MICHELIN Travel Discover the world
Home > > > > > Art and Culture Germany

Leaving for Germany

Where to sleep?

View 12829 hotels for Germany

Art and Culture

Enlarge map

Art and Culture


Germany’s geographical location and history have left it open to the influence of artistic currents from the rest of Europe—mainly French in the Gothic period and Italian in the Renaissance period. Each style has been interpreted and adapted according to regional tastes. This inventiveness has allowed Germany to develop an originality that is reflected in the sumptuous decoration of the Baroque abbeys in Bavaria and in the Expressionism of the inter-war years.

Romanesque architecture

Carolingian architecture (9C and early 10C)

Under the impetus of the emperor and the great prelates, a large number of religious buildings were built in Germany on a basilical or central plan (Palatine chapel at Aachen), both inherited from Antiquity. Carolingian architecture is marked by the building of churches with two chancels: at the west end, a particular form emerged, the Westwerk , a tall square structure attached to the nave and often flanked by two towers, like at Corvey, for instance. The Westwerk constitutes almost a church in itself, where the emperor may have worshipped and where a special liturgy developed. It had a long-lasting effect on German Romanesque architecture.

Ottonian architecture (10C and early 11C)

The restoration of Imperial power by Otto I in 962 was accompanied by a revival of religious architecture in Saxony and in the regions of the Meuse and Lower Rhine. The huge churches of this period, characterized by deeply projecting transepts and wide aisles, feature wooden roofs that were usually painted. The alternation of piers and columns broke up the uniformity of the central portion, and east and west choirs were linked by the nave, with a skillful use of proportion giving a harmonious effect. The churches of St Michaelis at Hildesheim and St Cyriacus at Gernrode date back to this period.

Rhineland romanesque Style

At Cologne and in the surrounding countryside, several churches feature a distinctive ground plan with a triple apse designed in the form of a cloverleaf, a style dating back to the 11C. A fine example can be seen at the church of St Maria im Kapitol in Cologne. These trefoil extensions are adorned on the outside with blind arcades and a “dwarf gallery” (Zwerggalerie) —a motif of Lombard origin.

In the Middle Rhine region, the style achieves its full splendor in the majestic “Imperial” cathedrals of Speyer (the first church to be entirely vaulted), Mainz and Worms. Typical of these cathedrals are floor plans with a double chancel and no ambulatory, but sometimes a double transept. The exterior features numerous towers, blind arcades and Lombard bands. A characteristic of these Rhineland towers is a pointed roof in the form of a bishop’s mitre, the base decorated with a lozenge pattern.

The churches of Limburg and Andernach and the cathedral at Naumburg, which were built early in the 13C, mark the transition between two periods. They are built in a style which combines Romanesque aesthetics and Gothic structures, with pointed rib vaulting and triforia.

Gothic architecture

The gradual emergence of the Gothic style (13C)

The French style of Gothic architecture, which attempted to free itself of Romanesque austerity, did not flourish in Germany until the mid-13C. Architecture then reached new heights of refinement, producing such masterpieces as the cathedral in Cologne with its vast interior, two tall slender towers framing the façade in the French style and its soaring pointed vaulting. Also inspired by the French Gothic style are the cathedrals of Regensburg, Freiburg im Breisgau, Magdeburg and Halberstadt. A further manifestation of the predominance of French architecture can be seen in the establishment of Cistercian monasteries between 1150 and 1250. Their churches, usually without towers or belfries and often later modified in the Baroque manner, were habitually designed with squared-off chancels flanked by rectangular chapels. The abbey of Maulbronn is one of very few Cistercian complexes preserved in almost its entirety still extant in Europe.

The originality of German architecture

The German imprint first emerged in the use of brick. In the north of the country the most imposing edifices were brick , complete with buttresses and flying buttresses. Typical of this brick Gothic style (known in German as Backsteingotik) are the Nikolaikirche at Stralsund, the Marienkirche in Lübeck, the town halls of those two cities, Schwerin Cathedral and the abbey church at Bad Doberan.Also unique to Gothic German architecture is the adoption of a new layout inspired by Cistercian architecture and manifested in the hall-churches (Hallenkirche) . In these buildings, the aisles are now the same height as the nave, which therefore has no clerestory windows, and are separated from it only by tall columns. In the Elisabethkirche in Marburg, the three aisles are separated by thin supports, giving an impression of space and homogeneity.

