Expressionism is a style of filmmaking that breaks the rules of realism in order to create an effect. In an expressionist film, characters, events, and places are often distorted or exaggerated as a means of conveying a mood or emotion more powerfully.
Abstract feelings such as fear, pain and loneliness are physically ‘expressed’ through lighting and camerawork, and through the physical surroundings where the action takes place.
Traditional expressionist films use low-key lighting, strong shadows and unusual viewpoints and camera angles. The stories are often bleak and tragic, dealing with the negative aspects of human experience.
It was a modernist movement, initially in poetry and painting, originating in Germany at the beginning of the 20th century. It developed as an avant-garde style before the First World War.
When the National Socialist (Nazi) Party came to power in Germany in the early 1930s, many expressionist film-makers fled the country in fear. Murnau, Lang and others travelled to America where they continued to make movies. Their styles influenced American filmmaking, especially in melodrama, horror and detective films (Film Noir), where exaggerated emotion and themes of social decay were ideal for expressionist treatment.
For many early film-makers, expressionism was more than an artistic style; it was a way of making important social statements. This statement can well and truly be supported as in Robert Weine’s The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1919) was not only a story of madness and murder; it could be read as a statement about the rise of fascism in Germany.
Prime examples of expressionism in film include Nosferatu and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.