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The Features of German Expressionism in Alfred Hitchcock’s Film Production

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Table of contents

  1. Elements Influenced by German Expressionism
  2. Editing and Camerawork
  3. Conclusion

History of cinema would not be comprehensive without the inclusion of Alfred Joseph Hitchcock; a director designated the name, Master of Suspense due to his significant filming career. Hitchcock worked with the German Expressionist in the production of films during the 20th century, thus inspiring his directing and producing job for the rest of his life. After spending time as an apprentice in the UFA, Germany’s national film studio that excelled during the silent era, Alfred Hitchcock’s film production depicted the influence of Expressionist movement Germany of the 1920s as indicated by the inclusion of expressionistic features such as high contrast, harsh lighting, sharp angles, and dramatic shadows in the movies. Hitchcock two films will depict features he borrowed from the Expressionists; The 39 Steps of 1935 and The Lady Vanishes of 1938.

The Lady Vanishes and The 39 Steps pioneered the director’s work into the film industry, and they carried elements used by the German Expressionists. In a summarized form, The Lady Vanishes is about a missing Lady, Ms. Froy in a train headed to England. The train delayed for a day due to an avalanche and travelers use this time to socialize. A young Lady, Iris befriends Ms. Froy, and when the train is about to depart, Iris is unable to see Ms. Froy. She then sought help from Gilbert, a musician, and they commence to try finding Ms. Froy on the other compartments. On the other hand, The 39 step is about middle-aged man, Richard Hannay who travels home from South Africa. On reaching London, he meets a spy who informs him about a war between Germany and Great Britain due to the planned attack by a dark group called The black Stone. Soon after, the spy is found dead at Hannay’s apartment. He flees away from the police and assassins. He follows the assassins to Scotland where he cooperates with police officers to foil The Black Stone’s plan and arrest them.

Elements Influenced by German Expressionism

Editing and Camerawork

German Expressionists used a unique camera and editing design to attract their audience. Their editing techniques were modest and utilized skills like crosscutting and reverse shots. Besides, their movies kept a slow pace, which was to enable the audience to experience the visual aspects. Moreover, the camera work was kept simple and functional. The sets were the center of the films. The camera movement was on a straight angle and at a level. The Lady Vanishes and The 39 Steps are seen to follow these camera techniques. Taking an example of The Lady Vanishes that gets underway with a slow panorama showing the fictional Bandrika nation and the region. This is also meant to set up the situation that the actors are to face.

The German Expressionist also applied the use of the design in their films. Besides, they used different and unique camera angles that conceptualized the audience from other elements in the scene and also to the importance of the situation, place, or character. The spy ideology in the 1930s was the talk, and the director was not left behind, his movies were almost all made of spies. For The Lady Vanishes, the spy was Ms. Froy while in The 39 Steps; the spy died in Hannay’s apartment.

Due to the avalanche, all the passengers stay at Ms’ Froy’s hotel room. Towards the doorway to balcony, where the camera frame is set, a simple Expressionists technique is in use, where the camera is seen to move to the balcony a process of zooming into the door frame. Just like the German Expressionists used subjective shots, The 39 Steps scene at the beginning of the film shows an example. A view where Robert Donat is in a locked room where the stabbed spy’s body lies shows the use of a subjective shot and zooming. The camera shows to the audience spies on the street, and this is what is in Donat’s vision. The audience looks at the spies from Donat’s concept. Another characteristic of the director which he typically applies in his films is the reverse shot, in The 39 Steps, the shot is at the dining table scene in the crofter’s chalet.


German Expressionist films were on dark topics in society. This was the time when Germany had experienced rough time in the World War; therefore, the issues revolved around betrayal, insanity, and paranoia. The films cast during such times were directed to relieve Germans form cases of war but still to remind them of the past through the movie. During those times, Hitchcock had already commenced his apprenticeship at UFA; thereby, he applied these aspects in his films, The lady Vanishes, and The 39 Steps. Example, The Lady Vanishes shows crystal strike on Britain’s Protectionist exotic plan under Chamberlain in the surface of risks to Europe.

The World War was full of such threats like abductions, and this depicts by the kidnapping of Ms. Froy. Ms. Froy later discloses to Gilbert and Iris that she is a British agent who must take the message e to the Whitewall. On the other hand, there exists a spy in The 39 Steps. The spy also contains critical information regarding the war between Great Britain and Germany. The spy is then killed in Hannay’s apartment and hits and commence. Some German Expressionists were involved in the war, and when they came out, they decided to portray their feelings through art, and this brought out war elements in their films that influenced Hitchcock.


The German Expressionism use of lightning in their movies can be seen to have influenced Hitchcock. Lightning techniques were applied to convey themes. For the villains in German Expressionists films, dark shadow casts were displayed on their faces to depict their evilness. This use of lighting is in Hitchcock’s films. He applied the use of lightning to demonstrate circumstances which left the audience in suspense. For instance, in The Lady Vanishes, Hitchcock used flashing darks and lights depending on the situation.

The lighting in the train becomes dark whenever something is to happen, and, suspension strikes the audience left guessing what is to happen. Another scene is when Iris meets Gilbert, her new boyfriend, and they dance while the light deems until they are on the light dancing alone. Lighting used in The 39 Steps is meant to set moods and location of the movie by depicting whether the scene is in Scotland, large mansion or forest. The lights used set tones for the audience.


In conclusion, as an apprenticeship at UFA, Alfred Joseph Hitchcock learned a lot of film skills which he applied for the rest of his filming career. The skills he acquired in lighting, camerawork, and plot helped him achieve the best in his films. Expressionists used light to depict different moods in their movies; Hitchcock also applied lighting aspect to nd situation. For the camera work, German Expressionists used slow movement with unexpected camera angles. This trait is also present in Hitchcock’s films, reverse shot at the dining scene in The 39 Steps. Therefore, Alfred Hitchcock’s film production depicted the influence of German Expressionist movement of the 1920s as indicated by the inclusion of expressionistic features such as high contrast, harsh lighting, sharp angles, and dramatic shadows in the movies, The 39 Steps (1935) and The Lady Vanishes (1938). 

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