Late Gothic architecture

The lengthy Late Gothic period (14C, 15C and 16C) witnessed the widespread construction of hall-churches, including Freiburg cathedral, the Frauenkirche in Munich and the Georgskirche, Dinkelsbühl. The vaulting features purely decorative ribs forming networks in the shape of stars or flowers in stark contrast to the austerity of the walls. St Annenkirche at Annaberg-Buchholz epitomizes this artistic virtuosity, free of all constraints.

Secular Architecture in the Late Middle Ages – Commercial prosperity among merchants and skilled craftsmen in the 14C and 15C led to the construction in town centers of impressive town halls and beautiful gabled and half-timbered private houses, frequently adorned with painting and sculpture. Examples of such architecture are still to be seen in the old town centers of Regensburg, Rothenburg ob der Tauber, Goslar and Tübingen.

The Renaissance

The Renaissance (1520–1620) is no more than a minor episode in the history of German architecture. Long held at bay by the persistence of the Gothic style, it was finally eclipsed by the troubles of the Reformation. Renaissance-style buildings are therefore rare in German towns. Augsburg is the lone exception. Its beautiful mansions lining Maximilianstaße and its town hall were designed by Elias Holl (1573–1646), Germany’s most important Renaissance builder.

Southern Germany shows a marked Italian influence: elegant Florentine arcading was used by Jakob Fugger the Rich as decoration for his funerary chapel at Augsburg (1518); the Jesuits, building the Michaelskirche in Munich (1589), were clearly inspired by their own Sanctuary of Jesus (Gesù) in Rome; and in Cologne, the town hall with its two-tier portico reflects Venetian influence.

Northern Germany , on the other hand, was influenced by Flemish and Dutch design. In the rich merchants’ quarters, many-storied gables, such as those of the Gewandhaus in Brunswick, boast rich ornamentation in the form of obelisks, scrollwork, statues, pilasters, etc. The castles at Güstrow and Heidelberg and the old town of Görlitz are important examples of Renaissance architecture, while the buildings of Wolfenbüttel, Celle, Bückeburg and Hameln are steeped in the particular charm of the so-called “Weser Renaissance”.

The splendors of Baroque architecture

After the disruption of the Thirty Years’ War (1618–48), the ensuing revival of artistic activity provided an opportunity for the principalities to introduce Baroque architecture by welcoming French and Italian architects. Characterized by an irregularity of contour and a multiplicity of form, the Baroque style seeks, above all, the effect of movement and contrast. Taken to its extreme, it was soon saturated by Rococo decoration, which originated in the French Rocaille style; this style was originally secular and courtly but subsequently used in religious buildings.

From the mid-17C, Baroque influence was felt in southern Germany, encouraged by the Counter-Reformation’s exaltation of dogmatic belief in Transubstantiation, the cult of the Virgin Mary and the saints, and in general all manifestations of popular piety. The aim was to achieve an emotional response from the spectator. This exuberance did not spread to Protestant Northern Germany.

The Masters of German and Danubian Baroque

There were exceptionally talented individuals in Bavaria who displayed equal skill across a variety of techniques, and who tended to prefer subtle ground plans, such as a round or elliptical focal shape. Johann Michael Fischer (Dießen, Zwiefalten and Ottobeuren), the Asam brothers (Weltenburg and the Asamkirche in Munich) and Dominikus Zimmermann (1685–1766, Steinhausen and Wies) were the virtuosi of this Bavarian School; their vibrant creations are covered by a profusion of Rococo decoration.

The Baroque movement in Franconia, patronized by the prince-bishops of the Schönborn family, who owned residences in Mainz, Würzburg, Speyer and Bamberg, was closely linked with the spread of similar ideas in Bohemia. The Dientzenhofer brothers decorated the palaces in Prague as well as the one in Bamberg. Perhaps the greatest of all Baroque architects was Balthasar Neumann (1687–1753), who worked for the same prelates, and whose breadth of cultural knowledge and creativity, enriched by his contact with French, Viennese and Italian masters, far surpassed that of his contemporaries. One of his finest creations was the Vierzehnheiligen Church near Bamberg, where he managed to combine the basilical plan with the ideal of the central plan. In Saxony, the Zwinger Palace in Dresden—joint masterpiece of the architect Matthäus Daniel Pöppelmann (1662–1736)and the sculptor Permoser—is a consummate example of German Baroque with Italian roots. The refinement of the Rococo decor in Schloss Sanssouci at Potsdam is even more astonishing given the reputed Prussian tendency towards austerity, but is explained by the periods of study undertaken in France and Italy by Georg Wenzeslaus von Knobelsdorff (1699–1753), official architect and friend of Frederick the Great.


