Among the first Expressionist films, The Student of Prague (1913), The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), From Morn to Midnight (1920), The Golem: How He Came into the World (1920), Destiny (1922), Nosferatu (1922), Phantom (1922), Schatten (1923), and The Last Laugh (1924) were highly symbolic and stylized.
The German Expressionist movement was initially confined to Germany due to the isolation the country experienced during World War I. In 1916, the government had banned foreign films. The demand from theaters to generate films led to an increase in domestic film production from 24 films in 1914 to 130 films in 1918. With inflation also on the rise, Germans were attending films more freely because they knew that their money's value was constantly diminishing.
Besides the films' popularity within Germany, by 1922 the international audience had begun to appreciate German cinema, in part due to a decreasing anti-German sentiment following the end of World War I. By the time the 1916 ban on imports was lifted, Germany had become a part of the international film industry.
Various European cultures of the 1920s embraced an ethic of change and a willingness to look to the future by experimenting with bold, new ideas and artistic styles. The first Expressionist films made up for a lack of lavish budgets by using set designs with wildly non-realistic, geometrically absurd angles, along with designs painted on walls and floors to represent lights, shadows, and objects. The plots and stories of the Expressionist films often dealt with madness, insanity, betrayal and other "intellectual" topics triggered by the experiences of World War I (as opposed to standard action-adventure and romantic films). Later films often categorized as part of the brief history of German Expressionism include Metropolis (1927) and M (1931), both directed by Fritz Lang. This trend was a direct reaction against realism. Its practitioners used extreme distortions in expression to show an inner emotional reality rather than what was on the surface.
The extreme anti-realism of Expressionism was short-lived, fading away after only a few years. However, the themes of Expressionism were integrated into later films of the 1920s and 1930s, resulting in an artistic control over the placement of scenery, light, etc. to enhance the mood of a film. This dark, moody school of film making was brought to the United States when the Nazis gained power and a number of German filmmakers emigrated to Hollywood. These German directors found U.S. movie studios willing to embrace them, and several German directors and cameramen flourished there, producing a repertoire of Hollywood films that had a profound effect on film as a whole. Nazi film theorist Fritz Hippler, though, was a supporter of expressionism. Two further films produced in Nazi Germany using the expressionist style were “Das Stahltier” (The Animal of Steel) in 1935 by Willy Zielke and “Michelangelo. Das Leben eines Titanen” (Michelangelo. The Life of a Titan) in 1940 by Curt Oertel.
Two genres that were especially influenced by Expressionism are horror film and film noir. Carl Laemmle and Universal Studios had made a name for themselves by producing such famous horror films of the silent era as Lon Chaney's The Phantom of the Opera. German filmmakers such as Karl Freund (the cinematographer for Dracula in 1931) set the style and mood of the Universal monster movies of the 1930s with their dark and artistically designed sets, providing a model for later generations of horror films. Directors such as Fritz Lang, Billy Wilder, Otto Preminger, Alfred Hitchcock, Orson Welles, Carol Reed and Michael Curtiz introduced the Expressionist style to crime dramas of the 1940s, expanding Expressionism's influence on modern filmmaking.
The German silent cinema was arguably far ahead of Hollywood during the same period. The cinema outside Germany benefited both from the emigration of German film makers and from German expressionist developments in style and technique that were apparent on the screen. The new look and techniques impressed other contemporary film makers, artists and cinematographers, and they began to incorporate the new style into their work.