German Expressionism in Tim Burton’s films

German Expressionism originated during the World War I period, when Germany faced isolation from other countries. In 1916, the German government had banned foreign films, and this led to an increase in local film production. In many ways, the German Expressionism movement is a reaction to the devastation and horrors of the war faced by the Germans.

The themes behind German Expressionism films often revolved around insanity, chaos, death or fear, which embodied what the German people faced during World War I. The films are usually characterized with dark, stylized sets, exaggerated acting, distortions of space and heavy use of shadows. Chiaroscuro lighting was also used in these films. The extreme contrasts of light and dark creates dramatic shadows.


The legacy of German Expressionism still lives on in the modern Hollywood films. Tim Burton is one of the prominent filmmakers in contemporary Hollywood influenced by German Expressionism. His most popular films contain characters and sets that have many striking similarities to German Expressionist cinema. These similarities are most noticeable in Burton’s use of chiaroscuro, the use of shadows, fantastical, geometrical, and angular sets, brooding and mysterious characters, and intellectual plots.

Take Tim Burton’s Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber Of Fleet Street (2007) for example, the setting and mood for the entire film was gloomy, dark and sinister-looking, a result from the use of chiaroscuro lighting, deep shadows and angular shapes. These elements are commonly found in German Expressionism films.



Note the similar use of slanting angular shapes, harsh shadows, and disproportionate windows in Sweeney Todd and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, portraying madness and alienation from society.



In a large part of the scenes, Sweeney (Johnny Depp) is partially covered and hidden by shadows, to amplify the menacing nature of his character.


Distortions of body or objects are also characteristic of German Expressionism. The distortion of the character’s faces suggests insanity; and the cracked mirror symbolizes the shattered life and personality of Sweeney, and also possible foreshadowing of his impending death.


Another of Tim Burton’s successful film, Edward Scissorhands (1990), is also heavily influenced by German Expressionism. Similar to Sweeney Todd, Edward Scissorhands contains many visual and stylistic elements of German Expressionism.

– Dark, gloomy sets with sharp, angular and irregular shapes (buildings with varying heights, pointed roofs, disproportionate windows, angled stairs, etc) upset the sense of equilibrium and bring out the fear and chaotic imbalance of the world:



– Low-key and chiaroscuro effect:



Another noteworthy similarity characteristic of German Expressionism is the exaggerated Gothic makeup of the main characters in Tim Burton’s films. The main character in Sweeney Todd and the character of Edward Scissorhands bare a close resemblance to the character of Cesare from The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. They all have pale faces contrasted by black hair that are unruly and out of place, dark shadows around all of their eyes, and also the obvious lack of joy in their faces.

"Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari" D 1919/20 R.: Robert Wiene Conrad Veidt


EDWARD SCISSORHANDS US 1990 C20TH FOX JOHNNY DEPP Date 1990, Photo by: Mary Evans/Ronald Grant/Everett Collection(10312117)

I find it very interesting that Tim Burton also incorporates certain elements of German Expressionism into his animated picture films. One example of such is The Nightmare Before Christmas. The animated picture draws inspiration from The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Both have an angular landscape and the characters are standing on a ledge in the distance, their bodies pointed and bent. Also, everything in the scene is in the shadows, while the main character has a background of light.








Although not technically “shot” by a real camera, Tim Burton manages to achieve the “chiaroscuro effect” in The Nightmare Before Christmas, with deep shadows and “low-key lighting”. In the animated picture film, the environment is made up of structures without geometric shapes. There are no squares or rectangles in Halloween town; all the houses are spiraled and curved, the windows crooked, the ground tilted up steeply, and the buildings lopsided. There is no order in the buildings or the environment. These same styles were characteristic of German Expressionism to show the chaos and instabilities of the world.




German Expressionism indeed has influenced a lot of different film makers such as Tim Burton. Most of the current directors has modified and incorporate the influence of German Expressionism to form their own style of film making. Personally, I feel that Tim Burton did an excellent job in using the influences from German Expressionism in his films to enhance the narration and bring out the essence of the story that he was trying to tell.