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c. 1900

Expressionism arose in Europe in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries as a response to bourgeois complacency and the increasing mechanization and urbanization of society. At their most popular between 1910 and 1925, just before and just after World War I, expressionist writers distorted objective features of the sensory world using Symbolism and dream-like elements in their works illustrating alienating and often emotionally overwhelmed sensibilities. Painters such as Vincent van Gogh, Paul Gauguin, and Edvard Munch helped to lay the foundation for Expressionism in their use of distorted figures and vibrant color schemes to depict raw and powerfully emotional states of mind. Munch's The Scream (1894), for example, a lithograph depicting a figure with a contorted face screaming in horror, epitomized the tone of much expressionist art. In literature, German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche emphasized cultivating individual will-power and transcending conventional notions of reasoning and morality. His Thus Spake Zarathustra (1885), a philosophic prose poem about the "New Man," had a profound influence on expressionist thought. In France, symbolist poets such as Arthur Rimbaud and Charles Baudelaire wrote visionary poems exploring dark and ecstatic emotional landscapes.

In Germany in the twentieth century, poets such as Georg Trakl and Gottfried Benn practiced what became known as Expressionism by abandoning meter, narrative, and conventional syntax, instead organizing their poems around symbolic imagery. In fiction, Franz Kafka embodied expressionist themes and styles in stories such as The Metamorphosis (1915), which tells of a traveling salesman who wakes to find himself transformed into a giant insect. Expressionist dramatists include Georg Kaiser, Frank Wedekind, Ernst Toller, and August Strindberg, often referred to as the "Father of Expressionism." Some critics claim Strindberg's play To Damascus (1902) is the first true expressionist drama; others argue that it is Reinhard Johannes Sorge's The Beggar, performed in 1917; and still others claim it is Oskar Kokoschka's Murderer, the Women's Hope, written in 1907. The discrepancy underscores the question as to whether a coherent literary movement called Expressionism with a common set of features ever really existed or whether it is more an attitude towards art and society. In the early 1930s, the Nazi regime, which considered the movement decadent, banned its practitioners from publishing their work or producing their plays.


Federico García Lorca (1898-1936)

Federico García Lorca was born June 5, 1898, in the Andalusian region of Spain to a wealthy family of landowners. As a young man, he became involved in the art scene of the city of Granada, publishing his first book in 1918. In 1919, García Lorca moved to Madrid where he immersed himself in the theater and began writing plays; however, his avant-garde work was not appreciated by audiences. Although he continued to write plays, García Lorca next focused on poetry. His most famous collection of verse is Gypsy Ballads (1928), which made him a literary success. García Lorca was homosexual and had many relationships with other men, most of them ending badly, which contributed to the young man's depression. From 1930 to 1936, García Lorca was director of a student theater company that toured rural Spain and performed classic works with modern interpretations. During this time, he wrote his expressionistic play, Blood Wedding (1933). Civil war broke out in Spain in July of 1936; García Lorca was arrested and shot by the Nationalist militia on August 19, 1936, for unknown reasons. Critic Denis Mac-Shane, like others, suspects it was for his leftist politics and homosexuality. His body was dumped in an unmarked grave.

Franz Kafka (1883-1924)

Born on July 3, 1883, in Prague, Bohemia (later Czechoslovakia), Franz Kafka was an introverted, sickly, and shy boy who struggled to meet the expectations of a demanding father. After receiving a law degree in 1906, Kafka began writing in earnest, publishing his stories in the literary magazine of his good friend, Max Brod. Kafka died of tuberculosis on June 3, 1924, in Austria. Kafka had directed Brod to burn all of his manuscripts. Brod ignored Kafka's wish and, over the next few decades, edited and published all of the author's unfinished stories.

Like many of the expressionists, Kafka was influenced by Nietzsche and Strindberg. His writings, primarily novels and stories, depict an absurdist view of the world, which he describes in paradoxically lucid terms. In the use of symbols and types, his stories often resemble parables. Like Gregor Samsa, the protagonist of The Metamorphosis, Kafka's characters often find themselves in the midst of an incomprehensible world, consumed with guilt and alienated from those they love. The Trial, for example, a novel unfinished at the time of Kafka's death, concerns a bank clerk who is arrested but never told the charges. He futilely attempts to negotiate a Byzantine legal system to find the answer, but never does, and is finally killed "like a dog." In modern times, the term "Kafkaesque" is used as an adjective suggesting something possessing a complex, inscrutable, or bizarre quality.

Georg Kaiser (1878-1945)

Widely acknowledged as the leader of the expressionist movement in theater, Georg Kaiser was born November 25, 1878, in Magdeburg, Germany. Kaiser's father, an insurance agent, was frequently away on business, and his mother, who schooled her six children at home, raised Kaiser. Like many of the characters in his plays, Kaiser was a traveler, venturing to Argentina for a time and throughout Europe. As business did not temperamentally suit him, he had difficulty making a living. However, his family financed his travels until 1908, when he married the wealthy Margarethe Habenicht. In plays such as The Citizens of Calais (1917) and From Morn to Midnight (1917), Kaiser juxtaposed fantasy and reality, used rapidly shifting scenes, and gave his characters generic names to underscore their symbolic and universal significance. Kaiser's plays typically feature a questing protagonist who searches everywhere for meaning but finds none. These characters often commit suicide. Kaiser's famous trilogy of plays-Coral (1917), Gas I (1918), and Gas 2 (1920)-are as relevant in the early 2000s as they were in the 1920s in their indictment of mindless and mechanized labor and the selfishness of big business.

Kaiser's influence on the development of European drama cannot be overstated. Along with Strindberg and Toller, he changed the direction of twentieth-century drama by opening it to other dramatic possibilities. Critics consider Kaiser and Bertolt Brecht, who also used expressionist techniques, the two leading German playwrights of the twentieth century. Kaiser's plays were banned when the Nazis came to power in 1933. At the beginning of World War II, the writer fled to Switzerland, where he died of an embolism on June 4, 1945.

Eugene O'Neill (1888-1953)

Born in New York City on October 16, 1888, Eugene O'Neill spent the first years of his life traveling around the country with his family while his father performed. Family dysfunction became a staple theme of his plays and is a recurring theme of expressionist theater. O'Neill read Strindberg and Wedekind while recuperating from tuberculosis in 1912 and began writing plays incorporating expressionist techniques and style. Not only was O'Neill the first American to write expressionist plays, but he was the first American playwright to receive international acclaim for his work. Beyond the Horizon (1920), O'Neill's first full-length play, received the Pulitzer Prize, and in 1936 the literary community showed its approval by awarding O'Neill the Nobel Prize in Literature. He is the first American playwright to have won the award. Literary historians point to his 1920 play, The Emperor Jones as an example of American expressionist theater, as well as The Great God Brown (1926). In these plays, O'Neill uses ghosts, music, lighting, and stage sets to externalize the inner life of his characters. Other O'Neill plays include Desire under the Elms (1924), The Iceman Cometh (1939), and Long Day's Journey into Night (1939-1941). After a long illness, O'Neill died of pneumonia on November 27, 1953, in Boston, Massachusetts.

August Strindberg (1849-1912)

Often referred to by literary historians as the "Father of Expressionism," (Johan) August Strindberg was born January 22, 1849, in Stockholm, Sweden. His father, though well intentioned, was a strict disciplinarian whose expectations the writer labored under and rebelled against. Strindberg's lifelong difficulty with women both frustrated him and fueled his creative energies. Strindberg was opposed to the idea of a liberated woman, yet he was also attracted to women who refused to be limited to the role of mother and wife. This conflict contributed to three divorces and a string of failed romances. A novelist and essayist as well as a playwright, Strindberg had his first play produced when he was 21. However, for much of his life he struggled financially, working as a librarian, newsletter editor, tutor, and journalist. His controversial ideas often landed him in trouble, and in 1884 he was tried-yet acquitted-for blasphemy for stories he wrote that belittled women and criticized conventional religious practices. Toward the end of his life, Strindberg achieved critical as well as financial success, and his plays were performed throughout Europe. In 1912, he was awarded the "anti-Nobel Prize" in recognition for the way in which his writing challenged conventions and authority. He died in May of that year from stomach cancer.

Strindberg's early plays, written in a naturalistic vein, address historical matters using realistic dialogue as the primary means of communication. He developed his expressionist style, which he referred to as "dreamplay," in his later work. In plays such as The Road to Damascus (1898-1904), The Dream Play (1901), and The Ghost Sonata (1907), Strindberg uses "types" instead of fully developed characters and incorporates visual elements and music into the action to symbolize humanity's unconscious desires. In his dream sequences, Strindberg frequently represents humanity's misery and search for meaning and redemption.

Georg Trakl (1887-1914)

Georg Trakl was born February 3, 1887, in Salz-burg, Austria, into the middle-class Austrian family of an artistic but emotionally unstable mother. Trakl developed emotional problems as an adolescent. His reading of gloomy writers such as Dostoevsky, Nietzsche, Arthur Rimbaud, Verlaine, and Baudelaire only added to his despair, as did his liberal use of various opiates. Trakl wrote frequently but only began to publish regularly after he met Ludwig von Ficker, editor of the journal Der Brenner, who nurtured his talent and provided Trakl with a vehicle for his poetry. Trakl's emotional health deteriorated during World War I, when, as a dispensing chemist, he had to care for a large number of wounded men. Seeing the obscene wounds of soldiers and witnessing their unrelenting pain compounded Trakl's own misery, and he was hospitalized for depression. In Krakow, Poland, on November 3, 1914, Trakl overdosed on cocaine.

Trakl's poems use symbolic imagery and have a dream-like structure. He frequently strings images that on the surface appear unrelated, but on a deeper level are tonally coherent. In this way, his poems are close to musical compositions in their structure. Although they are frequently about decay, death, and despair, Trakl's poems such as "All Souls," "A Romance to Night," "Mankind," and "Trumpets" often embody a kind of spiritual longing, characteristic of much expressionist verse. American poet Robert Bly helped to renew interest in Trakl's poetry during the 1970s by translating his work and linking it with "deep image" poetry.

Frank Wedekind (1864-1918)

Born Benjamin Franklin Wedekind in Hanover, Germany, on July 24, 1864, Wedekind became one of the first playwrights in Germany to experiment with expressionist techniques. The son of a doctor and an actress, Wedekind studied law before dropping out of school to lead a bohemian life. Wedekind made his contempt of middle-class society evident in his plays, which attack hypocrisy and repressive sexual mores. In plays such as Pandora's Box (1904) and Spring's Awakening (1906), Wedekind graphically depicts themes of sexual repression in an effort to force audiences to change their behavior. He is perhaps best known for Lulu (1905), in which the protagonist, a femme fatale with a monstrous sexuality, is murdered by Jack the Ripper, a character based on the historical serial killer who terrorized London's streets at the end of the nineteenth century. Wedekind's didactic approach to theater includes using heavily stylized dialogue, bizarre characters and plots, and a loosely knit episodic structure to jar audiences out of their complacency. Bertolt Brecht praised his work and followed Wedekind's example in his own plays. Wedekind died of pneumonia in Munich, Germany, on March 9, 1918.


Blood Wedding

Blood Wedding premiered in 1933 and is the first in a trilogy of rural plays by García Lorca, which includes Yerma (1934) and The House of Bernarda Alba (1936). A Bride and Groom are preparing to be married even as their union stirs up old hurts and relationships. At the reception, the Bride rides off on horseback with an old lover. The Groom chases the two into the forest. When he finds them, the two men fight and kill each other, leaving the Bride alone and her white dress bloodied. García Lorca has also included hyper-realistic, expressionistic elements such as characters who personify the Moon and Death. Blood Wedding is one of García Lorca's best-known plays.

The Citizens of Calais

The Citizens of Calais catapulted Kaiser into the literary limelight virtually overnight in 1917. Opening just as World War I was coming to a close, the play spoke to the sense of sheer exhaustion felt by the German populace and carried the message of conciliation. For his plot, Kaiser drew on a famous incident that allegedly occurred


  • The 2000 film Pollock, starring Ed Harris, is a portrait of artist Jackson Pollock, a leader of the abstract expressionist painters popular during the 1940s and 1950s. The film is based on the biography Jackson Pollock: An American Saga by Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith.
  • Mai Zetterling's 1981 documentary Stockholm presents a portrait of the Swedish city, its people, and their leaders. The film also includes a historical introduction to the works of Strindberg.
  • Actor Paul Robeson starred in the 1933 adaptation of Eugene O'Neill's play The Emperor Jones.
  • The Norwegian Film Institute distributed director Unni Straume's film, Dreamplay,an adaptation of Strindberg's play of the same name.

in 1347 during the Hundred Years' War between England and France. Faced with the destruction of Calais, Eustache, a wealthy merchant, sacrifices himself by committing suicide in an attempt to convince others of the significance of free will and the need for courage. The play is important to expressionist thought for its depiction of the "Neuer Mensch" (New Man), a modern human being who salvages meaning from the world through taking responsibility for his actions and setting an example for others. Many of Kaiser's plays include a Christ-like protagonist who fits this "New Man" profile, and who would lead society into a new age of brotherhood through example.

A Dream Play

Strindberg's 1901 A Dream Play foreshadows many expressionist techniques and themes in its presentation of the unconscious. The plot concerns the daughter of an Indian god who adopts human form and discovers, through encounters with symbolic characters, the meaninglessness of human existence. With the obvious exception that the protagonist is female, the action parallels the story of Christ's life. The play itself—presented in sixteen scenes that flash backward and forward in time—takes the form of a dream with symbols such as a growing castle, a chrysanthemum, and a shawl signifying aspects of the dreamer's life such as the imprisoned or struggling soul and the accumulation of human pain. The characters are also symbolic. Victoria, for example, represents the ideal, yet unattainable, woman. The play has become a staple of European theater and continued to be performed into the early 2000s.

The Emperor Jones

Eugene O'Neill wrote and staged The Emperor Jones in 1920. It was the first American play to use expressionist techniques and the most successful of O'Neill's early work. By using lights, sound, and sets, as well as actors' gestures, symbolically, O'Neill shows the audience his protagonist's psyche. As Brutus Jones, a black American who is tricked into becoming emperor of an island in the West Indies, runs through the jungle chased by rebellious natives, he has a series of encounters that symbolize not only events from his personal history but from his racial heritage as well. In this way, Jones is more a type representing all black men than a unique individual. The play ran for 204 performances and gave the playwright confidence to continue experimenting with expressionist techniques. Such experiments include the use of masks in The Great God Brown, with spoken thoughts in Strange Interlude (1928) and Dynamo (1929), and with a chorus in Lazarus Laughed (1928).

The Metamorphosis

Kafka's 1915 Metamorphosis is arguably the best known of his stories and novels and the most anthologized. The plot revolves around Gregor Samsa, a salesman who wakes up to discover he has turned into a giant insect. Samsa is locked in his room and ignored by his family until he dies. Critics point to Kafka's heavy-handed use of symbolism in the story, a primary feature of Expressionism, and some read Samsa's transformation as representative of Kafka's own feeling of inadequacy in relation to his overbearing father. Stylistically and thematically, the story speaks to the experience of many expressionist artists and writers, who sought to find ways to express their sense of alienation from society and family and their quest to find meaning in a meaningless world.


Poems, published in 1913, is the only volume Trakl published during his life. In the introduction to Autumn Sonata: Selected Poems of Georg Trakl, Carolyn Forche calls Trakl "the first poet of German Expressionism," and notes that Trakl, like fellow expressionists Karl Kraus, Oskar Kokoschka, and Egon Schiele, was intensely alienated from the order of German industrial society. Trakl's poems embody this alienation: they are fragments, nightmarish images of a world choked with chaos, and of a tenuous and battered self attempting to function in that world. The logic connecting the images is associative, rather than linear. These lines are from A Romance to Night:

    The murderer laughs until he grows pale in the wine,
    Horror of death consumes the afflicted.
    Naked and wounded, a nun prays
    Before the Savior's agony on the cross.

Critics debate Trakl's status as a Christian poet, but they came to pay more attention to his work than any other German expressionist poet. Studies such as Francis Michael Sharp's The Poet's Madness: A Reading of Georg Trakl (1981), Richard Detsch's Georg Trakl's Poetry: Toward a Union of Opposites (1983), and a number of subsequent translations of his poems attest to his growing influence on contemporary poetry and his importance to understanding Expressionism poetry.

Right You Are (If You Think You Are)

Pirandello's play Right You Are (If You Think You Are) was published in 1917 and is a short, expressionistic play about a family—a husband, wife, and the son's mother-in-law—that moves to a new town after their town is destroyed by an earthquake. The wife never leaves the house, which the husband and the mother-in-law explain with very different reasons. She says her daughter is distraught because her husband thinks she is someone else. The husband says the mother-inlaw is deluded and will not accept that her daughter is dead and he has remarried. Because the earthquake destroyed all evidence, there is no way to determine the truth. In this drama, Pirandello comments on the elusive nature of truth and the relationships within a family.

