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).
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.
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.