Daydreams and Nightmares in Weimar Cinema

In this essay, Picturehouse programmer Rose Butler gives an introduction to our latest reDiscover season, and explores precisely what made Weimar-era cinema so revolutionary.

Rose Butler

16 Jan 23

The cinema of the Weimar Republic would shape the generic blueprints for horror, science fiction, crime and romance cinema that we still recognise today.

This season of films celebrates five landmark titles from this iconic era: from the blueprint of horror in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), heightened drama in The Blue Angel (1930), the striking dystopian sci-fi of Metropolis (1927), the grubby criminal underworld of M (1931) and the controversial eroticism of Madchen in Uniform (1931), this curated collection of classics outlines the remarkable legacy of some of German cinema's greatest films, all made during one of the most tumultuous times in modern history.

Spanning the brief interwar period from 1919-1933, the Weimar era was undoubtedly defined by Germany's defeat in the First World War. The years that followed were marked by a sense of insecurity; from failed revolutions to massive war debt, bloody political assassinations and runaway inflation, the nation was left deeply scarred.

By 1924 much stability had been restored, leading to a phase of great cultural creativity, but that insecurity remained – there was a creeping sense that Germany was spiralling out of its own control.

The Weimar era saw a remarkable growth of German national cinema. During the 14 years that make up the Weimar period, there was an average of 250 films produced each year, resulting in over three thousand feature films (many of which are now sadly considered lost).

This volatile, traumatised nation soon found itself explored and represented on-screen. Cinema was where German society's deepest anxieties, fantasies and dreams could be projected, and its powerful atmosphere found its perfect outlet on the big screen. 

Production of many of these films coincided with the rise of the Expressionist art movement across much of Europe, and Weimar cinema and Expressionism often go hand-in-hand.

Expressionism evoked a strong sense of mood and ideas through the radical distortion of an image, and films that utilised its style used set design comprised of abstract shapes and angles, with designs painted on the floors and walls to mimic exaggerated lights, shadows and objects.

The first film in our season, The Cabinet of Dr Caligari, is a perfect example of Expressionist visuals in cinema.

Narratively, these films dealt with topics of madness, betrayal and trauma, with central characters often recovering from unspeakable events both real and imagined.

Each of the films in this season explores themes of paranoia and panic, transforming feelings of sacrifice and pride into melodrama, horror or science fiction; they feature mad scientists, pathological serial killers, and naïve young protagonists traumatised by violent encounters.

One of the most beloved and well-respected eras of national cinema, these remarkable films came to epitomise a country: a nation uneasy with itself and its history, concealed beneath the glittering surface of anxious modernity.

Rose Butler is a film programmer for Picturehouse Cinemas and a freelance writer based in London. Explore the reDiscover Weimar Cinema season at

Join us at West Norwood Picturehouse for a session exploring, investigating, and examining Weimar cinema following our recent season of classic German film.

Tickets are £10, and £8 for Picturehouse Members  Find out more