Spring's Awakening

Wedekind's Spring's Awakening, published in 1891 but not performed until 1906, explores the theme of adolescent sexuality in a distinctly modern and expressionistic manner. In nineteen episodic scenes, Wedekind presents the stories of a few teenagers as they struggle through sexual maturity because of the ignorance of their teachers and parents who themselves are sexually repressed. Wedekind's Expressionism is evident in his use of heavily stylized dialogue, which mixes lyrical and cutting irony with prosaic speech to create a seriocomic tone. He also has a character return from the dead, something that could not happen in naturalistic theater. A satirical indictment of the hypocrisy and prudery of middle-class German society, Wedekind's play was heavily censored, though it was also one of the playwright's most successful works.



The defining event of the expressionist movement is World War I. After the war, much expressionist


  • After studying the expressionist paintings of Vincent van Gogh, Paul Gauguin, Edvard Munch, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Paul Klee, and Wassily Kandinsky, compose a poster in the expressionist style for Strindberg's A Dreamplay or O'Neill's The Emperor Jones. Present the poster to your class and describe its expressionist features.
  • With at least three other classmates, brainstorm a list of images for the following emotions and ideas: fear of death, journey of the soul, betrayal of a friend, unrequited love, rebelling against authority. What differences do you notice between your images and those of your classmates? Write a short essay accounting for these differences.
  • Research German expressionist director Fritz Lang's movies M and Metropolis, and present your research to the class. Then show one of the movies and hold a discussion of whether or not Expressionism is successful as an approach for film.
  • Edvard Munch's lithograph The Scream is often cited as being one of the earliest and most representative of expressionist paintings. It is also one of the most heavily marketed images of the twentieth century. Write a short essay explaining why this is so.
  • Read Citizens of Calais by Georg Kaiser, poems from Georg Trakl's collection Poems, and Kafka's story The Hunger Artist,and then compose a list of what is similar about all of these works.

writing portrayed the attempt to forge a new future for Germany. Writing from this time champions the birth of the "New Man," the "new vision," and the "new society." Toller's play The Transformation typifies one strain of early post-war expressionist drama, as it shows how one man's spiritual renewal is linked to his country's regeneration. Written as a stationendrama, The Transformation follows the central character's spiritual progress through a series of episodes, connected only through the character's experience. The protagonist, Friedrich, a young Jewish sculptor, transforms himself from an alienated and wandering artist into a friend of the proletariat who finally finds a cause to believe in and die for. At the end of the play, Friedrich implores the masses to create a society based upon compassion and justice, and to throw off the yoke of capitalist oppression.

Human Condition

Expressionist literature is defined by protagonists and speakers who passionately seek meaning in their lives. They often discover that the life they have been living is a sham, and through a sign or circumstance, or dint of sheer will, attempt to change their lot. Kaiser's dramas, for example, feature protagonists who struggle to make difficult choices in recapturing a sense of authenticity. His play The Burghers of Calais, for example, details the action of a central character that kills himself so that fellow townspeople might survive. Another Kaiser play, From Morn till Midnight (1917), also concerns a protagonist who seeks regeneration through martyrdom. In much expressionist literature, it is the journey, rather than the goal, which is most important.


Part of the expressionist drive to represent truth involved tackling what expressionists saw as the hypocrisy of society's attitude towards sex and sexuality. Strindberg, Reinhard, and especially Wedekind all explicitly addressed the ways in which society sapped humanity's life force by either ignoring or repressing the sexual drive. More than any other expressionist, Wedekind, who derived many of his ideas from Strindberg and Nietzsche, attacked bourgeois morality in his dramas. In Spring's Awakening, he represents institutions such as the German school system as agents of deceit and mindless evil in their attempts to keep students ignorant of their own sexuality. His "Lulu" plays glorify sexuality, as his main character asserts her desire to live passionately. Perhaps no other expressionist writer embraces Nietzsche's call for humanity to embrace life and energy in all of its animalism.


Before World War I, the alienation portrayed in expressionist literature was often related to the family and society in more general, some might say adolescent, ways. After the war, alienation was more directly related to the state. For example, Kafka's protagonists, such as Gregor Samsa, are ostracized by their families because they do not conform to familial expectations. Most expressionist writers came from middle-class families who embodied the very hypocrisy they sought to expose in their writing. Later dramatists such as Kaiser and Toller wrote about the alienation experienced by workers. Kaiser's Gas trilogy graphically depicts the injustice of Wilhelmian capitalism towards the working class, underscoring the inherent corruptness of a system in which owners are pitted against employees, who have no claim to the things they produce. Director Fritz Lang adapted the trilogy into his popular 1927 film, Metropolis, underscoring the inhumanity of a society that lets technology grow unchecked.



For expressionists, abstraction is the distillation of reality into its essence. Expressionists are not interested in presenting the world as human beings might see it or apprehend it through any of the senses, but rather as they emotionally and psychologically experience it. In drama, abstraction means that a play is conceptual rather than concrete, and it means that plots and characters are frequently symbolic and allegorical. For instance, a character might simply be called "Father," as in Strindberg's play The Father, or "Cashier," rather than, say, Mrs. Jones, as in a realistic play. The idea is to show the universality of human experience rather than its particularity. In poetry, writers such as Trakl attempt to represent the psychological depth and texture of the human experience through a series of fragmented and disjointed symbolic images, rather than relying on narrative or a speaker with a coherent identity.


Monologues are speeches by a single person, and they are especially prevalent in expressionist theater. Partly, this is due to the didactic nature of much expressionist theater, and partly it is because Expressionism often champions the individual and his vision of the world. When characters speak to themselves, which they often do in expressionist plays, the monologues are called soliloquies. Strindberg, Kaiser, and Toller all made extensive use of monologues and soliloquies in their plays.


Many expressionists had the idea that art could not be separated into categories such as plays, poetry, or fiction. Instead, they experimented with mixing genres. Plays often contained dance, music, and sets that resembled art galleries, and characters would periodically launch into verse. Expressionists such as Wassily Kandinsky, a painter, poet, and dramatist, practiced this form of "total art" in productions such as The Yellow Sound, in which he uses color, music, and characters with names such as "Five Giants," "Indistinct Creatures," and "People in Tights" to abstractly represent the human condition.


Abstract Expressionism

With its roots in the expressionist movement of the early part of the century, abstract expressionism, also known as the "New York school," was developed in New York City and Eastern Long Island in the mid-1940s. Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Robert Motherwell, Philip Guston, and others focused on the materiality of painting, often using oversized canvases, incorporating accidents that occurred during composition into the painting, and experimenting with color and space to express the painter's vision. One of the most controversial of the group, Pollock, would lay down huge canvasses, and then drip, throw, and splash paint on it, often using sticks and trowels instead of brushes. The resulting "painting," sometimes a mixture of paint, sand, and glass, embodied the artist's own turbulent creative processes. Because abstract expressionist art was nonrepresentational and because the subject of many of the compositions was the making of the work itself, a large part of the public did not take it seriously at first. However, critics such as Harold Rosenberg and Clement Greenberg, who coined the term "Action Painting," worked hard to popularize it. Robert Coates was the first to use the term "abstract expressionism," in the New Yorker in 1936.


Expressionist techniques were used extensively in film in the 1920s, as German directors such as F. W. Murnau, G. W. Pabst, and Robert Wiene adapted techniques from art and theater for the wide screen. The first truly expressionist film is Wiene's The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919), which used exaggerated camera angles, painted scenery, and the lighting of individual actors to create a nightmarish atmosphere. Film historians also consider The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari to be the first horror film. In the 1940s, directors such as Billy Wilder, Michael Curtiz, and Otto Preminger used the bizarre perspectives and lighting techniques of expressionist film to create what some critics claim is a distinctly American style: film noir. Films such as Wilder's Double Indemnity (1944) and Fritz Lang's The Big Heat (1953) feature cynical, disillusioned male protagonists stuck battling an existential crisis while searching for the answer to some inscrutable or ill-defined problem, usually concerning a dangerously sexy woman. Many of the noir screenplays from the 1940s are derived from the hard-boiled detective novels of writers such as James M. Cain, Raymond Chandler, and Dashiell Hammett. Film noir is filmed in black-and-white and characterized by gritty urban settings, witty banter, flashbacks, and voice-overs. They do not end happily.

Early Twentieth-Century Painting

Expressionist painting, like literary Expressionism, sought to depict emotional and psychological intensity and, like its literary cousin, formed a response to Realism. One group of expression-ists was the Fauves (i.e., wild beasts), represented best by Frenchmen Henri Matisse and Georges Rouault. Like many expressionists, these two were inspired by the painterly innovations of van Gogh and Gauguin, particularly their liberal use of bold colors and distorted shapes to signify raw emotion. Matisse arranged line and color to express the essence of subjects, and is known more for what he leaves out of his paintings than what he puts in. Rouault used violent brush strokes in his portraits of noble figures like Christ to reveal his own inner passion. In Dresden, Germany, a group of artists calling themselves "The Bridge" (Die Brücke) practiced a darker style of Expressionism. They drew inspiration from van Gogh and Gauguin as well, but also from Munch, the Norwegian painter famous for his 1894 lithograph, The Scream. Painters including Ludwig Kirchner, Emil Nolde, and Kokoschka put brush to canvas to explore a passionate, yet often angst-ridden view of the world and themselves. They often painted street scenes of Berlin, emphasizing the hostile, alienating quality of modern urban life. In Munich, "The Blue Rider" (Der Blaue Reiter), a group of artists headed by the Russian, Kandinsky, practiced an even more abstract style of Expressionism. Kandinsky and fellow "rider" Franz Marc abandoned all pretenses toward objectivity, composing pictures purely of line and color, with no resemblance to the physical world. Marc's color symbolism and Kandinsky's geometric abstraction were attempts to embody the spiritual dimension of humanity, itself an unseen entity.


Pre-World War I Germany

Expressionism blossomed in Germany in the early part of the twentieth century during the reign of William II. Germany was a relatively prosperous country under Wilhelm, with an established middle class, and it is the very complacency of this middle class, its order, efficiency, and obsession with social conventions, against which many writers and artists rebelled. In particular, expressionists saw hypocrisy in German society's repressive and repressed attitudes towards sex and the simultaneous popularity of prostitution. In Literary Life in German Expressionism and the Berlin Circles, literary historian Roy Allen notes, "The flourishing of prostitution in the Wilhelminian era, as the expressionist viewed it, most sharply gave the lie to the effectiveness of the Wilhelminian approach to morality, particularly to sexual conduct." Wedekind's plays underscore this hypocrisy. In Spring's Awakening, for example, he singles out German schools for their part in keeping children ignorant about their own bodies and sexuality. Sigmund Freud's theories on infantile sexuality and the unconscious during this time had a profound effect on expressionist thinking. In 1900, Freud published The Interpretation of Dreams, followed in 1901 by The Psychopathology of Everyday Life, and in


  • 1910-1920: Largely as a result of the introduction of new weapons such as tanks, poison gas, and airplanes, more than ten million people die in World War I, creating an atmosphere of pervasive disillusionment and despair.

    Today: Technological advances make it easier for countries and individuals to develop nuclear and biological weapons, increasing the potential for worldwide catastrophe.

  • 1910-1920: In Russia, the Bolsheviks, led by Vladimir Lenin, seize power and proclaim Russia a Soviet Federated Socialist Republic.

    Today: Having largely abandoned communism, Russia makes steps towards a full-fledged democracy and market economy.

  • 1910-1920: Expressionist literature, drama, and art dominate the avant-garde in Europe, shocking audiences and viewers in its departure from Realism.

    Today: The capacity of art and literature to shock is largely gone, and no one movement or approach dominates. Instead of shock, readers and viewers often feel boredom in response to artists' and writers' experimentations.

1905 by Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality. For expressionists, the sexual instinct provided humanity with its drive and creative force. A society that stifles that drive by either ignoring it or demonizing it, produces citizens who could never wholly be themselves.

However, most expressionists during this time were not political activists, at least not in any substantial way. Instead of taking to the streets, as revolutionaries were doing in Russia, they met in coffee houses and cafes in Berlin and Munich and published their work in journals they often started themselves, after established presses rejected their writing. Herwarth Walden of Der Sturm and Franz Pfemfert of Die Aktion were two editors who left big publishing houses to start their own magazines dedicated to expressionist writings. Allen characterizes those who were part of the cafe circle of writers and artists as a historical type: "In many respects, the expression-ists in these circles exhibit features commonly associated with the bohemian artist as he has appeared in societies dominated by the middle class in the last approximate century and a half."

War Years and After

For many Germans, the start of World War I was a surprise. Some were quickly politicized and voiced their opposition to the war, some fled to Switzerland, and others joined the military and died in battle. Many journals ceased publishing altogether, as military authorities began censoring them for antiwar sentiment. The publication of new journals was banned, without the permission of military authorities. Antiwar or anti-establishment plays were also routinely banned, but at least one director and theater manager, Max Reinhardt, circumvented public censorship by producing "invitation only" plays. After the war, while Germans struggled for direction and purpose, many expressionists joined the Communist Party and fought for the Revolution. They poured back into the cafes, with a new sense of urgency, their art now wedded to a political ideal. Kaiser, Toller, and Carl Sternheim produced plays espousing pacifism and universal brotherhood, while various political factions fought for control of the government. Toller's play The Transformation, produced in 1919, captures the spirit of postwar enthusiasm for new beginnings, as does A Man's Struggles, written while Toller was imprisoned during the last two years of the war. The former features Friedrich, an example of expressionist drama's "New Man"—a Christlike figure with none of the baggage of being God—who undergoes a series of nightmarish trials and tribulations only to overcome them in the end and lead the masses into a new and glorious future.


Critics and literary historians do not agree on what constitutes literary Expressionism, or even if it was a movement. For example, in his book Expressionism, R. S. Furness acknowledges the attempts others have made to trace the origin of the movement back to the eighteenth century's Sturm and Drang but claims, "It can also be argued that Expressionism is simply the name given to that form which modernism took in Germany." Roy Allen calls the problem faced by literary historians in trying to define literary Expressionism a "bugbear." Other critics and literary historians are more confident in their assessment. Ernst Toller, who is considered one of the leading postwar expressionist playwrights, writes of the movement, as embodied in drama: "Expressionism wanted to be a product of the time and react to it. And that much it certainly succeeded in doing." Mark Ritter points out, in "The Unfinished Legacy of Early Expressionist Poetry," that early literary Expressionism is particularly difficult to pin down and agrees with Allen that perhaps, "One does much better to conceive of early Expressionism as a number of loosely connected circles, primarily in Berlin." In German Expressionist Drama, literary historian Renate Benson argues that Expressionism originally emerged in the fine arts, initiated by the Paris exhibition of Fauvist painters and that literary Expressionism followed. Benson laments the fact that the Nazis banned expressionist drama when Hitler came to power: "It is a tragic irony . . . that young German audiences after 1945 only became acquainted with Expressionism through the works of foreign writers . . . who themselves had been so powerfully influenced by German Expressionists." John Walker extends Expressionism's reach to include the American detective novelist Dashiell Hammett, arguing that his noir, expressionistic novels were influenced by the urban expressionism of Bertolt Brecht's Jungle of Cities.


Chris Semansky

Semansky holds a Ph.D. in English from the State University of New York at Stony Brook, and he is an instructor of literature and writing whose essays, poems, stories, and reviews appear in publications such as College English, Mississippi Review, New York Tribune, The Oregonian, and American Letters & Commentary. His books include Death, But at a Good Price (1991) and Blindsided (1998). In this essay, Semansky explores the idea of Expressionism as a literary movement.

Critics struggle over whether or not there ever was a coherent expressionist movement, or if it is merely a label of convenience for literary historians seeking to characterize a wide range of writing practices in Western Europe in the early twentieth century. What can be said is that Expressionism was both part of a larger set of practices and attitudes that come under the umbrella of Modernism, and that it was a response to realistic modes of representation.

Modernism, as it applies to literature, is a term broadly used to denote certain features of form, style, and subject matter in writing in the early decades of the twentieth century. Thinkers influential to modernist literature include Friedrich Nietzsche, Sigmund Freud, Albert Einstein, and Karl Marx, all of who challenged status quo ideas about the nature of humanity, morality, society, and writing itself. World War I furthered the adoption of Modernism, as writers such as James Joyce, Ezra Pound, Virginia Woolf, and T. S. Eliot experimented with stream of consciousness, fragmentation, and other nonlinear modes of narration to represent a world whose foundations had been shaken to its roots.


  • Siegfried Kracauer's study of early German film (1910-1940), From Caligari to Hitler, provides insight into Expressionism's influence on German cinema.
  • Giles MacDonogh's 2001 biography, The Last Kaiser: The Life of Wilhelm II, tackles three important issues in the ruler's life: his personality, his relationship with his parents, and his role in the outbreak of World War I. Wilhelm II ruled Germany during the peak of Expressionism.
  • Bernard S. Myers's book The German Expressionists: A Generation in Revolt (1957) surveys expressionist painters and painting in the 1920s and 1930s.
  • Roy Pascal's study From Naturalism to Expressionism: German Literature and Society, published in 1973, traces the roots of Expressionism to the late nineteenth century, examining its relationship to Naturalism and Realism.
  • In 1986, Christopher Waller published Expressionist Poetry and Its Critics, a study of how writers such as Rainer Maria Rilke, Thomas Mann, and Robert Musil would critically approach representative expressionist poets.
  • Ulrich Weisstein's essay "German Literary Expressionism: An Anatomy," in the May 1981 issue of German Quarterly, explores how difficult it is to find common features for works that are often lumped under the category "German Literary Expressionism."