A sinuous movement, generally convex in line, animates the façades, while the superposition of two pediments, different in design, adds vitality to the whole. They are additionally adorned with twin domed towers. Inside, huge galleries stand above the lateral chapels, at the height of pilaster capitals with jutting abaci. Chapels and galleries stop at the level of the transept, giving it a much greater depth. Clerestory windows at gallery level allow plenty of light to enter.

Bohemian and Franconian Baroque is typified by complex vaulting , round or oval bays being covered by complicated structures in which the transverse arches bow out in horse-shoe shape, only to meet in their keystones.

Illusion is the keyword as regards the often Rococo decoration, using the effects of the white stucco, colored marble and gilding. The numerous paintings and sculptures enhance this celebration of the sacred.

The monumental altarpiece or reredos

Reminiscent of a triumphal arch, in carved wood or stucco, the reredos became the focal point of the church, framing a large painting and/or statuary (Ottobeuren Abbey Church). Columns twisted into spiral form accentuate the sense of movement which characterizes Baroque art, and back lighting from a hidden source, with its striking contrasts of brightness and shadow, is equally typical of the style.


The one-story construction of these country residences was often lent additional importance by being built on a raised foundation. The focal point was a half-circular central bloc with the curved façade facing the garden.

Monumental stairways with several flights and considerable theatrical effect are often the centerpieces of the larger German castles and palaces built in the 18C. The staircase, embellished with arcaded galleries and a painted ceiling, leads to the first floor state room which rises majestically to a height of two storys. Such elaborate arrangements characterize many of the great abbeys of this period, often complemented by that other ceremonial room, the library.

From Neoclassicism to Neo-Gothic

The ideal of an original austerity

From 1750 on, Winckelmann’s work on the art of Antiquity, and the excavations taking place at Pompeii, threw a new light on Greco-Roman architecture. At the same time, the example of Versailles inspired in Germany a new style of court life, particularly in the Rhineland and the Berlin of Frederick II. Many French architects were employed by the Electors of the Palatinate, of Mainz, of Trier and of Cologne; mainly, they produced plans for country mansions with names such as Monrepos (“my rest”) or Solitude. Other German architects, such as Carl Gotthard Langhans (1732–1808), were instrumental in the transition from the Baroque to the Neoclassical style (Brandenburg Gate and the Charlottenburg theater in Berlin).

Features such as unadorned pediments, balustrades at the base of the roofs, columned porticoes at the main entrance, all indicate a desire for unobtrusive elegance. A new fashion arose, in which architects favored the Doric style coupled with a preference for the colossal—pilasters and columns of a single “order” no longer stood one-story high but always two.

The interior decoration, carried out with a lighter touch, confined itself to cornucopias of flowers mingled with Rococo motifs that were now a little more discreet (garlands, urns, vases and friezes of pearls).

Architecture was now responding to a demand for rationality that had emerged in reaction to the Late Baroque and Rococo styles.

Karl-Friedrich Schinkel (1781–1841)

Appointed state architect by Frederick William III in 1815, he designed many buildings, including the Neue Wache, Altes Museum and Schauspielhaus in Berlin. In a refined approach using elements inspired by Antiquity, this great exponent of Romantic Classicism constantly sought to blend his constructions in with their surroundings. The grandiose style of his buildings with their long Neoclassical colonnades, the dramatic contrasts of light and the use of Gothic elements are typical of the Romantic trend.

The 19C and the Neo-Gothic

19C architecture was characterized by a great diversity of styles. By 1830, the Neoclassical movement had become sterile; it was superseded, except in Munich, by a renewed interest in the Gothic, emblematic for the Romantics of “the old Germany”.

At the same time, the Biedermeier style—lightweight, cushioned furniture with flowing lines, glass-fronted cabinets for the display of knick-knacks—corresponding perhaps with the later Edwardian style in England, was popular in middle-class homes between 1815 and 1848.

1850 marks the beginning of the Founders’ Period (Gründerzeitstil) with E. Ludwig and A. Koch pursuing an up-to-date style. But the wealthy industrialists fell for pretentious medieval or Renaissance reproductions, also to be found in public buildings such as the Reichstag in Berlin.

20C movements

In the late 19C, artists began exploring new avenues in a desire to move away from past styles and into the modern age. Art nouveau or Jugendstil , a European movement, became the vogue in Germany. The architects’ idea was to create a complete work of art accessible to all, combining structure, decoration and furniture. This ideal, based on cooperation with industry, its methods of production and the use of its newest building materials (glass, iron, cement), resulted in the fundamental concept of an industrial aesthetic, brought to the fore by such pioneers as Peter Behrens, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Walter Gropius .

