas­ter­piece Vot­ed the 5th Best Movie of All Time

Watch Nos­fer­atu, the Sem­i­nal Vam­pire Film, Free Online (1922)

Jonathan Crow is a Los Ange­les-based writer and film­mak­er whose work has appeared in Yahoo!, The Hol­ly­wood Reporter, and oth­er pub­li­ca­tions. You can fol­low him at @jonccrow. And check out his blog Veep­to­pus, fea­tur­ing lots of pic­tures of bad­gers and even more pic­tures of vice pres­i­dents with octo­pus­es on their heads.  The Veep­to­pus store is here.


by | Permalink | Comments (1) |

Sup­port Open Cul­ture

We’re hop­ing to rely on our loy­al read­ers rather than errat­ic ads. To sup­port Open Cul­ture’s edu­ca­tion­al mis­sion, please con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion. We accept Pay­Pal, Ven­mo (@openculture), Patre­on and Cryp­to! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Comments (1)
You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.
  • Chuck says:

    Coin­ci­den­tal­ly, the “Dick Tra­cy” com­ic strip at gocomics.com is fea­tur­ing a sto­ry­line with a char­ac­ter named “Mabuse” (begin­ning Aug. 19, 2018). I could eas­i­ly see Fritz Lang enjoy­ing Chester Gould’s ear­ly strips after emi­grat­ing to the U.S. in the mid-1930s.

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.