German Expressionist Flyer

Ruth’s flying machine from Thumb

I’ve been working on some art/visualisation pieces for Thumb. As I mentioned before I wanted to capture the feel of the German Expressionist artists and films of the 1920s and 1930s. The movement grew out of a desire to overturn the established order of nineteenth century Europe, whose triumphalist and Imperial certainties had been completely destroyed by the horrors of World War One. Expressionism was characterised by bold colours and lines, and distortion based on the emotions of the writer, painter or film maker. It was Impressionism in reverse. Instead of recreating the impression of the world on the eye, Expressionism expressed inner feelings, often focussing on madness and dreams.

The Cabinet of Dr Caligari film poster
A still from the film, note the distorted set.
A still from the film, note the distorted set.

German Expressionist Cinema was a sub-genre of the movement, and produced some of the most striking movies ever made. The most famous, and most typical of the style, is The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1920), the tale of a murderous somnambulist set in a crazily distorted world. Other classics include Murnau’s Faust (1926) and Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927). Here are some sample film posters of the period:

Poster from Paul Wegener's 1915 film Der Golem.
Poster from Paul Wegener’s 1915 film Der Golem.


Murnau's Head of Janus, 1920
Murnau’s Head of Janus, 1920
And finally, a magnificent poster of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis.

If I wanted to sum up Thumb in four words it would “Indiana Jones does Kafka”. While there are Steampunk elements in the novel, I’m more interested in capturing the fin-de-siecle absurdities of the early twentieth century, and the atmosphere of Kafka and the German Expressionists. The artwork and trailer I’m doing for Thumb is therefore based on these styles, although I’ve toned down the frantic distortions a bit (mainly because I’m nowhere near as good an artist as those painters and designers of the original movement). Interestingly enough, someone said that the picture of the house in the Wasteland reminds them of Tim Burton’s style, which is great because Burton is also heavily influenced by films like Caligari 🙂



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4 responses to “German Expressionist Flyer”

  1. Jane Dougherty Avatar

    I’m not a huge fan of German Expressionism though I do like Ruth’s flying machine. What’s your take on The Singing Ringing Tree? You must be part of the generation of children scarred for life by it. I’d have thought that counts as GE, it’s certainly sinister enough.

  2. John Guy Collick Avatar
    John Guy Collick

    The Singing Ringing Tree! A classic – I still have nightmares about that one. I keep toying with the idea of buying the video but it would probably make the dreams worse.

    1. Jane Dougherty Avatar

      I tried to get my (pretty hardboiled) teenage children to watch it once and they refused. The whole thing, the costumes, the plastic animals, not to mention the D word, gave them the willies.
      There’s probably a help group if you think you need counseling…

  3. John Guy Collick Avatar
    John Guy Collick

    I’ve taken the plunge and ordered the DVD from Amazon. If I survive the experience I’ll write a post about it shortly. In the meantime, here’s The Fast Show’s version :

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