This style flourished mainly in Munich, Berlin and Darmstadt (with the Mat-hildenhöhe artists’ colony). The artists’ commitment, expressed within the Secessions (Munich 1892, Berlin 1899), was coupled with a political demand for independence.

The Bauhaus

In 1919, Walter Gropius founded the Bauhaus (Weimar: 1919–25, Dessau: 1926–32), a school of architecture and applied arts which radicalized the movement for modernisation, displaying an even greater interest in industrial production. The quest for unity between art and technique was a fundamental element. Architecture remained, in principle at least, the preferred form of expression since it combined structure and decoration and enabled application of the principles of functionality and rationality. The movement instigated modern reflections on architecture and habitat and lent its vocabulary to modern design.

The school, which was critical of society, was closed in 1933 by the Nazis, who adopted a pompous and monumental style of architecture intended to reflect their power. It was, in most cases, to be destroyed.

At the end of the war, the reconstruction effort inspired a wide variety of architectural creations. Architects such as Dominikus Böhm and Rudolf Schwartz were among the craftsmen who were brought to light by this renewal of interest in sacred work, many of their designs being markedly austere.

New concepts, too, characterized the construction of municipal and cultural enterprises such as Hans Scharoun’s Philharmonie in Berlin and the Staatsgalerie in Stuttgart by British architect James Stirling—buildings of an architectural audacity only made possible by the development of entirely new materials and construction techniques. Architectural creation is still very much alive in Germany today, particularly in Berlin with centers such as Friedrichstrasse or Potsdamer Platz—showcases of the avant-garde—and creations such as the Jüdisches Museum, completed by Daniel Liebeskind in 1998.


Germany’s great painters and sculptors


In the fields of painting and architecture, Germany remained for a long time attached to the Late Gothic tradition, which denied the realism so sought after in Italy. The country was divided into a large number of local schools under Dutch influence. Now came the time to seek an outlet for emotional expression and give vent to the religious concerns that marked the end of the Middle Ages.

Stefan Lochner (c. 1410–51)

This leading master of the Cologne School perpetuated the tradition of international Gothic, giving it a lyrical and refined touch with his sweet expressions and an exquisitely delicate palette. The use of gold backgrounds afforded him a certain amount of leeway as regards the requirements of perspective. ( Adoration of the Magi , Cologne cathedral; Virgin and Rose Bush , Wallraf-Richartz-Museum, Cologne).

Veit Stoß (c. 1445–1533)

Sculptor, painter and engraver with a distinctive, powerful style; one of the greatest woodcarvers of his age. His figures were generally of a pathetic nature ( Annunciation , Lorenzkirche, Nuremberg; Reredos of the Nativity , Bamberg Cathedral).

Tilman Riemenschneider (c. 1460-1531)

Sculptor of alabaster and wood, he was master of an important studio where he created many altarpieces. His intricate works are executed with great finesse and richness of expression ( Tomb of Henry II the Saint , Bamberg Cathedral; Adam and Eve , Mainfränkisches Museum, Würzburg; Altarpiece to the Virgin , Herrgottskirche, Creglingen).

The Master of St Severinus (late 15C)

The intimacy and iridescent colors of his works reflect Netherlandish influence ( Christ before Pilate , Wallraf-Richartz-Museum, Cologne).

The Master of the Life of the Virgin (late 15C)

Painter of original works, influenced by the Flemish artist Van der Weyden ( Scenes from the Life of the Virgin , Alte Pinakothek, Munich; Vision of St Bernard , Wallraf-Richartz-Museum, Cologne).


First emerging in Germany around 1400, engraving was espoused by the greatest German masters. One pioneer was the unidentified engraver Master E.S. , known by the monogram with which he signed his engravings, whose work dates from between 1450 and 1467. Copperplate engraving techniques were later perfected and best demonstrated by virtuosi such as Martin Schongauer (c. 1450–91), whose designs were later followed by Albrecht Dürer.


The German Renaissance did not emerge until the 16C with Dürer. The observation and idealizing of nature resulted in works of increasing refinement. The Danube School showed a new interest in landscape, encouraging its development as a genre, while Holbein breathed new life into the art of portrait painting with his striking realism.

Matthias Grünewald (c. 1480–1528)

An inspired painter of the Late Gothic period, producing works of great emotional intensity capable of expressing the pain of humanity ( Crucifixion , Staatliche Kunsthalle, Karlsruhe; Virgin and Child , Stuppach parish church).

