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Emotional ornaments: the wonderful film sets of German Expressionist cinema

Emotional ornaments: the wonderful film sets of German Expressionist cinema

When looking at film locations it would be shameful if the settings in the infamous German Expressionism movement were to be overlooked. A number of movements and directors over the years have Expressionism to thank. There is so much to say about this movement from the wonderful films that were born out of it, to the microelements that can still be seen in cinema today. However, what stands out the most are the incredible film sets.

German Expressionism as an art form was the response to the bleak reality of daily life. In the 1920s German films were developing a distinctive style, the emphasis of these films was placed on presenting an expressive, imaginative point of view opposed to everyday life. Cinema worked as a way to represent a reality the German public could only imagine and the films present a world violently distorted from the pressures of intense personal moods and emotions. An important aesthetic quality of the German cinema during 1919 – 1924 was emphasis on in-studio production. Working in the controlled environment of the studio allowed filmmakers to depict psychological states and reflect the thoughts and feelings of a traumatised nation. The two greatest examples of this can be seen throughout Robert Wiene’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, two of the greatest films ever made.

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari shows a different level of perception; a symbolic, dreamlike world is presented to the audience through the use of painted backdrops and abstract forms. Caligari’s mise-en-scene is beautifully deformed and features many angular, bizarrely structured buildings.

Uneven, sharp-pointed forms transform significant objects (such as buildings) into emotional ornaments. These buildings are chaotic in form and appear unstable commenting on the instability of society at the present time. The sets are used to express a number of things, the thoughts and emotions of Francis in particular. They effectively portray the subjective inner world of Francis, expressive of his tortured soul and distressed mental state. This mindset could be frequently found on the streets of Germany. Secondly, they represented the negative attitude of the notion of regime, one that led to destruction. They also worked perfectly to give the film a completely deranged feel and depth. As the audience is constricted in the central character’s world of insanity, they see what he sees: distorted perspectives, eerie lights and threatening shadows. There is a strong, darkened mood present throughout the film. The use of contrast, sharp lines, light and shadows reflects an uneven tension between the German audience and the psychopathic manipulator, Caligari.

Out of films from this particular period that depict the amount of pessimism that was present, Metropolis is one of the strongest candidates. The film presents a modern community living in outdated ideologies and revolutionary despair. Metropolis’ narrative is strongly driven by the notion of routine. The best example of this can be seen through the workers. In the city of Metropolis, the workers are situated in a lower city, shut off from daylight where they tend to monstrous machines. The opening of Metropolis in particular shows this, consisting of mid-shots of machinery everything is perfectly in synch showing no sense of individualism. When the bent and cowed workers gradually part in the film they are still very much in formation.


Class as an ideological framework for the German society was, like all other aspects of the country, in turmoil. Through the use of visual constructions throughout the sets and choreography of movement the audience is intensely aware of the tension between classes. There is a strong necessity of each class to keep to its proper place present. The workers are contained within a claustrophobic underworld without natural light or freedom. They are limited to lives of hard and lengthy work where no common language exists between the rulers and the ruled. In Caligari, the use of scale in the set shows state hierarchies and the abuse of power. Swivel chairs of enormous height are just one thing that symbolises the superiority of the city officials turning on them. The importance of furniture reinforces the effect of different positions and the power that comes with it. The upper members of society such as council staff and police sit higher up on stools whilst other members are forced to around at their heels.

As the years have gone on components of Expressionism can be seen throughout other movements from the theme of a tormented male protagonist to the shadows and alienating dystopian cities. The heavily stylised set designs seen in both films have been imitated a numerous amount of times, examples of this can be seen in Blade Runner, Batman Begins, Dark City and many more.



These films are distinguished by an obsession with the nature of power and the exercise of a mechanical notion of routine. The narratives in these films are strongly driven by the notion of a dystopian society. A dystopia is a society gone wrong, responsibility traditionally lies with a government regime or corporation. Uproar and tension is created by changes in social conventions. Metropolis is a perfect example of a dystopian society where the workers strike back. The emphasis on the internal conflicts and psychological damage is achieved through the sets and locations. Over the years this technique of depicting and commenting on the character’s internal struggle through film sets has been mastered and as a result we have the pleasure of being exposed to a number of fascinating films.

Today visual metaphors become more complicated, plot twists become more extraordinary and confusing, engulfing landscapes become more claustrophobic and shadows darker and more uncomfortable leaving us with a remarkable body of films that conjure up a range of thoughts and emotions for its audience.


– Catstello