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Glossary: German Expressionism

German Expressionism Art Literature Film Music

Expressionism was the key movement in German literature, as it was in painting, during and immediately after World War I. Expressionism emphasized the inner significance of things and not their external forms. Actually anticipating the war, it depicted the disintegration of the world and proclaimed a quest for the "New Man."

Frank Wedekind's dramas were forerunners of this style. For example, the plays constituting what is commonly known as the Lulu Tragedy, Erdgeist (1895; Earth Spirit) and Die Büchse des Pandora (1895; Pandora's Box), had pilloried bourgeois morality and broken with dramatic convention. The first fully Expressionist drama, however, was Johannes Reinhard Sorge's Bettler (1912; "The Beggar"), in which characters appeared as abstract functions in each other's lives. This play, like those of Walter Hasenclever, Paul Kornfeld, Fritz von Unruh, Ernst Barlach the sculptor, and Oskar Kokoschka the painter, was characterized by a quest for the essence of things, for the ideas behind personality and spiritual meaning in life. Ernst Toller wrote political plays employing an Expressionist technique in Die Maschinenstürmer (published 1922; The Machine-Wreckers). Georg Kaiser, the leading Expressionist playwright, moved from naturalism through Expressionism to a mature traditional style, while Carl Sternheim unmasked bourgeois pretensions by means of a shrill satire of contemporary language.

Expressionist poetry was equally nonreferential, attaining coherence through its associative power. The chief poets were Ernst Stadler, Georg Heym, Georg Trakl, August Stramm, Gottfried Benn, and Else Lasker-Schüler. The mainspring of Expressionist verse was a horror over urban life and over the collapse of civilization. Portrayals of this apocalyptic vision range from Trakl's moving lamentation to a macabre, cynical detachment in Benn's early verse. The vision of meaninglessness was extended in the so-called Dadaism of poets such as Jean (Hans) Arp and Yvan Goll. An absurd view of life was also featured in the nonsense verse of Christian Morgenstern (Galgenlieder, 1905; Gallows Songs).

Franz Kafka shared this negative vision. His parables, stories, and novels seem to epitomize the problems of modern life. With the stark clarity of a nightmare, he depicted the horror and uncertainty of human existence. In Das Urteil (1913; The Sentence, or The Judgment), a father condemns his son to death; in Die Verwandlung (1915; The Transformation, or Metamorphosis), a man turns into a beetle; and in In der Strafkolonie (1919; In the Penal Settlement), a torture machine runs wild. In his posthumously published novels, notably Der Prozess (1925; The Trial) and Das Schloss (1926; The Castle), the individual is trapped in a labyrinth of anxiety and guilt and crushed by unfathomable forces. There is also humour in Kafka, sometimes grotesque and at others sublime. The terror of his art, however, is only alleviated by its moral strength.

Kafka's themes recall Expressionism, but his classically balanced style echoes the prose of the Swiss Robert Walser, author of Jakob von Gunten (1929). The Expressionist novel is best exemplified by Alfred Döblin's Berlin Alexanderplatz (1929; "Alexander Square, Berlin"; Eng. trans. The Story of Franz Biberkopf).


"German Literature" Encyclopædia Britannica Online.