Albrecht Dürer (1471–1528)

The greatest artist of the German Renaissance, he was fascinated by the art of Antiquity and the Italian Renaissance, with which he was able to lend Nordic gravity. Based in Nuremberg, Dürer produced woodcuts achieving some magnificent light effects and a broad range of grays (The Apocalypse) . His religious scenes and portraits are of an extraordinary intensity ( The Four Apostles , Self-Portrait with Cloak , Alte Pinakothek, Munich; Charlemagne , Germanisches Nationalmuseum, Nuremberg).

Lucas Cranach the Elder (1472–1553)

Official painter to the prince-electors of Saxony and master of an important studio, he was the portraitist of the most eminent men of the Reformation, most notably of his friend Luther. His works reflect a strong sense of the wonders of nature, allying him with the painters of the Danube School. As court painter in Wittenberg, he produced Lutheran-inspired religious paintings. The more Expressionist works of his youth gave way to paintings full of grace and nobility, typical of the refinement towards which 16C German art was heading. ( The Electors of Saxony , Kunsthalle, Hamburg, The Holy Family , Städel museum, Frankfurt; Portrait of Martin Luther , Germanisches Nationalmuseum, Nuremberg).

Albrecht Altdorfer (c. 1480–1538)

Leading member of the Danube School and one of the founders of landscape painting, his use of chiaroscuro creates dramatic and moving works, with the focus on landscapes shrouded in mystery ( Battle of Alexander , Alte Pinakothek, Munich).

Hans Baldung Grien (c. 1485–1545)

His complex compositions feature dramatic lighting effects, unusual colors and tortured movement (Altarpiece: The Coronation of the Virgin , Freiburg Cathedral).

Hans Holbein the Younger (1497–1543)

Painter of German merchants and subjects from court circles and the high aristocracy, he breathed new life into the art of portrait painting. His subjects are depicted with incredible precision in skillfully composed settings that illustrate their office. His compositions, both solemn and realistic, mark a definitive departure from the Gothic tradition ( Portrait of the Merchant Georg Gisze , Museum Dahlem, Berlin).

17C and 18C

Italian influence remained evident during these two centuries. Court circles played host to many French and Italian artists who introduced an increasingly exuberant Baroque style.

Adam Elsheimer (1578–1610)

Elsheimer’s often small scale mythological and biblical paintings reflect a combination of Italian influence and a concept of landscapes peculiar to Flemish and German painting. At the same time as Caravaggio, he experimented with the power of light in the evocation of nature, notably in his dramatic nocturnal landscapes ( The Flight into Egypt , 1609, Alte Pinakothek, Munich).

Andreas Schlüter (c. 1660–1714)

This master of Baroque sculpture in northern Germany and talented architect produced some very powerful works ( Statue of the Great Élector , Schloss Charlottenburg, Berlin; Masks of Dying Warriors , Zeughaus, Berlin).

The Merians (17C)

A family of engravers specializing in plates illustrating German towns.

Balthasar Permoser (1651–1732)

Sculptor to the Court of Dresden, Permoser studied in Rome, Vienna and Venice. His masterful works reflect the exuberant style of the Italian Baroque, particularly at the Zwinger ( Wallpavillon and Nymphenbad , Zwinger, Dresden).

Antoine Pesne (1683–1757)

This French-born painter in the service of the Prussian court became the portraitist of Frederick II, who admired his coloristic talent. He produced a great number of portraits and some mythological ceiling paintings and murals ( Portrait of Frederick II and his sister Wilhelmina, apartments of Schloss Charlottenburg, Berlin).

Joseph Anton Feuchtmayer (1696–1770) and Johann Michael II Feichtmayr (1709–72)

These members of a family of German painters and sculptors helped to perpetuate the Rococo style with their fanciful compositions (decoration of the abbey churches of Ottobeuren and St Gall).

Matthäus Günther (1705–88)

A pupil of CD Asam, master of Rococo painting in southern Germany, Günther is famous for his decoration of many churches in Swabia and Bavaria (Amorbach, Rott am Inn).


The 19C was first of all dominated by the Biedermeier style (1815–48) which glorified middle-class values and way of life, as perfectly illustrated by the genre painting of GF Kersting. Then came the time for rebellion. Romanticism called the Classical values into question, launching a dialogue between reason and feeling. Realism and Impressionism, which both originated in France, allowed German artists to express certain budding socialist ideas. All of these various forms of artistic expression came in response to the moral crisis of modern Europe.

Caspar David Friedrich (1774–1840)

German Romantic painter whose landscapes were represented as manifestations of the divine and places of wonderment ideal for meditation ( The Monk by the Sea , The Cross on the Mountain , Alte Nationalgalerie , Berlin; Rambler Above a Sea of Clouds , Kunsthalle, Hamburg).