Expressionism undoubtedly was a part of Modernism, but was it a movement?

In his study of Expressionism in Berlin, Roy Allen defines the idea of a "literary movement" as "the concerted activities of an organized group or group of individuals work[ing] or tend[ing] towards some goal in behalf


of . . . literature." Allen historicizes Expressionism by focusing on those writers who regularly met in cafes in Berlin and published one another's work. However helpful this definition might be for the historian interested in the details of small communities of writers with plans to change the order of things, it is of little use to the student trying to grasp the larger context from which Expressionism springs. Understanding the mind of the writer, as well as stylistic features and themes of what is commonly referred to as Expressionism, provides a more helpful introduction to the phenomenon.

Most critics, historians, and literature handbooks note Expressionism's response to Realism as a mode of representation. In literature, Realism refers to a historical period and a particular approach to writing. As practiced by novelists in the nineteenth century, Realism referred to descriptive writing that was plausible and that represented the ordinary in familiar ways. It attempted to reproduce the world as it was seen. Readers could believe what they read because their own experience confirmed that such stories could, in fact, happen. Instead of some far-flung romantic plot about exotic people in distant places, the realist writer focused on the everyday, describing the mundane and the local. Realists used language as a mirror held up to the world, and were interested in portraying the "thingness" of life. The more "realist" the description, the more it matched the experience of the reader. Wilhelm Raabe, for example, a German Realist writer, described the everyday life of Berliners in his 1857 novel.

Expressionists responded to Realistic writing and art not only because it embodied what for them was a life-denying way of being in the world, but because they believed that the Realists, in attempting to portray truth, in fact were perverting it. The society that Realists portrayed in all of its middle-class frumpiness and injustices was the same one that expressionists believed was sapping their very lifeblood. Austrian author Hermann Bahr sums up the expressionist attitude best in his 1916 study, Expressionismus: "Man screams from the depths of his soul, the whole age becomes one single, piercing shriek. Art screams too, into the deep darkness, screams for help, for the spirit. That is expressionism." The scream, then, a response to the sudden recognition that the self is at root alone and without intrinsic meaning, is the defining image of Expressionism. In this way, expressionist writers anticipated the Existentialists who came to dominate the literary establishment after World War II.

By its nature, a scream distorts the face, denaturalizes it. A quick look at Munch's 1894 lithograph by the same name will attest to this. This is what the expressionists desired—to show the horror of everyday life, not its ordinariness. Poets such as Georg Heym and Jakob van Hoddis displayed this horror in their apocalyptic visions. The latter's poem, End of the World provides one early example of expressionist verse:

    The bourgeois' hat flies off his pointed head,
    the air reechoes with a screaming sound.
    Tilers plunge from roofs and hit the ground,
    and seas are rising round the coast (you read).
    The storm is here, crushed dams no longer hold,
    the savage seas come inland with a hop.
    The greater part of a people have a cold.
    Off bridges everywhere the railroads drop.

Juxtaposing mundane statements such as "The greater part of people have a cold" with sensational images of trains dropping from bridges is a feature of much expressionist poetry, as is associative logic in general, but these features do not cut across all expressionist verse. Another side of literary Expressionism is its revolutionary strivings. Apart from all the doom and gloom, many writers, especially after World War I, worked for social change. Expressionist chronicler Walter H. Sokel points out the difficulty of this endeavor in his study The Writer in Extremis: "German Expressionism sought to be two things in one: a revolution of poetic form and vision, and a reformation of human life. These two aims were hardly compatible." Sokel notes that by eschewing Realism as the stylistic base of their idealism, expressionist writers were not able to wed their desires for social change with their penchant for artistic experimentation. In other words, by limiting the accessibility of their work to the initiated and the educated, they also limited their potential influence. Some, like Franz Werfel, a Czech, and Hanns Johst adapted. Sokel writes of this group:

What all of them gained was success in personal terms, a mass audience, the triumph of personal integration and power in the world. What they lost was success in aesthetic terms— the permanence and long-range effectiveness of their works.

In an essay for Victor Miesel's Voices of German Expressionism, Gottfried Benn, a leading expressionist writer, goes as far as to call Expressionism "a new form of historical existence" that was European at root, not German. Benn notes that between the years 1910-25 in Europe, "There was hardly another style except an anti-naturalistic style." Ulrich Weisstein, in exploring whether Expressionism is a style or a view of the world, points out that the word "Expressionism" was first used by French painter Julien-Auguste Hervé in 1901 to distinguish the work of Matisse and other painters from their impressionist predecessors, but did not find general acceptance until 1911 when art critics began to use it more liberally to describe Fauvist paintings. It was not until 1915 or so that the term was even used in reference to literature. Underscoring Expressionism's broader philosophical claims, Weisstein writes:

Luckily . . . [Expressionism's] socio-political aspect can be subsumed under the term Activism. If, excluding this aspect, one defines the term broadly enough to include man's attitude toward himself, his fellow beings and the world at large, one can defend the use of Weltanschauung [i.e., worldview] in the sense of a sharp rejection of previously embraced views on the part of an entire generation.

Considered in this light, Expressionism could be seen as a generational conflict born out of younger artists' disgust with the inadequacies—aesthetic, political, and social—of the previous generation. Combined with the desire not to reproduce the world, but to capture its essence in all of its chaos and rage, the expressionist literary movement was not limited to Germany. Rather, it spread across Europe and the United States, where writers held similar attitudes and were engaged in like literary enterprises. This is more true for poetry and fiction, less so for drama.

Source: Chris Semansky, Critical Essay on Expressionism, in Literary Movements for Students, The Gale Group, 2003.

John Walker

In this essay, Walker argues that jungle like cityscapes, which objectify the humanity of characters placed in such settings, resonate with and draw from expressionist literature. The author compares expressionism and noir fiction.

The subject of expressionism, that tortured mutilation of congealed panic and anxiety, emanates its strongest contours when cast against the background of the modern urban landscape. The noisy and unpredictable machinery of the metropolis confronts the subject as an alien force that continuously threatens any vestige of individual autonomy. The harsh juxtaposition of wounded subjectivity with the chaos of commerce, the cacophony of technologies, and the utterly inhuman industrial backgrounds exhibits the dissolution of social community into scattered and disconnected fragments. In the midst of the most developed concentration of the


forces of technological achievement and civilized social organization, the isolated and alienated character of the modern subject comes most prominently to the surface.

The urban zone of expressionism is a monolithic entity that antagonizes and annihilates the isolated energies of the subject. Walter Benjamin refers to "the impenetrable obscurity of mass existence" (Baudelaire 64) in which the individual is dissolved into the mob. The city itself figures as the anthropomorphic subject of many modernist endeavors, from Fritz Lang's Metropolis to Alexander Döblin's quasi-expressionist Berlin Alexanderplatz, which depicts a protagonist entirely constructed from the assembled rhythms, ideologies, and fragments of information imposed on subjectivity by the monolith metropolis. In the cityscapes of George Grosz and Otto Dix, the geography of the city resembles the infernal regions of Hieronymous Bosch, where each individual is consigned to a particular torment and compelled to replicate mechanically a specific and pointless task in utter isolation from the swarming multitudes on all sides.

Modern literatures unite the paradoxical vision of the urban landscape as technological anti-utopia with the metaphor of the primeval jungle. Metropolitan technologies contribute to an atmosphere of noise, light, and sudden violence whose obscure origins and unpredictable concatenations conjure visions of jungle environments. The arbitrary violence and apparent lawlessness of city life create an atmosphere of anarchy that recalls social configurations of tribal warfare. Economic imperatives that set individuals in hostile competition replicate primeval conditions where survival is based on a straggle against all others.

The conflation of city and jungle corresponds to a similar conflation of machine and animal. The total mechanization of activity and the subsequent death of inner life experienced by the subject of modern labor is represented by analogies to inanimate mechanical processes or to the unreflective instinctual violence of the savage beast. The absence of civilized responses of sympathy and social conscience, made obsolete by market imperatives of total competition, engender a sense of identity with the amoral extravagances of the animal kingdom.

American gangster and detective literatures fully incorporate the urban mythos of expressionism; the noir genre is based on the exploration of the underside and the unconscious of the city and its geography. Noir film and the detective story of the 1920s and 30s do not merely adopt the landscape of the expressionist scene, but further assimilate and develop expressionist atmospheres, techniques, and theoretical orientations. These genres intersect most prominently in films like Fritz Lang's M and the works of German emigrant Otto Preminger. The expressionist resonances in Dashiell Hammett's work are so pronounced that direct citations from the movement can be clearly identified.

The urban jungle mythos that serves as the background for expressionism and noir is elaborated in Bertolt Brecht's Jungle of Cities, composed in 1924. Brecht constructs a gigantic Chicago of mythic proportions, a metaphysical projection of Chicago in its distorted and trans-figured essence in which the audience is instructed to concentrate on the expressionist agon: "concern yourself with the human element, evaluate the antagonists' fighting spirit impartially and concentrate your interest on the showdown."

While Brecht was careful to distance himself theoretically from expressionism, the aesthetic resonances of the movement abound in his work. Jungle of Cities dramatizes a vast retinue of expressionist styles and techniques: Hyper-bole, distortion, caricature, and mechanization all modulate characteristic expressionist themes of domestic conflict and a revolt against reification and economic determination.

Brecht utilizes the telegraphic fragments of speech and compacted phrases of expressionist dialogue. His protagonist, in the midst of conflict and apropos of nothing, suddenly gazes idly out the window and intones, "Ninety-four degrees in the shade. Traffic, noise from the Milwaukee bridge. A morning, like any other." The Salvation Army Officer recites an inventory of commodities as if a section from a menu had been cut out and pasted into the dialogue: "Cherry Flip, Cherry Brandy, Gin Fizz, Whiskey Sour, Golden Slipper, Manhattan Cocktail . . . and, the specialty of this bar: Eggnog. This alone consists of the following . . . " These montaged fragments of discourse are mixed with blunt colloquialisms punctuated by extended lyrical monologues.

Brecht's arrangements of scenes recall the stationendrama model of expressionist theater. Certain scenes are arranged as a series of vignettes from isolated stage areas where self-sufficient minidramas or parables are enacted. Scene 5 alternates between the separate dramas going on in a bedroom, a hallway, and a saloon. These seemingly arbitrary arrangements undermine conventional aesthetic models of harmonious transition and organic totality, and instead exhibit an organizational principle based on mechanization and dissonance.

The pronounced mechanization of character and discourse is exemplified by the sudden appearance and staccato monologue of The Man in scene 8:

I've got three minutes to give you some information, and you've got two minutes to act on it. This is it: half an hour ago, Police Headquarters received a letter from one of the state prisons. It is signed by a certain George Garga, and he incriminates you on several counts. The patrol wagon will be here in five minutes. You owe me a thousand bucks.

He is paid and immediately disappears in the manner of an automaton. He comes from nowhere and vanishes into nowhere. His totally disinterested attitude, his prefabricated speech and its precise price tag testify to the administrative zeal and bureaucratic efficiency that not only dictate business affairs and legal relations but thoroughly permeate the consciousness and experience of the economic subject in the modern urban environment.

This expressionist trademark of objectification of character by function can be seen in the list of cast members, which includes The Worm, The Baboon, and The Snubnose. These characters are the magnified perversion of their economic functions; the mutilations imposed on the personality are externalized and projected in the form of caricature.

Expressionist distortions of nature or the urban landscape are precipitated by the projection of wounded subjectivity onto the external world. The assault of urban conditions on the senses of the individual is often characterized by the experience of claustrophobia. Hence Marie complains of the intrusive pressure of the sky against her body. On the shores of Lake Michigan, the only scene outside of the city in the drama, she fails to experience a sense of comfort from the pastoral scene, and instead observes, "Those trees—they look as if they were covered with human shit. . . . And the sky's so close you could touch it, and what do I care for it." Her projected anxiety transforms her environment into a sinister and oppressive monstrosity.

The antagonist Shlink embodies the fully dehumanized being. From poor migrant beginnings, he rose to the position of owner of a timber industry, and the economic exploitations entailed in that rise have reduced him to an empty and dehumanized replicant. He explains, "don't expect any words out of my mouth. All I have in my mouth is teeth." His lack of words testifies to the absence of any modicum of humanity capable of expression; there is nothing left of him but material. Shlink's understanding of his condition is based on a corporealization of interiority: He projects his inner state onto his skin and thereby recognizes it as part of his own displaced body. He explains to Marie:

my body's gone numb, it affects even my skin. You know, in its natural state human skin is too thin for this world. So men take care to see it grows thicker. There would be nothing wrong with the method, if only you could stop it from growing.

The dehumanization necessitated by economic objectification colonizes all other spheres of personal life as well, and the doomed attempt to mediate between objectifying economic activity and human emotional relations reconfigures subjectivity as a form of schizophrenia.

Shlink tells Marie about his skin to explain why he is incapable of love. He has no emotional surplus to give her, and the only value she can have for him is market value. Her exclamation "They're selling me!" demonstrates the painful awareness of her own objectification in a capitalist economy where prostitution is universalized and desire is bought and sold on the market. Her only consolation for this awareness is in a masochistic identification with her commodity function as prostitute, and she thereby demands to be paid for love from Shlink.

The stake wagered on the metaphysical battle of Shlink and Garga is whether or not there is any way out of reification. When Garga refuses to sell his opinion in the opening scene, he affirms that there is some sphere of his existence that remains self-determined and is therefore not for sale. Shlink's response that "Your opinion is immaterial too—except that I want to buy it" refutes the prospect of a sphere of existence that is not reducible to quantifiable exchange value.

As Shlink demonstrates the power of his position by buying off Garga's family, mistress, and job, Garga revolts by stripping off his clothes and running amok. This archetypically expressionistic response to moral conflict is reminiscent of the Cashier in From Morning to Midnight, who performs a similar flight from signifying systems. Intoxicated by the heat of conflict and the suspense of his sudden catastrophic awakening, Garga quotes Rimbaud and raves expressionistically: "And that—is freedom....I have no knowledge of metaphysics, I do not understand the laws, I have no moral sense, I am an animal." He equates his freedom with the abolition of his inherited civilization and a renewed identification with the primeval beast. He responds to the challenge of urban economic demands by abandoning morality and culture, and reverting to animal instincts. Karl Marx refers to the alienation of labor as a process whereby "What is animal becomes human and what is human becomes animal." Garga embodies this transposition through a reversion to the uninhibited instinctual activity of the wild beast.

Shlink circumvents this strategy by converting Garga into an exploiter and thus reintegrating him into economic determinations. In order to wage conflict, Garga must objectify himself; as an object he in turn objectifies others and thereby enters into complicity with cycles of reification. Confronted with the apparent ubiquity of these cycles, he expresses his awareness to his mother in terms that do not permit a satisfactory resolution:

We aren't free. It starts with coffee in the morning, and blows for being such a bad monkey, and mother's tears are salt to season the children's meal: and she washes their little shirts in her sweat, and you are all taken care of and safe, safe, until the Ice Age comes, while the root grows right through your heart. And when he's grown up, and wants to do something, wants to go the whole hog, what does he find out? He'll find he's already been consecrated, paid for, stamped and sold at a good price, so he isn't even free to go and drown himself!

Family life and the maternal relation, ideologically conceived as zones of refuge from economic determinations, are here represented as thoroughly permeated by the paralyzing processes of reification. Even suicide is figured as a prefabricated gesture already inscribed within these ubiquitous cycles.

Yet human beings cannot be entirely obliterated: The individual retains a ghost of vanquished humanity even in urban environments of totalizing objectification. The Salvation Army Officer's lament—"People are too durable, that's their main trouble....they last too long"—is confirmed by his failure to die even after shooting himself in the head. These remnants of humanity, distorted beyond recognition by economic dehumanization, come to the surface and reemerge in immeasurably disfigured forms: Love and affection are thereby transformed into sadism and masochism. This is the psychological mechanism implied by the frontier code that motivates the love/hate ambivalence in Shlink and Garga's relations. The objective impossibility of benevolent human contact in an atmosphere of total alienation compels them to seek contact through hatred, conflict, and antagonism.

The tableau for the staging of their final showdown is in the gravel pits on the edge of town. The industrial wasteland thus replaces the prairie as the site for the isolated male confrontation in the new world. Shlink concedes the inevitable stalemate of their attempt at engagement by emphasizing the impossibility of transversing the utter isolation that separates human beings:

I've been watching animals: and love, or the warmth given off by bodies moving in close to each other, that is the only mercy shown to us in the darkness. But the coupling of organs is all, it doesn't make up for the divisions caused by speech. . . . And the generations stare coldly into each other's eyes. If you cram a ship's hold full of human bodies, so it almost bursts—there will be such loneliness in that ship that they'll all freeze to death.

Spatial proximity is described as a condition that paradoxically increases spiritual separation, and the metaphor of the ship's hold suggests an analogy to the claustrophobic conditions of modern urban arrangements. Shlink proceeds to invoke the vision of the primeval jungle as a utopian counterpart to the emotional death of the subject of civilization: "The forest! That's where mankind comes from, from right here. Hairy, with ape's mouths, good animals who knew how to live. It was all so easy. They just tore each other to pieces." Far from the cheerful pastoral utopias of harmony with nature envisioned by the Enlightenment, Shlink projects a utopia of anarchic and bestial violence. Characteristic of expressionist reverie, the deepest desire of wounded subjectivity is found in atavistic frenzies of destruction; existence is validated exclusively by moments of highest passion and fiercest energy.

