Expressionism in filmmaking developed in Germany during the 1920s. During the period of recovery following World War I, the German film industry was booming, but because of the hard economic times filmmakers found it difficult to create movies that could compare with the lush, extravagant features coming from Hollywood. The filmmakers of the German UFA studio developed a method of compensating for the lack of high budgets, by using symbolism and mise-en-scène to insert mood and deeper meaning into a movie.

The first Expressionist films, notably The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919), The Golem (1920), and Nosferatu (1922) were highly symbolic and deliberately surrealistic portrayals of filmed stories. The dada movement was sweeping across the artistic world in the early 1920s, and the various European cultures of the time had 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 lavish budgets by using set designs with wildly non-realstic, geometrically absurd sets, 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 (as opposed to standard action-adventure and romantic films); the German name for this type of storytelling was called kammerspielfilm.

The extreme non-realism of Expressionism was a brief-lived fad, however, and it faded away (along with Dadaism) 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, and shadow to enhance the mood of a film. This dark, moody school of filmmaking was brought to America when the Nazis gained power and a number of German filmmakers emigrated to Hollywood. They found a number of American movie studios willing to embrace them, and several of the German directors and cameramen flourished, producing a repertoire of Hollywood films that had a profound effect on the medium of film as a whole.

Two genres that were especially influenced by Expressionism were the 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 The Phantom of the Opera. German emigrees 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 the benchmark for later generations of horror films. Meanwhile, such directors as Fritz Lang and Michael Curtiz introduced the Expressionist style to the crime dramas of the 1940s, influencing a further line of filmmakers and taking Expressionism through the years.

See also: German film history