Friedrich Overbeck (1789–1869)

Member of the Lucas Brotherhood, he was the most important member of the group of Nazarenes who occupied the abandoned monastery of San Isidoro in Rome in 1810. Advocating a form of painting that glorified moral values in a reaction against Neoclassicism, they revived medieval art and sought the purity of the early Italian and Flemish masters of the 15C. ( Italia and Germania , Neue Pinakothek, Munich).

Adolf von Menzel (1815–1905)

Representative of German Realism, initially illustrating anecdotal themes and later producing powerful portrayals of the industrial world, tempered by the influence of Impressionism ( Rolling Mill , Nationalgalerie in Berlin).

Wilhelm Leibl (1844–1900)

Master of German Realism, he was influenced by Courbet and mostly painted scenes of village life ( Three Women in Church , Kunsthalle, Hamburg; portrait of Mina Gedon , Neue Pinakothek, Munich).

Adolf von Hildebrand (1847–1921)

German sculptor based in Munich, whose measured taste in monumental sculpture, inspired by the most austere Greek style, was in contrast to the excesses of most 19C artists. ( Wittelsbach Fountain , Munich).

Max Liebermann (1847–1935)

Greatly influenced by French Realism and Naturalism, he painted the universe of peasants and workers in all its harsh reality. Later, under the influence of Impressionism, he allowed light to suffuse his already rich palette. He led the Berlin “Sezession” movement in 1899, advocating freedom and realism as opposed to the patriotic insipidness of the court painters ( Jewish Street in Amsterdam , Wallraf-Richartz-Museum, Cologne).


The Expressionism which marked the beginning of the century gave way to a new form of revolt and glorification of subjective feeling. The shock of World War I and the ensuing social crisis plunged art into a period of darkness and disillusionment. Political and social dissent were embodied in a succession of new avant-garde movements. More than ever before, art was driven by a desire to change society and expose its failings.


German Expressionism introduced an emotionally charged, often violent or tragic vision of the world to modern painting. The movement owed much to Van Gogh and the Norwegian painter Edvard Munch (1863–1944), whose work had a marked influence in Germany. In Dresden and then in Berlin, the Brücke (Bridge) Group united from 1905 to 1913 such painters as Erich Heckel, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner and Karl Schmidt-Rottluff, whose work, with its use of pure color, recalls that of the Fauves in France. See the works of Emil Nolde (1867–1956) at Seebüll, and of Expressionism in general at the Brücke-Museum, Berlin.

Der Blaue Reiter (The Blue Rider Movement)

Association of artists founded in Munich in 1911 by Wassily Kandinsky and Franz Marc , later to be joined by August Macke and Paul Klee . Although the work of the artists involved differed widely, they were united by a general aim to free art from the constraints of reality, using bold colors and untraditional forms, thus opening the way to abstraction ( Deer in the Forest by Franz Marc , Orangerie Staatliche Kunsthalle, Karlsruhe; The Dress Shop by August Macke , Folkwang-Museum, Essen). The movement broke up during the war.

The Bauhaus

This movement, which united all art forms, attracted a host of avant-garde painters and sculptors including Klee and Kandinsky, Oskar Schlemmer, Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, Lyonel Feininger and Joseph Albers .

Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity)

An artistic movement affecting all the arts which grew up in the early 1920s, aiming to produce a realistic illustration of social facts and phenomena. It corresponds to the harshness of the post-war period. Pioneers of this movement were Otto Dix and George Grosz ( War by Otto Dix , 1932, Albertinum in Dresden). The Dada movement, present in Cologne and Berlin, and in Hannover with Kurt Schwitters , used art for political ends. On the sidelines of these movements, Max Beckmann (1884–1950), who was also deeply affected by the war and its consequences, shared his very bleak view of humanity.

Second half of the 20C

The Nazi regime brought an abrupt end to these artistic experiments labelled as “degenerate art”, replacing them with a Neoclassical style glorifying race, war and family. This “Nazi art” died out at the end of the Reich in 1945.

Social Realism, an official art form which served the regime’s ideology, was predominant in East German painting until the 1960s–70s. The painters of Leipzig in particular won international acclaim, among them Bernhard Heisig, Wolfgang Mattheuer, Willi Sitte and Werner Tübke. In East Germany in the years leading up to reunification, non-conformist artists were also given the opportunity to express themselves.