The detective fiction of Dashiell Hammett reproduces the model of human relations exhibited in expressionist drama and developed in Brecht's Jungle: The antagonists are stripped of individual characteristics and reduced to a deformed though imperishable human essence. Against the backdrop of a bleak and brutal chaos ruled by utterly immoral forces, they face each other in their respective moral isolation, locked in deadly opposition.

The urban zone of the crime novel appropriates the jungle metaphor of the expressionist metropolis by representing the modern city as an arena of anarchic violence where individuals are set against each other in hostile conflict. George Grella observes that "the gangster novel (like many American detective stories) seems a kind of urban pastoral." The gangster novel functions as a meditation on the landscape of the modern city.

The mythic vision of the American landscape, both urban and rural, has always held a great fascination for European projections of absolute alienation and moral solitude. Brecht and Kafka, among many others, utilized this mythic territory as the background for their modernist fictions. André Gide remarks that "the American cities and countryside must offer a foretaste of hell" (qtd. in Madden xxvi). In the proportions of mythic America, one confronts the realities of Europe by gazing on them in magnified form. Hammett's work performs this same optical demonstration for the natives: By defamiliarizing conditions that have become ideologically obscured by processes of habituation, the horror of those conditions is made manifest.

Hammett's Red Harvest presents the modern city as a zone of tribal warfare where legally justified structures of authority cannot be distinguished from illegal hierarchies of gang rule. These anarchic conditions are indicated as the direct result of the antagonistic competition imposed on social relations by capitalist economies. The protagonist's client, Elihu Willsson, has exercised the iron rule of capital over the town for 40 years as baron of the banks and newspapers. This perfect collusion of the interests of capital and the production of ideology does not prevent a mass uprising of the mine workers, and Willsson hires armed mobs to bust the labor unions. By the beginning of the novel, the mobs have shattered the unions and are fighting among themselves to divide up the town, compelling Willsson to call on the Continental Detective Agency to secure his interests.

In Carl Freedman and Christopher Kendrick's article, "Forms of Labor in Dashiell Hammett's Red Harvest," the resulting social conditions in the town are described as an analogy to fascist Italy in terms of a "feudalization of illicit power." With reference to Benjamin, they observe that "The individualism of the gangster power structure makes for a permanent state of anarchic emergency." The ceaseless cycles of violent retribution among conflicting gangs are assimilated by the populace as the normalized environment of urban life, and economic survival is predicated on a strategic alliance with superior firepower.

Hammett's town, with characteristic lack of subtlety, is appropriately named "Personville" (pronounced by the locals as "Poisonville"), an almost direct citation of expressionist abstraction of place into general category. Hammett's description of the town could serve as stage directions for the backdrop of the expressionist metropolis:

the smelters whose brick stacks stuck up tall against a gloomy mountain to the south had yellow-smoked everything into uniform dinginess. The result was an ugly city of forty thousand people, set in an ugly notch between two ugly mountains that had been all dirtied up by mining. Spread over this was a grimy sky that looked as if it had come out of the smelter's stacks.

Nature is hereby reified as a waste product of labor, and the claustrophobia imposed by this industrial sky contrasts to the metaphorical transposition of the jungle onto the activity within the city.

With characteristic expressionist condensation, Hammett's protagonist is named "the Op": a two-letter abbreviation of his economic function as Continental Operative. After noting the infernal character of Personville, the Op spots three caricatures of policemen, unshaved, unbut-toned, and smoking cigars while directing traffic, and he immediately deciphers the absence of legitimized authority in the town. "Don't kid yourselves that there's any law in Poisonville," he explains later to his recently arrived assistants.

The Op internalizes and absorbs the anarchy of the urban environment and embarks on a strategy based on the provocation of violence and antagonisms among rival gangs in the effort to have them destroy each other in the process. He explains to his ally, the junky-prostitute Dinah Brand, that he could have accomplished his ends through legal means, "But it's easier to have them killed off, easier and surer, and, now that I'm feeling this way, more satisfying." He derives sadistic pleasure from the replication of the cycles of violence, and he describes his desensitized condition with the same corporealization of interiority as Brecht's Shlink: "I've got hard skin all over what's left of my soul." He identifies the encroaching metropolis as the source of the violent fever that penetrates his subjectivity like a disease: "It's this damned town. Poisonville is right. It's poisoned me." The smothered condition of his soul seeks cathartic release in violent agitation, and he refers to the pleasure experienced from this release as an intoxication.

The Op internalizes and replicates the violence of his environment in the manner of a machine, yet his delirium precipitates a regression to animal instincts. This paradoxical conflation of machine and animal serves as the principle of characterization that motivates the inhabitants of the urban pastoral. In "The Poetics of the Private-Eye," Robert Edenbaum observes that in Hammett's novels, "Action is determined mechanistically—or animalistically." The apparent ease with which Edenbaum equates mechanical and animal determinations reflects the instability of these categories in Hammett's narration.

In The Rebel, Albert Camus reads the American crime narrative as an aesthetic that operates "as if men were entirely defined by their daily automatisms. On this mechanical level men, in fact, seem exactly alike, which explains this peculiar universe in which all the characters appear interchangeable, even down to their physical peculiarities." Camus refers to these characters as "the symbol of the despairing world in which wretched automatons live in a machine-ridden universe." The totalizing mechanization of behavior in the crime narrative testifies to the violence done to subjectivity by the encroaching technologies of modern urban conditions.

Despite Camus's disparaging view of the crime novel, he perceives what most commentators on the genre have missed: "This technique is called realistic only owing to a misapprehension....It is born of a mutilation, and of a voluntary mutilation, performed on reality." The conventional circumscription of Hammett's fiction within a tradition of American realism totally disregards all characteristic components of his style and theoretical orientation. Hammett's use of abstraction, mechanization, and caricature dismantle realist conventions by mutilating the subject of representation into defamiliarized form.

The perfectly prefabricated automatisms of Hammett's subjects contrasts to a reified animation of the technological object. Automobiles dart about and weapons discharge as if operating according to their own independent volition. The cigarette ashes on Sam Spade's desk come to life and twitch and crawl about in the breeze. These anthropomorphisms testify to the fetishized character of objects in an urban environment of totalizing reification.

Hammett's generally sparse descriptions are based on a rigorous condensation of the subject, which is reconfigured as congealed abstraction. In "The Farewell Murder," the Op describes a house in terms of a mutilated conglomeration of geometric figures; the intensely asymmetrical arrangement of converging diagonal lines reads like a stage setting for Caligari:

Take a flock of squat cones of various sizes, round off the points bluntly, mash them together with the largest one somewhere near the center, the others grouped around it in not too strict accordance with their sizes, adjust the whole collection to agree with the slopes of a hilltop, and you would have a model of the Kavalov house.

The Op's observations disdain attention to referential detail. Instead they enact a narrative compression of the scene that approximates an expressionist model of prose: His subject is transformed into a generic abstraction that is consequently mutilated into idiosyncratic form. Hammett's prose here undermines realist conventions by emphasizing the discursive construction of the image and directing attention towards the artificiality of the descriptive act.

Hammett's narration reduces the subject to economic function or idiosyncratic trait, and then distorts and magnifies this feature to subsume the entire individual. Physical characteristics are contorted into cartoon proportions and arranged surrealist configurations. In "The Golden Horseshoe" the Op spots a stranger in the bar and describes him as "A tall, rawboned man with wide shoulders, out of which a long, skinny, yellow neck rose to support a little round head. His eyes were black shoe-buttons stuck close together at the top of a little mashed nose." This absurd collage of distorted features and incongruous objects has more in common with dada caricature than realism.

The description of Willsson in Red Harvest could refer to one of Grosz's sinister portraits: "The short-clipped hair on his round pink skull was like silver in the light....His mouth and chin were horizontal lines." Hammett's characters are drawn with a mark and a dash: reduced to compact visual signifiers and geometries of abstracted essence. The description of Sam Spade that opens The Maltese Falcon evokes a similar geometry of personal characteristics:

Samuel Spade's jaw was long and bony, his chin a jutting v under the more flexible v of his mouth. His nostrils curved back to make another, smaller, v. His yellow-grey eyes were horizontal. The v motif was picked up again by thickish brows rising outward from twin creases above a hooked nose, and his pale brown hair grew down—from high flat temples—in a point on his forehead. He looked rather pleasantly like a blond Satan.

The alphabetical figure is stamped on Spade's face like a typographical collage; individuality is dissolved into typology. Hammett's relentless abstraction of character responds to the increasingly abstract conditions imposed by pervasive modern bureaucracies, which are inscribed as a visual signifier on the subject's body.

The nickname, partially necessitated to maintain anonymity in the city crowd, reconfigures subjectivity as caricature. Hammett's novels are populated by characters identified according to the conspicuously deformed physical characteristic: the Thin Man, the Fat Man, Big Chin, or Chinless Jerry. In Red Harvest, the villains Whisper and the Voice are named according to their discursive capacities. The Dis an' Dat Kid and the Whosis Kid are reduced to cartoon parodies of their namelessness. The Op's boss is simply the Old Man, an abstract typology that suggests the presence of authority in the colloquial reference to the father.

The notoriously compact prose for which the crime novel is famous necessitates a narrative contraction of action into brief staccato segments. These segments tend to focus on the sharply delineated visual image, and the action unfolds like a montage of snapshots.

A curtain whipped loose in the rain.

Out of the opening came pale fire-streaks. The bitter voice of a small-caliber pistol. Seven times.

The Whosis Kid's wet hat floated off his head—a slow balloon-like rising.

Hammett substitutes the empty hat in the place of the Kid, which defies gravity and floats off as if under its own power. The intense objectification of images recalls expressionist contractions of the subject, and the fragmented pace of the unfolding scene imitates expressionist rhythms of sudden shocks and abrupt pauses. Human beings are carefully subtracted from the scene, whereas the pistol is invested with the power of speech, and inanimate objects like the curtain and the hat seem to be animated with independent volition.

As the Op walks into a boxing arena in Red Harvest, he gives an atomic inventory of the scene in four sentences, one word each: "Smoke. Stink. Heat. Noise." This intensified brevity recalls the telegraphic conventions of expressionism. One of the Op's colleagues speaks exclusively in miniaturized fragments of information. He reports his activities in the manner of a speaking machine: "Spot two. Out three-thirty, office to Willsson's. Mickey. Five. Home. Busy. Kept plant. Off three, seven. Nothing yet." The Op then flaunts his semiotic prowess by translating the meaning of these prefabricated signifiers for the benefit of the reader. Hammett parodies this convention in a section from The Dain Curse, where the Op objects to the verbosity of a friend who responds, "Tell me what's up while I try to find one-syllable words for you."

The brevity of dialogue and description in Hammett makes his novels almost appropriate to stage production. Sometimes he dispenses with description entirely, and large sections of his books (particularly The Thin Man) are composed exclusively of character dialogue and monologue. The extended monologues, often confessions or case histories, can be highly idiosyncratic in their use of colloquialisms and regional slang. At other times they are simply journalese, speech stripped down to the delivery of commodified fragments of information. In Red Harvest, some nameless detective informs the Op, "'Donald Willsson, Esquire, publisher of the Morning and Evening Heralds, was found in Hurricane Street a little while ago, shot very dead by parties unknown,' he recited in a rapid singsong." The detective's mechanical voice confirms what his speech has already made clear: He is an automaton capable of replicating prefabricated speech patterns devoid of human inflection or digression.

The Op is located in San Francisco, an appropriate city for the gothic atmospheres of Hammett's scenery. The fog hangs low, and figures are obscured like ghosts wandering in and out of the darkness. In "The Big Knockover," the shadows themselves are personified, speak and vanish. The Op is often performing the function of the shadow, tailing unsuspecting nomads of the city. During pursuits, Hammett inserts precise geographies of the city streets, reminiscent of Döblin's insertion of urban topographies in Berlin Alexanderplatz.

Hammett's interiors, perfectly appropriated by noir film, are defined by their angular composition and harsh dark and light contrast. A typical interior is described in "The House on Turk Street":

the hall was lighted with the glow that filtered through the glass from the street lights. The stairway leading to the second-story threw a triangular shadow across part of the hall-a shadow that was black enough for any purpose. I crouched low in this three-cornered slice of night, and waited.

This highly expressionistic scenography suggests the anthropomorphic character of darkness that seeks to penetrate the interior. The unstable demarcation of inside and outside dramatizes the threat posed to urban interiors by the external forces of crime and darkness. The Op as the morally ambivalent figure who crosses that boundary is significantly attracted to the darkness in which he seeks refuge and the cover of invisibility.

The Op's invisibility constitutes the foremost characteristic of his wavering and mutable identity. His capacity as detective consists mainly in his ability to disappear into the background or transform his personality to deceive his antagonists. He is presented without preexisting personal relationships or familial antecedents. Just as he busily removes all traces of his presence before leaving the scene of a crime, he is constantly erasing his identity in personal relationships.

The absence of stable identity in Hammett's work corresponds to an epistemological uncertainty concerning the nature of being. The anthropomorphic character of objects suggests a capacity for mutability that undermines the potential for a fixed essence. The symbol for this epistemological emptiness is the Maltese falcon: the priceless artifact of historical significance that motivates a global pursuit and inspires a murderous determination in all those attempting to take it into possession. At the conclusion of the novel, the falcon turns out to be counterfeit: an empty projection of the fictions imposed on it by imagination.

The verbal reticence of so many of Hammett's figures can be partially ascribed to a conviction that the act of signification is a philosophically futile process that does nothing to alter the fundamental emptiness of signified phenomena. The Op's customary reliance on tautological utterances reflects a conscious inability to construct an authentic discursive response. After hearing the impassioned confession of a murderous bank clerk straggling to understand his own motives, the Op reflects, "I couldn't find anything to say except something meaningless, like: 'Things happen that way."'

The emptiness of signification in Hammett's work negates the possibility of satisfactory closure to the mysteries and puzzles conjured up in his narratives. The conclusions of his novels are always vaguely unsettling because the final solutions seem like false constructions and shed suspicion on the inventive powers of the detective. The Thin Man concludes with a highly conjectural and somewhat preposterous explanation of events by the protagonist, who concedes that his hypothetical resolution is based on speculation. The last word of the book belongs to his wife, Nora, who responds, "That may be, but it's all pretty unsatisfactory." This is a startling concluding note for a genre conventionally based on the expectation of definitive resolution and stable closure.

How does a detective operate in an epistemologically uncertain universe in which there is no stable truth behind the deceptive illusions on the surface? The Op responds by abandoning the chimerical search for concealed master narratives and instead scrambles signification by inventing falsehoods and projecting them onto phenomena. The Op's most important talent thus becomes his capacity for discursive intervention as a means of generating conflict. Unlike most detective figures, he rarely resorts to physical coercion, but rather relies on his ability to spread rumor and create subversive alliances and antagonisms. He walks into a boxing ring in Red Harvest, and merely by the utterance of the phrase "Back to Philly, Al"—which conceals a false threat of reprisal against one of the fighters—he manages to unfix the flight and provoke a series of murders and conflicts among rival gangs. He routinely fixes false alibis for himself and manufactures evidence against others. In "The Golden Horseshoe," unable to sustain a conviction due to lack of evidence, he invents a false crime to hang a criminal for a murder he didn't commit.

The Op's illicit tactics of detection suggest the profound moral ambivalence of his identity and activity. The diabolical character of Hammett's protagonists is reinforced by the visual analogy of Spade to Satan in the first paragraph of The Maltese Falcon. Edenbaum refers to the Op's method as "not a divine plan but a satanic disorder." The subversive potential to collapse systems of signification places these characters in opposition to the reified administrative structures that dominate and determine their environment.

In Red Harvest, the Op explains his twisted methodology to Dinah Brand: "Plans are all right sometimes . . . and sometimes just stirring things up is all right—if you're tough enough to survive, and keep your eyes open so you'll see what you want when it comes to the top." Freedman and Kendrick translate this strategy as "the apparently spontaneous capacity both to activate the energies present in the dialogic world and to weather the anarchic psychological and social effects that are thus set in motion." The Op works to short-circuit the machinery of social relations through an expenditure of surplus energy; his liberating function is his destructive capacity for dismantling systems of signification and discursive alliances and preserving himself in the process of their collapse.

Hammett's detectives operate as agents of sabotage in the manner of Benjamin's "Destructive Character": "For destroying rejuvenates in clearing away the traces of our own age; it cheers because everything cleared away means to the destroyer a complete reduction, indeed eradication, of his own condition" (Reflections 301). This reduction and eradication is performed by the narrative as well, which obliterates referential capacities through a relentless application of dissonant aesthetic maneuvers designed to dis-mantle narrative content. The utopian aspect of this narrative is achieved by the momentary liberation from ossified discursive reifications.

Freedman and Kendrick contrast modes of detection in Hammett with conventional detective narration by explaining that "it involves not the decoding of a discrete series of facts but, rather, an encoding process that activates the surplus energy inherent in his world." It is within this encoding process that the Op enacts his rebellion against instrumental reason. By imposing his own creative narrative on the world, he constructs a utopian moment that evades the administrative imperatives of his work. He momentarily defies the mechanisms that otherwise determine his reified function, and gives his labor the aesthetic character of play.

