The term expressionism has been abused by previous generations of film scholars to such a point that the word has become virtually meaningless. Expressionism in its most narrowly defined meaning has referred to a specific group of six or seven modernist art films produced in Weimar Germany between 1920 and 1924, while in its broadest sense it has been utilized as a catchall term to define any film or style in the history of cinema opposed to realism or attempting to convey strong emotions. Between these extremes, expressionism has connoted all of German cinema in the 1920s, and has been invoked in connection with American horror films produced by Universal Studios in the 1930s and American film noir in the 1940s. Most problematically, its usage has often failed to specify whether its referent is a film movement, an ideology, a film style, or a film design (strictly speaking, art direction). Both the legitimate and some of the less credible usages of the term and their origins are examined here.

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