The 1960s saw a turning point in German artistic creativity. Gruppe Zebra took up the credo of New Objectivity against German Abstract art, while the members of Gruppe Zero (Heinz Mack, Otto Piene, Güntheb Uecker) concentrated on using kinetic art to transform thoughts into material objects. In the 1970s, Joseph Beuys , together with the artists of the school of Constructivist Sculpture in Düsseldorf, strove to create a direct relationship between the artist and the viewing public in his Happenings and Performances, and to redefine the role of art and the artist in contemporary society ( Neue Nationalgalerie in Berlin; Hessisches Landesmuseum in Darmstadt; Staatsgalerie in Stuttgart).

From the 1980s, a new generation of German artists managed to break through onto the international scene with “new Fauves” (Neue Wilde) Georg Baselitz and Markus Lüpertz developing a new form of Expressionism, Sigmar Polke , closer to pop art, and Anselm Kiefer , with his focus firmly on German history.


German literature, from the reign of Charlemagne up to the present day, has demonstrated an enduring vitality, constantly breaking with tradition and inventing new forms of expression. In the wake of Goethe’s monumental influence in the 18C, the best authors have been guaranteed international renown.

From the Middle Ages to the 17C

German literature in the Middle Ages was written in a great variety of dialects. Largely drawing on the oral tradition, it was characterized by lyrical poetry and genres that can be described—not in any pejorative way—as popular: plays, ballads, songs and epics. One of the earliest works, dating back to Charlemagne’s reign, is the Lay of Hildebrand (Das Hildebrandslied, 820), of which only a 68-line fragment has survived. The national folk saga of the Nibelungen , an anonymous work from the late 12C, draws on the sources of Germanic mythology and celebrates the heroic spirit that faces up to trials and tribulations without ever giving up. One of the big names in courtly epics was Wolfram von Eschenbach ;his poem Parzival (c. 1200), which recounts the quest for the Holy Grail, revolves around religious and chivalrous themes. The 14C was an age of mystic literature, with writers such as Meister Eckhart . In a departure from the dryness ofscholastic teaching, he sometimes forsakes Latin to discuss religious topics in powerful and eloquent German.

Satire took center stage in the 16C ( The Ship of Fools by Sebastian Brant appeared in 1494) along with folk songs and the poetry of the Meistersänger (master singers). Hans Sachs (1494–1576), a poet-cum-cobbler from Nuremberg, was a prominent figure in the latter genre, which provides the theme of Wagner’s opera Tannhäuser . Luther ’s contribution during this period also marked a turning point; his hymns and translation of the Bible (1534) paved the way for the writing of literary works in a common, modern German language. The late 16C witnessed the publication of the Faust Book (1587) by Johann Spies , a work of remarkable depth, which draws the captivating portrait of a man driven by an unquenchable thirst for knowledge which distances him from God.

The ravages of the Thirty Years’ War (1618–48) profoundly marked the collective psyche; 17C literature bears echoes of this traumatic time. Among the recurrent themes of these often edifying works is the vanity of human things and man’s need to find God in order to ensure his salvation. Adventurous Simplicissimus (1669) by Grimmelshausen (1622–76) is a picaresque novel whose hero, having experienced the suffering of war, finally chooses a life of retreat and meditation.

“Aufklärung” (Age of Enlightenment)

The 18C marked the beginning of the golden age of German literature, as its influence began to extend well beyond the German-speaking countries.

The spotlight was now on philosophical and moral themes, the flourishes of language belying a pursuit of the natural. The influence of Leibniz (1646–1716), whose Theodicy in French and Latin uses rational arguments to justify evil and show that we live in “the best of all possible worlds”, still remains strong. Rationalism , apparent in the works of Christian Wolff (1679–1754), coexisted with the tenacious survival of Pietism, which highlights the emotional experience in any religious phenomenon.

This explains how Lessing (1729–81), in his writings on religion ( The Education of the Human Race , 1780), strives to combine a rationalist deism with a belief in revelation. In the purely literary field, Lessing also set the principles of new German theater by creating middle-class drama (Emilia Galotti) .

His contemporary, Immanuel Kant (1724–1804), endeavored to define the limits of what can be known; only that which is determined by pure forms of understanding can be the subject of rational knowledge. Whatever eludes such determination (the soul, God, etc.) can, of course, be “thought” and give rise to “belief”, but cannot be “known”.

In the practical field, Kantianism defines the balance between liberty and the “moral law” that governs every rational being: man finds liberty by submitting to the “categorical imperative” and renouncing the influence of his “sensitivity”.