Source: John Walker, "City Jungles and Expressionist Reifications from Brecht to Hammett," in Twentieth Century Literature, Vol. 44, No. 1, Spring 1998, pp. 119-33.

J. M. Ritchie

In the following introduction excerpt, Ritchie provides an overview of formal elements in and original sources of German Expressionism.


However disparate the views on Expressionism may be, it is generally true that an Expressionist play will tend to be different from a Neo-Romantic or Naturalistic play, no matter how extensive their common roots. Perhaps the most striking formal feature of Expressionist drama is abstraction. Essentially this means that the Expressionist dramatist is not concerned with projecting an illusion of reality on the stage; instead he gives something abstracted from


reality, that is, either something taken from the real world but reduced to the bare minimum, or something totally abstracted from reality in the sense that the norms of time and place and individuation have been completely abandoned. Hence in Expressionism there is constant stress on giving the essence—the heart of the matter—deeper images instead of "mere" surface appearances. Not surprisingly, actions and plots are also pared down to the important outlines and only crucial situations are presented, while all "unnecessary" detail is eliminated. This same tendency is noticeable in the treatment of the dramatic figures, which show no characteristic features of particular individuals but tend to embody principles which the author holds to be important. As such, they bear no names and instead are often simply designated as Father, Mother, Husband, or Wife. Other dramatic figures can similarly represent states of mind, social positions, official functions, etc.; hence they are introduced merely as Cashier, Officer, and the like. The intention is clearly to move away from the specific and the conditioned to a more general sphere of reference and significance.

Abstraction of this kind is, needless to say, by no means restricted to Expressionistdrama; indeed, it is a feature of Expressionist art in general. All in all, this is in line with the Expressionists' reaction against the materialistic philosophy of the Naturalists, who tended to show the force of milieu, race, class, and social circumstance as factors conditioning the character of the individual. The Expressionists were not interested in character in this sense and did not attempt to create dramatic characters in their plays. Character for them meant a limitation of scope. They were more concerned with the soul, that which is common to all men. Instead of creating an impression of real people in real situations, the Expressionist dramatists will therefore strive with religious longing for something beyond the merely material, for eternal and transcendental values.

While this is the essential nature of Expressionistic abstraction, the rejection of the principle of mimesis was given various explanations. Kasimir Edschmid, for example, said in a speech on literary Expressionism: "The world is there. It would be senseless to repeat it." But whatever the reasons offered, time and place were ignored by the Expressionist dramatist so that he could feel free to create his own subjective universe. The dream, with its associations apparently lacking in cause or logic, was substituted for normal reality. For this practice there was a model to hand in Strindberg, though there had been forerunners within the German dramatic tradition, among whom Kleist attracted most attention. Thus, from Sorge's Der Bettler (The Beggar) to Kaiser's Gas II, one constantly encounters dream-like sequences and figures.

After the dream, the most outstanding formal element in the Expressionist drama is the monologue. This is perhaps not surprising considering its function as the main vehicle for expressing the subjective developments within the soul of the lyrical-dramatic protagonists. The use of the monologue demonstrates yet another contrast with the Naturalists, who had argued that in real life people were supposed to converse and not soliloquize. No sooner had the monologue been banished, however, than it made its way back into the drama with even greater force than before, not least through the monologue dramas of Neo-Romantic dramatists like Hofmannsthal. The revival of the monologue was propitious for the Expressionist dramatist, who did not see life in terms of communication and sociability. Even his very explosions of longing for brotherhood and Gemeinschaft express an awareness of the fundamental isolation of man. Thus, egocentricity and solipsism become another hallmark of his works, expressed in formal terms by the long soliloquies of the one central figure, about whom all the other figures cluster like satellites around a major planet. The protagonist expresses himself lone; he does not speak for others, however much he may apostrophize mankind in general.

This solipsistic character of the Expressionist drama explains another feature, namely the scream. The Expressionist dramatist is not concerned to show normal life lived at a normal level or tempo. Instead, he strives for the exceptional and extreme situation, in which the protagonist simply explodes. In this way, once again he breaks through the restricting bonds of normalcy and is beside or beyond himself. At its best this means arriving at a state of ecstasy, which is the aim of the fundamental religious striving of the Expressionists. Ecstasy means experiencing the Divine immediately and absolutely, and not merely attempting to grasp it logically or rationally. At the same time, rhetorical and ecstatic monologues are not merely an expression of the thoughts and feelings of the isolated protagonists; they have a powerful effect on each member of the audience who is there to be stirred up out of his bourgeois mediocrity by powerful utterance. Clearly, such monologues can be as unwieldy as similar speeches in a Baroque drama by Andreas Gryphius or Daniel Caspar von Lohenstein; but the effect, once the improbability is accepted, can be equally overwhelming.

It must be admitted, however, that a potential source of weakness in Expressionist drama is the almost exclusive focus on one central protagonist, while all the other figures in the drama are reduced to mere reflections of his central position. However, it is possible to overstress the dangers of the single-perspective play. The same kind of technique was, after all, employed by Kafka in his fixed-perspective narratives to very powerful effect. At its best, as for example in Kaiser's Von morgens bis mitternachts (From Morn till Midnight), the solipsistic drama could be extremely successful in the way all other characters in the play mirror and reflect the problems of the cashier. Less successful is a more lyrical drama like Sorge's The Beggar, where even the hero's mother, father, and girlfriend seem to have been introduced simply in order to illuminate significant aspects of the young hero's soul.

As far as the actual structure of an Expressionist drama is concerned, dynamism has been singled out as the one significantly new element. By this is meant not only the forceful nature of the language employed, but also the principle whereby the protagonist is shown following a certain path through life. Hence, the drama becomes a Stationendrama, following the ancient religious model of the stations of the cross. This means, in effect, a sequence of scenes which follow rapidly one upon the other, often with no obvious link between them. Here again there were models in the German dramatic canon, notably in the theater of Storm and Stress, though nearer to hand were the examples of Strindberg and Wedekind. Essentially, the dynamic, episodic structure mirrored the inner turmoil and awareness of chaos in the soul of the central figure, who, following the religious model, often goes through a total transformation. Such a Wandlung (the title of one of Toller's plays) is most clearly apparent in the case of Kaiser's cashier who is a mere machine-man in a bank and is electrically switched on by the touch of an exotic Italian lady. Through her his transformation becomes possible; he becomes aware of "life" and tries to realize his full potential as a human being. So from being a robot he is awakened to the possibility of human existence and sets off on his quest for fulfillment, being totally transformed from one second to the next. The religious parallels to his Aufbruch (new start) and his pilgrimage are made symbolically clear throughout.

Even on the printed page, one major difference between an Expressionist drama and its predecessors is immediately obvious by reason of the frequent alternation between verse and prose. Here again the Expressionist sees no reason to be arbitrarily limited to the single register of natural speech and is prepared to be unnatural and poetic; not that the verse is generally poetic in the normal melodic sense: instead, the Expressionistic dramatist preferred free verse which he could move into and out of quite easily, depending on the level of speech in the particular moment of the action. In verse he was able to leave the rational, logical world behind and penetrate to the deeper levels to express the stirrings of the soul. Here the poetic utterance conforms to the ecstatic state and the elevated manner. That here the Expressionist was yet again laying himself wide open to attack from hostile critics is readily apparent. Such attacks were not slow to come and have never stopped. Yet such pathos was not a simple sign of artistic impotence; on the contrary, it was a deliberately chosen style of the large gesture and the grand manner. The scream could end in stammering incoherence; pathos could result in Baroque-like effusion; but at its best the drama could be deeply stirring in its combination of rational control and surging emotion. Here once again extreme opposites seem to be the mark of the Expressionist style, which could be extremely dense, concentrated, compressed on the one hand, while on the other this shortness, sharpness, and eruptive spontaneity could overflow into seemingly endless monologues.

It is generally easy to identify the Expressionist style on the page not merely by the alternation of verse and prose but also by the proliferation of exclamation marks, dashes, and question marks, sometimes in clusters, while even the longest speech generally breaks down into shorter units, characterized by missing articles, eliminated particles, and condensed verbal forms in order to create the lapidary style of Ballung. Yet while such a style is, or can be, extremely aggressive and disturbing, another feature needs to be mentioned, namely its hymnic quality. Here Sorge's The Beggar and Hasenclever's Der Sohn (The Son) offer excellent examples of the manner in which the dramatists can soar higher and higher in tone, in the manner of a musical crescendo.

And yet it must not be thought that the Expressionist always operates at such a high level; indeed, it could be argued that the most striking weapon in the Expressionist armory was the ready exploitation of the grotesque, a technique deliberately designed to effect a break from a high level of tension and plunge down to the banal. The possibilities of the grotesque had been amply demonstrated by Wedekind in Frühlings Erwachen (Spring's Awakening) and elsewhere, and the Expressionist playwrights were not slow to follow his example. Hence, in the excitement of the Six Day Race in From Morn till Midnight the cashier sees five people squeezed together like five heads on one pair of shoulders till a bowler hat falls from one head onto the bosom of a lady in the audience below, to be imprinted on her bosom forever after. The bowler hat is followed by the middle man of the five, who plunges to his doom below as Kaiser puts it, like someone just "dropping" in! Such a use of the grotesque can be screamingly funny, but also screamingly terrifying. The mark of the grotesque is the distortion and exaggeration of the normal, the exploitation of caricature and distortion for effect.


One question that has exercised the minds of ritics is how far back one has to go to find the sources of that modernism in form and content associated with the theater of Expressionism. Medieval mystery plays have often been mentioned in this context, not merely because so many Expressionist plays share the religious striving of such early forms of theatrical production, but also because one of the features of Expressionism seems to have been a highly intellectual longing for a return to simpler forms. Hence, such obvious delight in tableaux as the "gothic" setting of Kaiser's Die Bürger von Calais (The Burghers of Calais) reveals, while the striking conclusion to Kaiser's play not only deliberately stresses the religious parallels to a secular situation, but also abandons language completely for a mode of expression relying on the visual impact of light, grouping, and gesture. Similarly, the whole play tends to follow a medieval "revue" pattern, in which sequences of scenes, or pictures, take the place of continuity of plot. Constantly referred to in connection with Expressionistic plays is the term Stationen-drama. Hence, although an Expressionist play may appear on the surface to be very modern-istic, modeled for example on Strindberg's To Damascus, the idea suggested is the far older one of the quest, involving the equally religious possibility of a revelation or transformation in the course of this path through life. Little wonder, then, that Expressionistic plays often adopted the form of the Läuterungsdrama, i.e., the play of purification in which an Everyman figure experiences an illumination and changes his life from one moment to the next. A feature of the Naturalistic play was the depiction of man as a creature of many conditioning factors. Man was a product of his environment, his class, race, and creed; his life ran along certain fixed tracks from which he could not deviate. The Expressionist dramatist, on the other hand, demonstrates that man is always free to choose and change. His are plays of "becoming," like Barlach's Der blaue Boll (Blue Boll). This character has been forced into a certain role in society, but, as the play demonstrates, he is a man and not a machine or an animal, and in the epic form of seven stations, or tableaux, he makes his "decision." Many Expressionistic plays are therefore also Entscheidungsdramen, plays in which a crucial decision for the course of a whole life is made. Very often, as in Blue Boll, the decision is a fundamental one involving the "Erneuerung des Menschen," the regeneration of man, a phrase which once again stresses the religious nature of so many Expressionistic works. Not surprisingly, plays of this kind tend toward universal themes and cosmic dimensions, which may mean that the characters are diminished, in one sense, as beings of flesh and blood and expanded, in another, to become representative figures for some aspect of the human dilemma.

But it would be wrong to seek the roots of Expressionist drama exclusively in the religious drama of the Middle Ages. Much more to the point is the general tendency to go back beyond the comparatively recent tradition of nineteenth-century drama to absolute simplicity combined with universal significance. This, Nietzsche had demonstrated, was to be found in the classics, not however, in the Apollonian world of beauty and light, but in the Dionysian sphere of darkness and ritual. Hence, from Kokoschka's Mörder Hoffnung der Frauen (Murderer Hope of Womankind) onward, there is an increasing emphasis on myth. The process of condensation and compression becomes a paring down to the quintessential. The result is an economy going beyond the extreme simplicity of Greek classical drama and a concentration on all the hymnic, rhetorical potential of language. But it must be admitted that this process of reduction and concentration, combined with ritual incantations and myth-making, has some unfortunate results. However exciting it may be, Kokoschka's playlet on the myth of the purification of man who, in his struggle with woman, dies to be reborn, is so compressed that the meaning is largely obscured. In a myth-seeking play like Unruh's Ein Geschlecht (One Family), which was much praised in its own time, practically every permutation in the relationship between a mother and her children is projected through highly charged language—love, hate, incest, possible fratricide and matricide—while the action, which is not bound to any particular age or country, takes place before a mountain cemetery high above the wars in the valley. The results of such mythologizing can often be ludicrous, as for example in the mother's dying words which sound like an echo from Kleist, whose Penthesilea was indeed one of the sources of Unruh's inspiration: "Here, here and there too, plunge all your steel shafts deep into my blood! I'll melt them down till nothing remains to hurt my children."

An example of the fruitful use of classical simplicity is Goering's war play Seeschlacht (Naval Encounter). Unruh's play is marked by shouts, screams, and exclamations, and Goering's play too is a Schreidrama or "scream play," another label often attached to Expressionist drama. But the striking feature of Naval Encounter is the tight discipline and the controlled, hard, highly stylized language. The quick switches from short, sharp stichomythic utterances of classical brevity to long monologues of considerable eloquence are a feature of the new Expressionist style which revels in the conjunction of extremes-ice-cold with fever-heat, compression with expansiveness, logicality with ecstasy, stasis with dynamicism. Characteristically, too, there is little or no plot-merely the situation of men moving toward their inevitable fate, in this case sailors in a gun turret going into battle, and hence to their death. There is no realistic detail: the stylization is now complete, the compression to abstract form extreme, the process of depersonalization total. The whole work with its Socratic dialogue has the style and rigor of a classical tragedy with its constant suggestion of forces outside man controlling his destiny. Yet the final outcome is not determined by fatalism but by the individual who stands out against the forces that threaten to control him and mankind. Man's duty to man is thus the chief criterion. Hasenclever, too, adopted the classical style in his antiwar play Antigone; his play Menschen (Humanity) is an even better example of the dangers of hovering between classical simplicity and a passion-play structure.

However, Expressionist dramatists were not generally accused of excessive formalism (though, as has been seen, the tendency toward classical concentration and condensation laid them open to this charge): they were more likely to be accused of formlessness. On the whole, this charge is probably unfair and brought about by the Expressionistic predilection for the open forms of drama associated with the German Storm and Stress. These open forms, in fact, as used by the previously underestimated Klinger and J. M. R. Lenz, whose works included ballad-esque and filmic scene sequences, gradually came to be appreciated in the period which began just before World War I and ended just after it. Indeed, Lenz in particular emerged as a model for the twentieth century. An even more important influence than Lenz was Georg Büchner, also an exponent of the open form, whose most important drama was produced successfully for the first time about this period. The impact of his Woyzeck can be seen particularly in the Alban Berg opera Wozzeck, which it inspired.

Source: J. M. Ritchie, "Introduction," in German Expressionist Drama, Twayne Publishers, 1976, pp.15-39.


Allen, Roy, Literary Life in German Expressionism and the Berlin Circles, UMI Research Press, 1983.

Bahr, Hermann, Expressionismus, 1916.

Benn, Gottfried, "The Confession of an Expressionist," in Voices of German Expressionism, edited by Victor Miesel, Prentice-Hall, 1970.

Benson, Renate, German Expressionist Drama: Ernst Toller and Georg Kaiser, Macmillan, 1984.

"Federico GarcíaLorca,"in, (accessed July 17, 2008).

Forche, Carolyn, Introduction, in Autumn Sonata: Selected Poems of Georg Trakl, Asphodel Press, 1998.

Furness, R. S., Expressionism, Methuen, 1973.

Gibson, Ian, Federico Garcia Lorca: A Life, Pantheon, 1997.

MacShane, Denis, "Spain: Poet Who Had to Die," in the New Statesman, Vol. 135, No. 4809, September 11, 2006, p. 17.

Ritter, Mark, "The Unfinished Legacy of Early Expressionist Poetry: Benn, Heym, Van Hoddis and Lichtenstein," in Passion and Rebellion: The Expressionist Heritage, edited by Stephen Eric Bronner and Douglas Kellner, J. F. Bergin, 1983, pp. 151-65.

Sokel, Walter H., The Writer in Extremis: Expressionism in Twentieth-Century German Literature, Stanford University Press, 1959.

Toller, Ernst, "Post-War German Drama," in the Nation, Vol. CXXVII, No. 3305, November 7, 1928, pp. 488-89.

Walker, John, "City Jungles and Expressionist Reifications from Brecht to Hammett," in Twentieth Century Literature, Vol. 44, No. 1, Spring 1998, pp. 119-33.

Weisstein, Ulrich, Expressionism as an International Literary Phenomenon, Didier, 1973.


Bridgwater, Patrick, Poet of Expressionist Berlin: The Life and Work of Georg Heym, Libris, 1991.

