Monday, 15 June 2015


The other day, I was talking to an art director about the visual merits of German Expressionist films and the influence and inspiration it can have on advertising.

So, I thought I would share some of that conversation with you in the hope that the art directors who didn't go to art college might find this vaguely interesting.

Use light as narrative force.

The black and white lighting in Expressionist films represented two opposites, for example sanity and insanity. Known as Chiaroscuro lighting, it is an artistic tool developed by  the Renaissance painters and expanded into the film and photographic culture in the early 20th Century.

Light was used, not merely to create a mood, but to deliver the  narrative and to form an expressive character.

The technique involves blending light and shade, often in harsh ways, with side or front lighting, to create a memorable, dramatic image. 

 Nosferatu 1922

Orlac Hande 1924

A scene from the Expressionist inspired Citizen Kane or a promotional shot for  NASA?

 Faust 1926

Vincent, Tim Burton 1992




Use graphic lines.

Early German cinema often dealt with the notion of a fantasized reality. This led set designers to create odd angles and distorted viewpoints to reinforce the emotional state of the character.

It upset the equilibrium and made the composition more attention-grabbing. 'The image must become graphic art' was the mantra of The Expressionists in art and in film. Their attention to detail was astonishing.

Press the pause button while you are watching The Cabinet of Dr Cagliari, Nosferatu or Faust and  trace over the still image. 

The trace lines will give you a graphic grid, or template, from which you can form a layout with logo, type and image. 
As shown here:

Some sets were very busy and chaotic. If you crop in to some of these images you will find simpler structures, little hidden visual treasures. Something you won't have time to see in the actual film.

 Integration of elements.

Expressionist directors spent hours composing each scene. Their visual objective was to create one unifying scene where actor and scene became one. If your advertising image is one where a human figure is in a landscape or interior take a tip from Conrad Veidt, who played in many films of the time.

 "If the decor has been conceived as having the same spiritual state as that which governs the character's mentality, the actor will find in that decor a valuable aid in composing and living his part. He will blend himself into the represented milieu, and both of them will move in the same rhythm."

Below, a scene from Nosferatu 1922 and a print ad for Anti-Deforestation.


Angles, light, mood, narrative, perspective, this is a staggeringly beautiful image. And it's an ad.

An example of the scene having the same spiritual state as the actor.

The Power of Close Up.

The most expressive element in Expressionist films was the actor. Without words (and often without formal training)  the protagonists had to act with facial expressions. 

Sometimes, this created a stylistic cartoon character. 
At other times it created a visual poem.

If you are shooting close-ups for fashion brands or you are recording radio scripts and your aim is to get emotional truth, consider an idea from film maker Carl Theodor Dreyer. 

With The Passion of Joan of Arc, Dreyer did something that proved incredibly controversial. He had his crew build sets for the actors to perform in, but the majority of this set construction and art direction isn’t visible in the finished film.
He tells his story through the prominent close-ups throughout. 

Dreyer pursued such a spatial design, not to show off the work of his crew, but to permit his actors to immerse themselves in their surroundings in a way that would place them in the emotional and physical space of the 15th century trial depicted during filming. 

He achieved the most beautiful, striking images. 
Furthermore, many film critics consider Maria Falconetti's performance to be the finest piece of acting in the history of the cinema.

Although, Dreyer wasn't German, he was raised in a Danish orphanage, and was heavily influenced by the Expressionist movement.

 An ad for Amnesty International or a still from Dreyer's 'The Passion Of Joan Of Arc'?



The  Power of Perspective

The German film makers from 1907 onward gave great consideration to point-of-view. 

Like a great painter they understood how to implicate and immerse the viewer into their scenes.

Think about point-of -view, compose your layouts from a variety of angles. 

Consider how you want your audience to react and what emotion  you are attempting to create in the viewer or reader.

The main question you need to answer is, are you art directing for show or are you art directing to involve? 

This image below is powerful if taken front on. However, shooting the figure from below enhances the emotion of fear.


 The German expressionists used a technique called 'depth-setting'. This is where the background comes to the foreground and vice versa. 

They deliberately distorted space to be perpendicular to enhance the emotion of the character.  Both linear and non-linear perspectives were created with set design and lighting.The wide angle lens didn't come in to play until much later. 

Anthropomorphic image.

Animating objects to give them a character and spirit is something we are familiar with in advertising. 

In the language of German Expressionism, objects have a complete active life. They are imbued with the same mores as humans and act in the same way.

There wasn't much money after The Great War, particularly in Germany. So the directors of the time built sets, illustrated on great canvas back drops and filmed indoors. 

For dramatic effect the sets became characters in their own right. 
The house, the doors, the staircases were all anthropomorphic.

The sets 'spoke' and portrayed an emotional force central to the narrative tone. And it was cheaper than paying for another actor.

As well as building characterful sets, the early Germans were the first film makers  to wrestle with the notion of anthropomorphism. (The personification of objects).


Below. A film image and an ad for kitchenware.

F.W. Murnau's Faust, 1926. Hands emerge from a tree.

Here are some examples of ads which have wittingly, or unwittingly, been inspired by the German Expressionists.

A television ad for Lynx deodorant and  a still from 'Far Away, So Close'. The clever BBH creatives certainly know their Wenders from their Hertzogs

An ad for Playtex bras or a scene from The Bride Of Frankenstein ?

An image from a Borders Books campaign, 1995, or a scene from F.W. Murnau's  Sunrise, 1927 ?

A print ad for a brand of wheatgerm bread or a still from The Cat And The Canary?

 An ad for Nike or a scene from an Expressionist inspired movie Blade Runner?

A scene from The Last Laugh 1924 or a selfie of My Big Hand 2015 ?

If any readers are interested in German Expressionist films here are my recommendations:

The Cabinet Of Dr Cagliari, Wiene, 1920.
The Hands Of Orlac, Wiene, 1924.
Sunrise: A Song Of Two Humans, F.W. Murnau, 1927.


The Passion of Joan of Arc, Dreyer.

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