Bridgwater provides an accessible and entertaining biography of one of the leading poets of the expressionist movement.

Brod, Max, Franz Kafka: A Biography, Da Capo, 1995.

Brod was a friend of Kafka's, and his biography is an insider's look at Kafka's life. This is a accessible, very sensitive, and thorough biography written on Kafka.

Dickey, Jerry, and Miriam Lopez-Rodriguez, eds., Broadway's Bravest Woman: Selected Writings of Sophie Treadwell, Southern Illinois University Press, 2006.

Sophie Treadwell was an inventive dramatist, known largely for her one expressionistic play Machinal. This volumes collects essays, plays, and fiction by Treadwell, highlighting her themes of feminism and social activism.

Dove, Richard, He Was a German: A Biography of Ernst Toller, Libris, 1990.

Toller was a socialist and leading expressionist dramatist. Dove provides an entertaining biography of his life and art.

Johnson, Walter, August Strindberg, Twayne, 1976.

Johnson's work on Strindberg's life and plays is an excellent place to begin study of this expressionist writer.

Styan, John, Modern Drama in Theory and Practice: Expressionism and Epic Theater, Cambridge, 1981.

Styan considers expressionist theater as embodying a "rigorous anti-realism" in its representation of the world. Styan argues that Expressionism is most coherent in theater as opposed to poetry or fiction.

Webb, Daniel Benjamin, The Demise of the "New Man": An Analysis of Ten Plays from Late German Expressionism, Verlag Alfred Kummerle, 1973.

Webb's study traces the depiction of the "New Man" in expressionist plays from the 1920s and 1930s, concluding that playwrights became disillusioned with the ideal of such an entity and began writing about his downfall.

Willet, John, Expressionism, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1970.

Willet considers the expressionist movement in relation to historical, political, and social developments.


views updated May 08 2018


Of all the "isms" in the early twentieth century, Expressionism is one of the most elusive and difficult to define. Whereas, on the one hand, Expressionism has been said to reveal its "universal character," abandoning all theories that imply a narrow, exclusive nationalistic attitude, on the other, it has been considered a "specific and familiar constant in German art for hundreds of years" (Vogt, p. 16). Scholarship has attempted to address the problematic range of the term and the contradictory emphases in its historiography. Although Expressionism did not constitute a cohesive movement or homogenous style, attention has been directed to the origins of the word and its meanings in critical discourse as well as to the contingent issues of art, society, and politics framing Expressionist avant-garde culture. Spurred on by an increasing overlap of the humanities with social, cultural, and gender studies, recent investigations reject notions of a transcendent Zeitgeist in focusing on Expressionism's interface with the public sphere.

Expressionism in Germany flourished initially in the visual arts, encompassing the formation of Künstlergruppe Brücke (Artists' Group Bridge) in Dresden in 1905 and the Blaue Reiter in Munich in 1911. The notion of the Doppelbegabung, or double talent, characterized many artists' experimentation in the different art forms, whether lyric poetry, prose, or drama. The notable precedent for this was the music-dramas of Richard Wagner and the attendant concept of the Gesamtkunstwerk, which excited artists' and writers' interests in the union of the arts into a theatrical whole. Performed at the Wiener Kunstschau in 1909, Oskar Kokoschka's (18861980) Mörder, Hoffnung der Frauen (Murderer, hope of women) is considered one of the first Expressionist plays to involve a high degree of abstraction in the text, mise en scène, sound effects, and costume. Comparatively speaking, Reinhard Sorge's (18921916) play Der Bettler (The beggar), written in 1910, is more discursive, though no less abstracted in relaying the metaphysical stages (Stationen ) achieved by the chief protagonist, "the Poet" himself (Furness, in Behr and Fanning, p. 163). Hence, by 1914, the concept of Expressionism permeated German metropolitan culture at many levels, gaining momentum during World War I and in the wake of the November Revolution in 1918. However, any attempt to define Expressionism chronologically is as problematic as doing so in terms of style, since its influence was still felt in film after the holding of the first Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity) exhibition in Mannheim in 1925.

It is telling that the kernel concept of the "expressive"the primacy of the creative process at the expense of verisimilitudebecame significant in Germany at the height of the Second Empire, corresponding to the reign of the Hohenzollern king of Prussia, Wilhelm II. The period between 1890 and 1914 was characterized by colonial expansion abroad, an unprecedented degree of urbanization and technical transformation at home, and promotion of a hide-bound national public art. Generally speaking, Expressionism grew out of late-nineteenth-century dissatisfaction with academic training and the mass spectacle of state-funded salons, the Munich (1892) and Berlin secessions (1898) withdrawing from such official or professional affiliation. In their exhibitions, the secessions fostered a sense of pluralism and internationalism, maintaining links with the art market and Paris-based Impressionism and Postimpressionism.

Within this shifting ambience between tradition and the modern, the term Expressionisten (Expressionists) was initially applied to a selection of French Fauvist and not German artists in the foreword to the catalog of a Berlin Secession exhibition, held in April 1911. Given the largely Impressionist leanings of the Secession, the collective term was a convenient way of signifying the "newest directions" in French art. Here the art of self-expression, or Ausdruckskunst as it was articulated in German, involved a degree of expressive intensification and distortion that differed from the mimetic impulse of naturalism and the Impressionist mode of capturing the fleeting nuances of the external world. This aesthetic revolt found theoretical justification in the writing of the art historian Wilhelm Worringer (18811965), whose published doctoral thesis Abstraktion und Einfühlung (1908, Abstraction and empathy) proposed that stylization, typical of Egyptian, Gothic, or Primitive art, was not the result of lack of skill (Können ) but was propelled by an insecure psychic relationship with the external world. An impelling "will to form," or Kunstwollen, underscored art historical methodology at the time (Jennings, in Donahue, p. 89).

Evidently, the label Expressionism was not invented by the artists themselves but abounded in the promotional literature and reviews of current exhibitions. The proliferation of specialist journals and technological invention in publishing at the turn of the twentieth century was integral to the avantgarde's dissemination of their ideas in Expressionist literary and artistic journals, such as Der Sturm (Riot) and Die Aktion. Although the milieu encompassed a diverse political and disciplinary spectrum, commentators were united by the historical concept of Neuzeit, or modernity, "embodying a particular experiential pattern, in which it was the future that was the bearer of growing expectations" (Koselleck, p. 243). In their manifesto, members of the Brücke declared their independence from older established forces and called on all youth to look toward the future in searching for authentic expression. Similarly, in Wassily Kandinsky's (18661944) theoretical treatise Über das Geistige in der Kunst (1912, On the spiritual in art), he invoked the principle of "inner necessity" in postulating the evolution of art toward a utopian, transcendent form of creative expression.

Yet Expressionism was marked by a profound ambivalence toward modernity, and subject matter frequently operated between the antimonies of metropolitan alienation and the rural idyll. Both literary and artistic groups who frequented the Café des Westens in Berlin drew on the Nietzschean concept of "pathos" to convey their embrace of the dynamism of contemporary life. In emulation of the Neopathetisches Cabaret that attracted well-known poets, the painter Ludwig Meidner (18841966) adopted the title Die Pathetiker for his major group exhibition that was held in November 1912 at the Sturm Gallery. The city landscape was invested with elements of primal and cosmic destruction, comparable to the Bild, the word picture, which marks the Expressionist poetry of Georg Heym's (18871912) Umbra vitae (1912) or Jacob van Hoddis's (18871942) Weltende (1911, End of the world). Clearly, their utopian assumptions were compromised by a modernizing world, which was perceived as fallen and chaotic.

Kulturkritik (cultural criticism) aimed to heal this tired civilization through the reference to untainted, preindustrialized and autochthonous communal traditions. Viewed through the lens of modern French painting, the Brücke artistsErnst Ludwig Kirchner, Karl Schmidt-Rottluff, Erich Heckel, Max Pechsteinlocated authenticity in old German woodcuts, African and Oceanic tribal art, which informed their carved sculpture, graphic techniques, studio interiors, and figural landscapes. In the Blaue Reiter Almanac (1912), the editors, Kandinsky and Franz Marc (18801916), interspersed essays on art, music, poetry, and theater with photographs of Russian and Bavarian folk art, African and Oceanic masks, and child art, seeking to legitimize the technical radicalism of modern painting through resonances with so-called primitive examples. As has been argued, primitivism was a permutation of agrarian romanticism. By the end of the nineteenth century the image of the European peasantry and nature had exhausted itself. "Nostalgia had now to cast its net wider and beyond rural Europe" (Lübbren, pp. 5758).

On the eve of war, in his book Der Expressionismus, the art critic and newspaper feuilletonist Paul Fechter (18801958) invested Expressionism with the connotations of the anti-intellectual, the emotional, and the spiritualthe "metaphysical necessity of the German people" (Fechter, p. 29). Here he drew heavily on Worringer's professorial thesis Formprobleme der Gotik (1911, Form in gothic), which constructed a genealogy for German artistic identity based on the anticlassical features of the Gothic past. By this time, the engendering of Impressionism as feminine, as celebrating sensory, passive experience, was well established in critical debates, and Fechter strove to inculcate a more masculine Ausdrucksgefühl (expressive feeling) in contemporary German art. However, the Teutonic nationalization of Expressionism was inconsistent.

Internationalism was advanced through the agencies of dealership and dispersal. The musician, writer, and dealer Herwarth Walden (18781941), whose Sturm Gallery was established in Berlin in 1912, displayed the works of Expressionists as well as those of Futurists and Cubists. Before and after the outbreak of war, he sent traveling exhibitions to Scandinavia, Holland, Finland, and Tokyo. As a founding member of Zurich dada, the German Poet Hugo Ball (18861927) provided a link between Expressionism and Dada. Ball's preoccupation with mysticism and anarchism led him to Switzerland during the war, and in a key lecture he delivered on Kandinsky (1917), he proclaimed the value of abstraction in painting, poetry, and drama to cultural regeneration.

Even in 1916, in his book Expressionismus, the art critic, novelist, and playwright Hermann Bahr (18631934) remained warmly disposed toward Picasso and French art since Manet. Bahr was writing at a time when Germany had suffered staggering reversals on the battlefield and disillusionment had set in with mechanized warfare of a kind that no one had imagined. Fiercely antitechnological and antibourgeois, he characterized the era as a "battle of the soul with the machine," articulating the desire for a prelapsarian state of innocence (p. 110). In 1917 literary Expressionism came of age with Kasimir Edschmid's (18901966) manifesto Über den Expressionismus in der Literatur und die neue Dichtung, strengthening the emphasis on Schauen, or "visionary experiences," rather than on Sehen ("observation of visual details") (Weisstein, p. 207). Given its emphasis on spiritual values, the literary critic Wolfgang Paulsen would have labeled this genuine Expressionism so as to distinguish it from Activist Expressionism, deriving from the lineage of Karl Marx. However, not all socialism ran counter to the notion of "spiritual revolution" and, according to Rhys Williams, Georg Kaiser's (18781945) play Von morgens bis mitternachts (1916, From morn to midnight) can be read as a "dramatization of [Gustav] Landauer's indictment of capitalism" and the search for the verbindender Geist (unifying spirit) that he advocated (Behr and Fanning, pp. 201207).

With the Revolution of November 1918 and the collapse of the Second Reich, such intellectuals saw the opportunity for the initiation of a new society, and the link between Expressionism and revolutionary theory became more emphatic. A second generation of Expressionists emerged that, although widespread in regional centers throughout Germany, was more cohesively defined by its members' antiwar sentiments. As the son of a working-class family, the artist Conrad Felixmüller (18971977) spearheaded the formation of the Dresden Secession Group in 1919 and was committed to an agenda of proletarian culture.

In Berlin, the organization Novembergruppe was founded. It called on all Expressionists, Futurists, and Cubists to unite under the banner of cultural reform and reconstruction. Although initially attracting dadaists to its ranks, the equation between Expressionism and radicalism became more difficult to sustain within the stabilization of order brought about by the Weimar government. Due to democratization and to pressure exerted by various artists' councils, Expressionism made inroads into the public sphere and was avidly collected by major museums throughout Germany. Moreover, well-known Expressionists such as Kandinsky and Paul Klee (18791940) were approached to teach at the Bauhaus in Weimar, founded in 1919 by the architect Walter Gropius (18831969). This school was based on socialist and utopian principles that placed artists at the center of a new kind of design that served modern society. Though Kandinsky sustained his belief in the expressive and mystical values of art, he abandoned the expressive abstraction of the Munich years and explored geometric formal elements in a more systematic manner.

However, the death knell of Expressionism, according to many commentators, lay in its commercialization and consequent loss of authenticity. It was considered debased in losing its soul to mass culture. In the early twenty-first century, scholars tend to regard the ability of Expressionism to adapt to the demands of technological advancement as a measure of its success. The silent film The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, directed by Robert Wiene (18811938), was released in Berlin in 1920 and achieved resounding international acclaim. Fritz Lang's (18901976) Metropolis (1927) and Josef von Sternberg's (18941969) The Blue Angel (1930) appeared after Expressionism's demise and Georg Wilhelm Pabst's (18851967) Pandora's Box in 1928.

During the 1930s, the polarization in German politics and society led views on the left and the right to target Expressionism. From a position of exile in Moscow, the Marxist theoretician Georg Lukács (18851971) launched an attack in his essay "'Größe und verfall' des Expressionismus" (1934; Expressionism: its significance and decline, Washton-Long, pp. 313-317). Favoring a form of typified realism that was deduced from nineteenth-century literary sources, Lukács considered Expressionism the product of capitalist imperialism. According to this model, its subjectivity and irrationalism would inevitably lead to fascism. Debates ensued in the émigré literary journal Das Wort, the Marxist philosopher Ernst Bloch (18851977) vigorously defending the role of autonomous experimentation in the visual arts in his essay "Diskyssion über Expressionismus" (1938; Discussing Expressionism, Washton-Long, pp. 323327). In post-1945 historiography, critics tended to lose sight of Bloch's salvaging of the utopian and communal aspirations of Expressionism.

Interestingly, even after the Nazis assumed power in 1933, there was rivalry between the antimodernist Alfred Rosenberg (18931946) and the Minister of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda Joseph Goebbels (18971945), who considered Expressionism and the works of Emil Nolde (18671956) to be uniquely German. Indeed, Goebbels's novel Michael adopted the declamatory style and format of the Expressionist stationendrama in tracing the journey of the eponymous hero from soldier to Nazi superman (1929). In 1934, Rosenberg's appointment as spiritual overseer of the National Socialist Party sealed the fate of the avant-garde. Official confiscation of works from public collections accompanied the dismissal of Expressionists, left-wing intellectuals, and Jews from prominent positions in the arts.

In 1937, moreover, the infamous exhibition "Entartete Kunst" (Degenerate art) was inaugurated in Munich, signaling the Third Reich's devastating efforts to expunge Expressionism's claim to cultural status. Expressionism underwent transformation in exile as refugee artists, writers, and filmmakers reexamined their cultural identity in light of the demands of their adoptive countries. Others were not as fortunate. Kirchner resided in Switzerland since 1917, and his frail psychological state was exacerbated by the pillaging of 639 of his works from museums and by the inclusion of thirty-two in the "Entartete Kunst" exhibition. He committed suicide in 1938. The poet Van Hoddis, who was of Jewish origin and suffered mental disorders for many years, was transported to the Sobibor concentration camp in 1942, the exact date of his murder being unrecorded.

See also Avant-Garde ; Dada .



Bahr, Hermann. Expressionism. Munich: Delphin, 1916. Translated by R. T. Gribble. London: Frank Henderson, 1925.

Edschmid, Kasimir. Über den Expressionismus in der Literatur und die neue Dichtung. Berlin: Reiß, 1919.

Fechter, Paul. Der Expressionismus. Munich: Piper, 1914.

Goebbels, Joseph. Michael: Ein Deutsches Schiksal in Tagebuchblätten. Munich: Franz Eber, 1929.

Kandinsky, Wassily, and Franz Marc, eds. Blaue Reiter Almanac. Munich: Piper, 1912.

. Complete Writings on Art. Edited by Kenneth Lindsay and Peter Vergo. London: Faber, 1982.

. Über das Geistige in der Kunst. Munich: Piper, 1912.

Miesel, Victor, ed. Voices of German Expressionism. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1970.

Paulsen, Wolfgang. Aktivismus und Expressionismus: Eine typologische Untersuchung. Berne and Leipzig: Gotthelf, 1935.

Raabe, Paul, ed. The Era of German Expressionism. London: Calder and Boyer, 1974.

Washton-Long, Rose-Carol, ed. German Expressionism: Documents from the End of the Wilhelmine Empire to the Rise of National Socialism. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995.

Worringer, Wilhelm. Abstraktion und Einfühlung. Munich: Piper, 1908. Translated by Michael Bullock. New York: International Universities Press, 1953.

. Formprobleme der Gotik. Munich: Piper, 1911. Translated by Herbert Read. London: Putnams, 1927.


Barron, Stephanie, ed. Degenerate Art: The Fate of the Avant-garde in Nazi Germany. Los Angeles: Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 1991.

. German Expressionism, 19151925: The Second Generation. Los Angeles: Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 1988.

Barron, Stephanie, and Wolf-Dieter Dube, eds. German Expressionism: Art and Society. Milan: Bompiani, 1997.

Behr, Shulamith. Expressionism. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999.

. Women Expressionists. New York: Rizzoli, 1988.

Behr, Shulamith, David Fanning, and Douglas Jarman, eds. Expressionism Reassessed. Manchester, U.K.: Manchester University Press, 1993.

Bridgwater, Patrick. Poet of Expressionist Berlin: The Life and Work of Georg Heym. London: Libris, 1991.

Bushart, Magdalena. "Changing Times, Changing Styles: Wilhelm Worringer and the Art of His Epoch." In Invisible Cathedrals: The Expressionist Art History of Wilhelm Worringer, edited by Neil H. Donahue, 6985. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1995.

Furness, Raymond. "The Religious Element in Expressionist Theatre." In Expressionism Reassessed, edited by Shulamith Behr and David Fanning, 163173.

Gordon, Donald E. "On the Origin of the Word 'Expressionism.'" Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institute 29 (1966): 368385.

Jennings, Michael. "Against Expressionism: Materialism and Social Theory in Worringer's Abstraction and Empathy. " In Invisible Cathedrals: The Expressionist Art History of Wilhelm Worringer, edited by Neil H. Donahue, 87104. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1995.

Koselleck, Reinhart. Futures Past: On the Semantics of Historical Time. Translated by Keith Tribe. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1985.

Lloyd, Jill. German Expressionism: Primitivism and Modernity. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1991.

Lübbren, Nina. Rural Artists' Colonies in Europe, 18701910. Manchester, U.K.: Manchester University Press, 2001.

Manheim, Ron. "ExpressionismusZur Enstehung eines Kunsthistorischen Stilund Periodenbegriffes." Zeitschrift für Kunstgeschichte 49, no. 1 (1986): 7391.

Perkins, Geoffrey. Contemporary Theory of Expressionism. Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang, 1974.

Rumold, Rainer, and O. K. Werckmeister, eds. The Ideological Crisis of Expressionism: The Literary and Artistic War Colony in Belgium, 19141918. Columbia, S.C.: Camden House, 1990.

Vogt, Paul. "Introduction." Expressionism: A German Intuition, 19051920. New York: Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, 1980.

Weinstein, Joan. The End of Expressionism (Art and the November Revolution in Germany, 191819). Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990.

Weisstein, Ulrich. "Expressionism in Literature." In Dictionary of the History of Ideas, edited by Philip P. Wiener. Vol. 2. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1973.

Werenskiold, Marit. The Concept of Expressionism: Origin and Metamorphoses. Oslo: Universitetsforlaget, 1984.

Williams, Rhys. "Culture and Anarchy in Expressionist Drama." In Expressionism Reassessed, edited by Shulamith Behr, David Fanning, and Douglas Jarman, 201212. New York: Manchester University Press.

Shulamith Behr


views updated May 18 2018



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.


According to Rudolf Kurtz (1884–1960), one of the earliest historical commentators on the movement called expressionism, the semantic instability of Expressionismus was already inherent in its first usage by a group of visual artists in imperial Germany prior to World War I. Those painters, associated with the German modern art groups Der blaue Reiter ("the Blue Rider," Munich) and Die Brücke ("the Bridge," Berlin/Dresden), coined the term in opposition to French impressionism, rejecting the notion of the artist as a receptacle for impressions of the moment. The Bridge (1905–1913) included painters such as Emil Nolde (1867–1956), Ernst Kirchner (1880–1938), and Erich Heckel (1883–1944), while the Blue Rider (1911–1914) was associated with Alexei von Jawlensky (1864–1941), Wassily Kandinsky (1866–1944), Gabrielle Münter (1877–1962), Franz Marc (1880–1916), and Paul Klee (1879–1940). They favored the concept of the artist as an active creator through will power, as a producer of visual images reflecting interior states rather than surface reality. In contrast to the pale pastels of impressionism, the expressionists favored broad brush strokes and rich, dense hues, which were applied without regard to the natural look of the object depicted. Thus, the reproduction of a photographic impression of reality was rejected, supplanted by the artist's subjective vision of the world. Kurtz allied German art expressionism with both the cubism of Pablo Picasso (1881–1973) and the Russian constructivist art of Aleksandr Archipenko (1887–1964) and Kasimir Malevich (1878–1935), while seeing the wildly saturated portraits of Vincent van Gogh (1853–1890) and the South Sea paintings of Paul Gauguin (1848–1903) as precursors. With the painter George Grosz (1893–1959), expressionism also took on an overt political, even revolutionary tone, attacking postwar social conditions and calculated to shock bourgeois sensibilities mired in "archaic" forms of realism. In other words, expressionism began more as an attitude and ideology than as a style, since strong vibrant color and an interest in painting as an artistic medium rather than as a window onto the world was perhaps the only common denominator of these artists.

This fact becomes clear when looking at German expressionist literature, where the term became a revolutionary cry for poets and dramatists such as Georg Kaiser (1878–1945), Ernst Toller (1893–1939), Georg Trakl (1887–1914), and Gottfried Benn (1886–1956). Produced as a reaction to the insanity of World War I and the realist aesthetic of nineteenth-century naturalism, the poetry of August Stramm (1874–1915), for example, was considered by traditionalists to be the stammering of an insane person, while Kaiser's dramas were perceived to be part and parcel to a generational revolt against the old order. Kasimir Edschmid may have best summarized the attitude of the expressionist artist when he wrote: "He doesn't see, he looks. He doesn't describe, he experiences. He doesn't reproduce, he shapes. He doesn't take, he searches. No more chains of facts: factories, houses, illnesses, whores, screaming and hunger. Now we have visions of those things" (quoted in Kurtz, p. 17).

b. Theodor Friedrich Emil Janenz, Rorschach, Switzerland, 23 July 1884, d. 2 January 1950

One of the most famous German film actors, Emil Jannings is the one most closely associated with German expressionist acting, although he was never connected to expressionist theater. He became a household name in Hollywood in the late 1920s, and was a key figure in the Nazi cinema.

Jannings's breakthrough role was in Ernst Lubitsch's Madame Dubarry (1919), in which he played Pola Negri's doomed lover, Louis XV. Overweight and hardly an image of beauty, Jannings nevertheless conveyed a strong sexuality and joie de vivre, making him an international star when the film became a hit in the United States as Passion in 1920. In the following years Jannings appeared in such classics as Anna Boleyn (1920), Danton (1921), Peter der Grosse (Peter the Great, 1922), and Paul Leni's Das Wachsfigurenkabinett (Waxworks, 1923). In these and other films he was typecast in the role of a despotic ruler, his large girth and coarse features underlining his usually horrific actions. With a strong tendency to chew up the scenery, Jannings finest hour probably was as Mephisto in F. W. Murnau's Faust (1926), which, along with his signature role as the demoted hotel doorman in Murnau's Der Letzte Mann (The Last Laugh, 1924), solidified his reputation as an actor forever associated with German expressionism. And while his performances in these films displayed the expressionist tendency toward stylized gesture and facial expressions, his role as the jealous acrobat in Varieté (Variety, 1925) was much more realistic. As in Last Laugh, Jannings here made himself a sympathetic character verging on the tragic.

Jannings subsequently accepted an invitation by Paramount to go to Hollywood, where he played similarly tragic characters in The Way of All Flesh (1927) and The Last Command (1928), winning the first Oscar® for best actor in both roles. Jannings then returned to Berlin, where he starred in Der Blaue Engel (The Blue Angel, 1930), but Marlene Dietrich stole the show, sending his career into eclipse.

He made his comeback in the Nazified German film industry after 1933 with the role of Wilhelm the Elector (Frederick the Great's father) in Alte und der junge König (The Making of a King, 1935). Thereafter, he regularly played great men as paradigmatic führer figures in a series of biopics with strong propagandistic content: Der Herrscher (The Ruler, 1937), Robert Koch (1939), Ohm Krüger (1941), and especially as Bismark in Die Entlassung (The Dismissal, 1942). He also repeated a role he had performed countless times onstage, that of the village judge in Der zerbrochene Krug (The Broken Jug, 1937). His last film remained uncompleted in January 1945.


Madame Dubarry (Passion, 1920), Der Letzte Mann (The Last Laugh, 1924), Faust (1926), Der Blaue Engel (The Blue Angel, 1930), Der zerbrochene Krug (The Broken Jug, 1937)


Dreyer, Carl. "Sur un film de Jannings," and "Du jeu de l'acteur." Cahiers du Cinéma (January 1962).

Truscott, Harold. "Emil Jannings—A Personal View." Silent Picture 8 (1970): 5–26.

Jan-Christopher Horak

German expressionist writers and painters found common ground in the theater, creating dramatic spaces through abstract set designs that attempted neither to reproduce the real world nor to function as mirrors of psychological states; the plays themselves were filled with angry young men and vitriolic attacks on middle-class sensibilities. It was not, as some have argued, German theatrical impresario Max Reinhardt (1873–1943) who

led the way, but rather theatre director Karlheinz Martin (1886–1948) at Die Tribüne, whose stagings of Ernst Toller's "Transfiguration" (1919) and Walter Hasenclever's "The Decision" (1919) scandalized and revolutionized Weimar theater. Not only were abstract sets utilized, created out of painted murals and light, but also the acting was highly stylized, with actors' bodies contorted to complement the wild diagonals of the stage and their voices eschewing normal patterns of speech. These stagings were also a product of material shortages due to the war and its aftermath, and audiences experienced color, light, and sound in new ways that mirrored the alienation of the postwar generation. Bertolt Brecht's (1898–1956) early play Baal (1918), whose Sturm and Drang hero is fiercely antibourgeois, is typical of how Weimar theater mirrored the political chaos in the streets of Berlin, where revolutions and counterrevolutions passed with amazing rapidity.

Das Kabinett des Dr. Caligari (The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, 1920) remains the signature work of German film expressionism. Produced at the Decla Studios in Berlin by Erich Pommer (1889–1966) (who soon after became production head at Universum Film Aktiengesellschaft [Ufa], Germany's largest film combine), Caligari featured painted sets by Hermann Warm and Walter Röhrig that opposed the general trend toward film realism by highlighting their artificiality, becoming visual equivalents of the twisted and tortured interior states of the mad Dr. Caligari (Emil Jannings) and his puppet, the somnambulist Cesare (Conrad Veidt). While lighting is a key formal element in most definitions of expressionism, Caligari, like subsequent expressionist films, relied on flat lighting to capture the highlights and shadows painted directly on the sets. Carl Mayer (1894–1944) and Hans Janowitz (1890–1954), the film's scriptwriters, later claimed that the film's revolutionary message was diluted by the film's producers, who decided to present the frame story in a realistic set, thus transforming the narrative vision of a society in chaos to the solitary ranting of a madman. In fact, though, the film's use of expressionist elements is consistent, down to the intertitles and even the advertising campaign, while the film's production history remains as convoluted as the various participants taking credit for its success. In any case, the film was an immediate box-office hit, both in Germany, where it opened in February 1920, and internationally. The French even coined the term caligarisme to denote expressionism, while American filmmakers and critics who saw the film after it opened in the United States in March 1921 enthusiastically embraced the notion that cinema could indeed be a high art and not just a base form of entertainment for the masses.

While no one associated with German expressionist art or theater had been directly involved in the making of Caligari, the artists who produced another film, Von morgens bis Mitternacht (From Morn to Midnight, 1920), were conscious of bringing an expressionist aesthetic to the cinema. The film's director, Karl Heinz Martin (1886–1948), the set designer, Robert Neppach (b. 1890), and the writer, Georg Kaiser, whose play was adapted, all had worked at Die Tribüne, and many critics consider their film to be the most consistently expressionist of the films of the period. In the film, a lowly bank teller embezzles funds after seeing a beautiful woman, his flight from bourgeois existence ending in suicide. But Von morgens bis Mitternacht apparently never opened in Germany, despite the efforts of a distributor to sell it through trade advertisements; it only became widely known after a print was discovered in Tokyo in the 1960s. Like Caligari, Martin's film featured highly stylized, hand-painted sets that seemingly collapsed space; light painted on the props and costumes; and expressionistic acting that bordered on the seemingly catatonic.

Meanwhile, Pommer, Carl Mayer, and Robert Wiene followed up Caligari with another film in the expressionist style, Genuine (1920), featuring fancifully painted sets and outrageous costumes by the well-known

expressionist artist Cesar Klein (1876–1954). While Caligari's narrative was relatively linear, Genuine focused on the machinations of a man-eating, blood-drinking vamp (Fern Andra) who is held captive by a mysterious lord. While Andra's hysterical acting style mirrored the impenetrable narrative, the film's emotional core was the depiction of unbridled sexual desire.

Karl Heinz Martin also directed Das Haus zum Mond (The House at the Moon, 1921), with a script by the expressionist writer Rudolf Leonhardt (1889–1953) and sets by Neppach. Unfortunately, the film is now lost, making any visual analysis impossible. Brandherd (Torgus, 1921) also featured sets by Neppach and a script by Carl Mayer, but the visual design involved three-dimensional sets that only featured expressionist highlights. With its moralistic, melodramatic narrative, Robert Wiene's (1873–1938) adaptation of Crime and Punishment, Raskolnikow (1923), on the other hand, was as much a product of its all Russian-exile crew as it was a manifestation of expressionism. White Russians also financed Das Wachsfigurenkabinett (Waxworks, 1924) by Paul Leni (1885–1929), which employed stylized three-dimensional sets, and could be identified as expressionist through its acting style, some of its set pieces, and its lighting. The sets themselves hark back to Der Golem (The Golem, 1915) and other German Gothic films. In any case, except for Caligari and Waxworks, none of these films entered the canon of German expressionist cinema, and hardly influenced German national cinema in the 1920s. Expressionism became conflated with what are now considered the classics of German silent cinema largely through the writings of two seminal historians, Lotte Eisner and Siegfried Kracauer.


As early as 1930 Paul Rotha was conflating expressionist cinema with German national cinema, but the responsibility for the semantic expansion of the term rests primarily with the influential German film historians Kracauer and Eisner. Both writers discuss only a handful of films while ignoring the thousands of comedies and other genre films produced in Berlin in the 1920s. Ironically, what for Kurtz had still been a revolutionary and liberating aesthetic form is inverted in their histories, turning expressionism into a prescient manifestation of German fascism and romantic doom—visual evidence for the German predilection toward Nazism and mass murder.

b. Vienna, Austria, 5 December 1890, d. 2 August 1976

Considered one of the greatest directors of the classical German and Hollywood cinemas, Fritz Lang was equally at home in large-scale studio epics and dark, brooding melodramas. Throughout his career he was known for his intense visual style, which wed expressionist lighting techniques with highly geometric compositions to articulate a fatalistic, entrapping world.

After beginning as a scriptwriter in 1917, Lang attained a huge commercial success directing Die Spinnen (The Spiders) in 1920. That same year he married Thea von Harbou, his scriptwriter on all his subsequent German films, including Der Müde Tod (Between Worlds, 1921), Dr. Mabuse, der Spieler (Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler, 1923), Die Nibelungen (1924), and Metropolis (1927). Created at the giant Neubabelsberg Studios of Universum Film Aktiengesellschaft (Ufa), these films are characterized by German mysticism, monumental sets and costumes, and stylized compositions. With M (1931), Lang immediately set new standards for the sound film, in particular through his montages of sound and image. That film starred Peter Lorre as a "sympathetic" child murderer, introducing darker themes that would become more prevalent in his American work.

Lang was forced into exile by the Nazis, ending up in Hollywood in June 1934. His first American film was Fury (1936), which featured Spencer Tracy as a man falsely accused of murder and almost lynched by a mob. Equally downbeat, You Only Live Once (1937) was a reworking of the Bonnie and Clyde story. Without a studio contract, Lang worked only occasionally in the next years. With four anti-Nazi films, including Hangmen Also Die! (1943) and Ministry of Fear (1944), Lang attempted to educate the public about fascism. Both films are suffused with a film noir atmosphere, as are Woman in the Window (1944) and Scarlet Street (1945). Lang was soon forced to take on a variety of low-budget projects, and was temporarily blacklisted during the McCarthy era due to his association with writer Bertolt Brecht, a known Communist sympathizer. In 1957 Lang returned to Germany to direct the two-part Das indische Grabmal (Indian Tomb, 1958), and Die tausend Augen des Dr. Mabuse (The Thousand Eyes of Dr. Mabuse, 1960). In 1963 he appeared as a disenchanted Hollywood film director in Jean-Luc Godard's Le Mépris (Contempt, 1963).

While for decades critics considered Lang to have gone into decline after his great German films, auteurist and more recent feminist readings have recuperated his American work. Reevaluating his contributions to both the anti-Nazi film cycle and to film noir, critics see Lang's Hollywood films in terms of his dark vision of the American bourgeoisie: Edward G. Robinson's characters in Window and Scarlet Street, for example, are middle-class citizens who commit or cover up murder for a femme fatale. Stylistically, Lang's films wed German expressionism to American genre cinema, finding film noir a congenial form for the expression of his dark, determinist vision.


Der Müde Tod (Between Worlds, 1921), Die Nibelungen (1924), Metropolis (1927), M (1931), Fury (1936), Hangmen Also Die! (1943), Woman in the Window (1944), Scarlet Street (1945), The Big Heat (1953)


Bogdanovich, Peter. Fritz Lang in America. New York: Praeger, 1969.

Grant, Barry Keith, ed. Fritz Lang Interviews. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2003.

Gunning, Tom. The Films of Fritz Lang: Allegories of Vision and Modernity. London: British Film Institute, 2000.

Jenkins, Stephen, ed. Fritz Lang: The Image and the Look. London: British Film Institute, 1981.

McGilligan, Patrick. Fritz Lang: The Nature of the Beast. New York: St. Martin's, 1997.

Jan-Christopher Horak

Kracauer, a former film critic in Weimar Germany, wrote his book From Caligari to Hitler (1947) while in exile in New York during and immediately after World War II, primarily to explain to Americans why the German nation sank into barbarism. Kracauer almost completely ignores German expressionism's stylistic features, focusing instead on narrative threads and typologies that buttress his case that the cinema of the Weimar Republic gave evidence of the deluge to come by visualizing German psychology, specifically a supposed national character trait that embraced authoritarian figures. Critics have noted that Kracauer's analyses are highly selective and teleological, and the book leaves the impression that the expressionism of Caligari was inherent in all subsequent German cinema.

Eisner's The Haunted Screen, first published in France in 1952, was likewise the work of a German Jewish film critic in exile, although, unlike Kracauer, Eisner's purpose was less ideological than art historical. Attempting to analyze the stylistic uniqueness of German art cinema in the 1920s while acknowledging its precedents in German romanticism, Eisner discusses two essentially unrelated phenomena: the influence of theater impresario Max Reinhardt and film expressionism. In fact, Reinhardt's utilization of chiaroscuro (interplay of light and shadow) and Kammerspiel (an intimate stage, involving only a few characters and sparse sets) mise-en-scène had little to do with German expressionism, as Eisner herself admitted in a series of articles published in the wake of her book's reception. Yet her description of formal lighting techniques and mise-en-scène in the films of Fritz Lang (1890–1976) and F. W. Murnau (1888–1931) have been associated with German expressionism ever since, as have the stylized acting common to much German silent cinema.

By the dawn of Anglo-American film studies, then, expressionism and German Weimar cinema had become so conceptually intertwined that the terms were virtually interchangeable. Lang's Der Müde Tod (Between Worlds, 1921) and Metropolis (1927), G.W. Pabst's (1885–1967) Die Freudlose Gasse (The Joyless Street, 1925) and Die 3groschenoper (The Threepenny Opera, 1931), Ernst Lubitsch's (1892–1947) Die Bergkatze (The Wildcat, 1921), E.A. Dupont's (1891–1956) Varieté (Variety, 1925), and numerous other German films were subsumed under the term German expressionist cinema, which itself became a stylistic signpost in the film historical canon, situated somewhere between D.W. Griffith's American cinema of the 1910s and Soviet revolutionary cinema of the 1920s. If expressionism did enter into idiom of silent German art cinema, it was probably the highly stylized, somewhat static acting style of German expressionist thespians. This is particularly obvious in a film such as Hintertreppe (Backstairs, Leopold Jessner, 1921), which is a Kammerspiel without any expressionist trappings in its visual design, but features pure expressionist performances by Fritz Kortner (1892–1970), William Dieterle (1893–1972), and the usually nonexpressionist actress Henny Porten (1890–1960). Expressionist actors, including Werner Krauss (1884–1959), Conrad Veidt (1893–1943), Reinhold Schünzel (1886–1954), and Kortner, became among the most sought-after in German films of that period.

In the past, traditional and formalist film critics differentiated films, filmmakers, and epochs through a series of binary oppositions whereby "realism" signified all attempts at depicting the world in terms of the conventions of a unified space and time, as had been passed down from the Renaissance (according to Andre Bazin), while expressionism defined attempts to visualize the universe from the strictly subjective point of view of the artist. According to this view, the push and pull of film forms began with the Lumière brothers (realism) and Georges Méliès (expressionism) at the very dawn of cinema. However, more recent early cinema studies have demonstrated that no such polarity existed at the time. Furthermore, film semiotics and postmodern theory have taken the field well beyond such simple, binary oppositions so that it is questionable whether

the continued use of the term expressionism in its broadest sense remains useful.

What, then, should expressionism mean? Given its origins in modernist art, expressionism should be seen as a particular form of film design that privileges the subjective over the objective, the fantastic and the uncanny over the mundane and everyday, packaging both trivial and high art into film works that address cinema audiences within the context of commercial film culture. Contrary to Edschmid's pronouncements, subjectivity in expressionist film is not seen merely as the "expression" of an individual artist, but rather as a subjectivity shared by an audience willing to enter into an alien world in order to partake of the visual pleasures such a design affords. Unlike classical Hollywood narrative, expressionist cinema tends toward self-reflexivity, toward making audiences aware of the image's artifice and their own subject position as consumers of images, whether through the undisguised use of painted sets, through the nonnaturalistic use of color film stock and lenses, or by distancing the audience from the actors' performances through stylized poses. In any case, it seems clear that such a definition no longer carries with it any specific ideological connotations, other than a style in opposition to classical Hollywood narrative.

Expressionism, properly speaking, refers exclusively to the artistic movement in the specific historical period in Germany in the early 1920s. The term also refers to German art films in the 1920s that were strongly influenced by expressionism. These films include such stylistic qualities as high key lighting, canted camera angles, subjective camera movement, stylized sets, nonnaturalistic acting, nonlinear narratives, a tendency toward dreamlike images, and Gothic content that often privileges narratives of sexual excess, like Genuine. More broadly defined, expressionism may refer to Universal's horror films of the 1930s and films noir (many made by exiled German filmmakers) of the 1940s and 1950s, as well as contemporary films that quote German expressionist cinema, such as the films of Guy Maddin (b. 1956).

SEE ALSO Acting;Germany;Production Design;Realism;Silent Cinema;Theater;Ufa (Universum Film Aktiengesellschaft);Universal


Bazin, André. What Is Cinema?, vol. 1, edited and translated by Hugh Gray. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1967.

Barlow, John D. German Expressionist Film. Boston: Twayne, 1982.

Eisner, Lotte. The Haunted Screen: Expressionism in the German Cinema and the Influence of Max Reinhardt. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1969.

Elsaesser, Thomas. Weimar Cinema and After: Germany's Historical Imaginary. London: Routledge, 2000.

Gay, Peter. Weimar Culture. London: Penguin, 1968.

Gianetti, Louis. Understanding Movies. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1990.

Huaco, George. The Sociology of Film Art. New York: Basic Books, 1965.

Kracauer, Siegfried. From Caligari to Hitler. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1947.

Kurtz, Rudolf. Expressionismus und Film. Berlin: Verlag der Lichtbildbühne, 1926; Reprinted Zurich: Verlag Hans Rohr, 1965. All quotations translated by Jan-Christopher Horak (2006).

Salt, Barry. Film Style and Technology: History and Analysis. London: Star Word, 1989.

Thompson, Kristin, and David Bordwell. Film History: An Introduction. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1994.

Jan-Christopher Horak


views updated Jun 11 2018



Expressionism at the beginning of the twentieth century was a central and eastern European movement that brought together painters, sculptors, writers (of literature and for the theater), art critics, architects, filmmakers, engravers, and musicians. More specifically, in 1912 the magazine Der Sturm used the term expressionism to characterize the art scene of the day in contrast to impressionism. Paul Fechter, in his book Der Expressionismus, published in Munich in 1914, was the first critic to use the word expressionism to refer to a trend in German art. For Fechter, expressionism had come to embody the spirit of the times—a spirit that, in the realm of the arts in Germany, took the form of a fight against governmental authority; a rupture defined by the formation of "secessions" or "new secessions" of groups of artists independent of the official culture of William II (r. 1888–1918). In 1897 the Vienna Secession had freed artists from academic painting, proclaiming a more individual art and thus paving the way for the Berlin Secession the following year. Until 1913 the Berlin New Secession helped open up access to European, and especially French, art (the exhibition of impressionist paintings in Berlin museums was forbidden by the government). These new approaches were immediately disseminated through the reviews. The founding in 1910 of the Berlin magazine Der Sturm by Herwarth Walden (pseudonym of Georg Lewin, 1878–1941) and the subsequent founding of Die Aktion provided a way to convey the new ideas, reflecting the desire for liberty and freedom from institutional constraints—the basic elements of the avant-garde in Europe.


The rejection of academic art and teaching allowed four students at the Technische Hochschule (Technical School) in Dresden—Ernst Ludwig Kirchner (1880–1938), Fritz Bleyl (1880–1966), Erich Heckel (1883–1970), and Karl Schmidt-Rottluff (1884–1976)—to form an association in 1905. Schmidt-Rottluff proposed to call it "Die Brücke" (The bridge); the choice of this name was made explicit by a woodcut made the same year representing Dresden's Augustus Bridge, which links the old town to the new town. Other group members were Max Pechstein (1881–1955) and (briefly) Emil Nolde (1867–1956). Subject matter linked to their environments—such as lake scenes from the Bavarian landscape, in which nude figures are merged with nature (Otto Muller), or nostalgia for the landscapes of northern Germany (Nolde)—contrasted with the context of urban development and rapid industrialization that inspired the futurists. With the exception of Pechstein, the artists of Die Brücke were not academically trained and were thus unencumbered by doctrine. They painted twisted, angular shapes with violent contrasts and pure colors outlined in black: yellow faces, red trees, or blue streets, inspired by The Scream (1893, considered the first "expressionist drama") by Edvard Munch (1863–1944) or the violent colors of Vincent Van Gogh (1853–1890). Taking their inspiration from non-European sculpture, the artists produced series of sculpted and painted nudes (from 1910 to 1914) with exaggerated thighs and breasts, their curves accentuated with black paint, that show a return to a primitivism recalling that of Paul Gauguin (1848–1903). Until 1913 the artists of Die Brücke also reinvigorated the graphic arts through their recurrent use of the technique of woodcut engravings.


Wassily Kandinsky (1866–1944) and Alexej von Jawlensky (1864–1941), Russian painters who had emigrated to Germany, settled in Murnau (south of Munich), near Lake Staffel, in 1908. Kandinsky's concrete references in his work were becoming increasingly enigmatic: his gestures were expressive, his palette essentially freed from the real appearance of objects.

In January 1909 Kandinsky and Jawlensky founded the Neue Künstler-Vereinigung München (New association of Munich artists, NKVM). This heterogeneous group, whose members had varying objectives, organized its first exhibition in December 1909 at Heinrich Thannhäuser's Moderne Galerie (the second exhibition was in September 1910). The painter Franz Marc (1880–1916), who met Kandinsky for the first time in 1911, explained that "This bold enterprise, which consists in sublimating the 'matter' that impressionism clings to, is a necessary reaction that began at Pont-Aven with Gauguin.…What seems to us so promising in these new experiments by the Association of Artists is that fact that these works … provide valuable examples of the manipulation of space, rhythm, and chromatic theory" (quoted in Figures du moderne, p. 199; translated from the French).

In 1911 Kandinsky resigned as president of the association because one of his Compositions was rejected during preparation for the next exhibition. Immediately, Marc and Kandinsky founded the group Der Blaue Reiter (The blue rider) and organized an alternative exhibit to coincide with the third NKVM show. Fifteen artists with varying artistic visions, including musicians such as Arnold Schoenberg (1874–1951), presented their works. Kandinsky and Marc used terminology that they hoped to use in their publishing projects; those projects culminated in the publication in May 1912 of the Almanach Der Blaue Reiter. This rich and eclectic publication combined avant-garde works with examples of Egyptian and Far Eastern art, folk art, children's drawings, and paintings by amateurs. That same year Paul Klee (1879–1940) joined the second Blaue Reiter exhibit, while Kandinsky's work began to combine figurative elements (such as knights and trees) and nonfigurative elements and to dissociate color from line through the use of watercolor. He published Concerning the Spiritual in Art, developed the concept of "internal necessity," and laid the first foundations for abstraction. Kandinsky left Germany in 1914.


In this context of their hatred of social conventions and the struggle against traditional values and authority, some German artists saw in the war of 1914 the potential to destroy the old order and build a better society. Kirchner, August Macke (1887–1914), and Marc voluntarily enlisted. Marc (whose Letters from the Front provides valuable testimony), Macke, and Wilhelm Morgner (1891–1917) died in combat. After the signing of the Treaty of Versailles, in the context of the payment of war reparations owed to France and severe unemployment, the young Weimar Republic, its government dominated by the Social Democrats, awarded positions of responsibility in teaching as well as honorific titles: Nolde, Schmidt-Rottluff, and Kirchner were elected to the Prussian Academy of Arts. Most of the Blaue Reiter artists fled Germany. After the rise of Nazism, the works of German expressionist artists were deemed "degenerate"; they were "displayed" in 1938 at the Entartete Kunst (Degenerate art) exhibit.

Die Brücke and Der Blaue Reiter were two complementary groups that contributed to the establishment of the avant-garde in Europe at the beginning of the twentieth century.

See alsoAvant-Garde; Kandinsky, Wassily; Klee, Paul; Modernism.


Primary Sources

Fechter, Paul. Expressionismus. Munich, 1914. Rev. ed., Munich, 1920.

Kandinsky, Wassily. Uber das Geitige in der Kunst. Munich, 1912. Translated as Concerning the Spiritual in Art. New York, 1947.

Secondary Sources

Figures du moderne: L'expressionism en Allemagne, Dresden, Munich, Berlin, 1940–1914. Paris, 1992. Exhibition catalog.

Gordon, Donald. "German Expressionism." In "Primitivism" in 20th Century Art, edited by William Rubin. New York, 1984.

Lloyd, Jill. German Expressionism: Primitivism and Modernity. New Haven, Conn., 1991.

Myers, Bernard. Expressionistes allemands: Une génération en révolte, translated by Jean Rousselot. Paris, 1967.

Caroline Tron-Carroz


views updated May 23 2018

Expressionism. Artistic movement in Northern Europe, especially in Germany and The Netherlands, from c.1905 to c.1930, it was concerned in architecture not to emphasize function, but to create free and powerful sculptural forms, often crystalline, sometimes sharply angular, and occasionally stalactitic. In The Netherlands the most important protagonists were members of the Amsterdam School, and the characteristic works housing by Michel de Klerk and the Scheepvaarthuis (Navigation House—1913–17) in Amsterdam. In Denmark the greatest work of Expressionism (with a pronounced Gothic flavour) was the Grundtvig Church, Copenhagen (1913–26), by Jensen-Klint. In Germany, however, there were several outstanding examples: the water-tower and exhibition-hall at Posen (now Poznań) of 1911, with a polygonal steel structure resembling crystalline hexagonal forms, by Poelzig; the glass pavilion, Werkbund Exhibition, Cologne (1914), by Bruno Taut; the Grosses Schauspielhaus (Great Playhouse), Berlin (1918–19— destroyed), with its interior resembling a cave of stalactites, by Poelzig; the Einstein Tower, Potsdam (1919–21), by Mendelsohn; the Chile-Haus, Hamburg (1922–3), by Fritz Höger; the administrative-building of the Hoechst Dyeworks (1920–5), by Behrens; the Liebknecht-Luxemburg Monument, Berlin (1926—destroyed), by Mies van der Rohe; the churches of Bartning; some churches by Dominikus Böhm certain works by Bellot; and the farm buildings, Gut Garkau, by Häring. The Goetheanum, Dornach, Switzerland (1924–8), by Rudolf Steiner, was one of the greatest works of the movement. Some of Gottfried Böhm's architectural language derived from Expressionism.


Chilvers, Osborne, & Farr (eds.) (1988);
Lampugnani (ed.) (1988);
Pehnt (1973);
U. Schneider (1999);
Sharp (1967);
Wit & and Casciato (1986)


views updated May 23 2018

expressionism Style of art in which conventional methods of naturalism are replaced by exaggerated images to express intense, subjective emotion. The term is often used in relation to a radical German art movement between the 1880s and c.1905. The inspiration for this new focus came from many different sources, including the work of Van Gogh, Gauguin, Munch and those within symbolism, as well as from folk art. German expressionism reached its apogee in the work of the Blaue Reiter group. The term also applies to performance arts, such as the works of Strindberg and Wedekind.


views updated May 23 2018

ex·pres·sion·ism / ikˈspreshəˌnizəm/ • n. a style of painting, music, or drama in which the artist or writer seeks to express emotional experience rather than impressions of the external world.DERIVATIVES: ex·pres·sion·ist n. & adj.ex·pres·sion·is·tic / ikˌspreshəˈnistik/ adj.ex·pres·sion·is·ti·cal·ly / ikˌspreshəˈnistik(ə)lē/ adv.


views updated May 29 2018

expressionism. Term borrowed from painting, generally assoc. with work of the early 20th-cent. Ger. artists of the Munich ‘Blaue Reiter’ group led by Kandinsky. Prin. characteristics were avoidance of representational forms and interest in psychological impulses. These were musically reflected in works of Schoenberg, Webern, and Berg. But, like impressionism, the term is vague.


views updated Jun 08 2018

expressionism a style of painting, music, or drama in which the artist or writer seeks to express emotional experience rather than impressions of the external world. Expressionists characteristically reject traditional ideas of beauty or harmony and use distortion, exaggeration, and other non-naturalistic devices in order to emphasize and express the inner world of emotion.