“Sturm und Drang” and Classicism

In reaction to the strict rationalism of the Aufklärung, the Sturm und Drang (Storm and Stress) movement, encompassing authors such as Herder (1744–1803) and Hamann (1730–88), exalts freedom, emotion and nature. Poetry, “the mother tongue of the human race”, takes pride of place and the past is revisited, with particular emphasis placed on folk songs. The works of the young Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749–1832), such as The Sorrows of Young Werther , bear witness to the influence of Sturm und Drang. However, Goethe—poet and universal genius—soon tempered this fashionable enthusiasm with a move towards the classical humanist tradition. As the leading light of German literature prior to the emergence of the Romantic trend, in which he never became involved, he penned a great number of works. Classical dramas ( Iphigenie auf Tauris , Egmont , and Torquato Tasso ), novels ( Elective Affinities , Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship ) and Faust (Parts I and II, 1808 and 1832) contain the quintessence of Goethe’s philosophy. After settling in Weimar in 1775, Goethe was joined by Herder, Wieland and Schiller (1759–1805). The historical dramas of the latter, a poet and dramatist of genius, are undisguised hymns to liberty (Don Carlos, Wallenstein, Wilhelm Tell) .

Two major literary figures emerged during the transitional period between Weimarian Classicism and actual Romanticism: Friedrich Hölderlin (1770–1843), a tragic, lyric author (Hyperion, The Death of Empedocles) with a passion for Ancient Greek civilization, produced some powerful odes before sinking into madness at the age of 36. The novelist Johann Paul Friedrich Richter (1763–1825), better known as Jean Paul , had a creative imagination, although a somewhat labored style.

19C: between Romanticism and Realism

The Romantic movement charts the individual soul’s quest for the infinite in all its forms. Besides literature, it incorporates the fine arts, philosophy, politics and religion. First Jena, then Heidelberg and Berlin were centers from which the movement blossomed. After initially being theorized by the Schlegel brothers , the Romantic doctrine was put into powerful poetic form by Novalis (1772–1801); a poet and mystic, Novalis exalts the art and religion of the Middle Ages and his “Blue Flower” symbol comes to represent the Absolute, or object of Romantic longing ( Heinrich von Ofterdingen ). While in the process of theoretical elaboration, budding Romanticism was exposed to the influence of post-Kantian idealist philosophers, in particular Fichte (1762–1814), Schelling (1775–1854) and Hegel (1770–1831). It also reflects a heightened interest in popular literature, often seeking inspiration in the sources of myths and legends, as can be seen in the tales of the Brothers Grimm (1812) or the more disturbing tales of Hoffmann (1776–1822). On the sidelines of the Romantic movement, the playwright Heinrich von Kleist , who, tragically, committed suicide in 1811, wrote some remarkable plays, notably The Prince of Homburg (1810): A play about a man of action led away by his dreams.

The exuberant idealism of Romanticism was succeeded by a search for greater realism. An outstanding figure and “defrocked Romantic” poet of the Loreley , Heinrich Heine (1797–1856), treats the naivety of his age with bitter irony and enthuses about St Simonian ideals. Hebbel (1813–63), a fine psychologist, wrote plays often inspired by biblical or mythical subjects, focusing on conflict between the individual and the existing moral order ( Judith , Herodes und Mariamne , Agnes Bernauer ). Toward the mid-19C, a number of writers sought to bring literature closer to life and everyday experience; novelists such as Stifter (1805–68) and Keller (1819–90) were among the main exponents of this “Realist” trend. Some of them, such as Fontane (1819–98) and Raabe (1831–1910), focus on the social and political conditions of human existence. Social drama is brilliantly illustrated by Hauptmann (1862–1946), a prolific author whose Naturalist writing is at times allegorical and symbolic, drawing inspiration from legend and mythology (The Atrides Cycle) .

In the field of philosophy, Schopenhauer (1788–1860), pessimistic theorist of the will to live, describes the will as reality’s true inner nature, and this will as suffering ( The World as Will and Idea, 1819); he had a crucial influence on the thinking of authors such as Nietzsche, Freud and Wittgenstein. Political thought, moreover, took a new direction with Karl Marx ( The Communist Manifesto was published in 1848); rejecting Hegelian idealism, Marx, who was both a philosopher and an economist, developed the theory of “historical materialism”, a powerful conceptual tool enabling the analysis of human societies according to their historical development. Together with Engels , Marx cofounded “scientific socialism”, in opposition to so-called “utopian” socialism, and launched the modern international workers’ movement.

The modern period

Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900) belongs as much to the history of philosophy as to the history of literature. His tremendous influence over the history of literature and western thought is still in evidence today. His fundamentally life-affirming philosophy called, with great lyricism, for mankind to surpass itself ( Thus Spake Zarathustra , 1886).

Focusing on the often irreconcilable duality of the mind and the senses, the irrational and the rational, the works of Thomas Mann (Buddenbrooks, The Magic Mountain) and Hermann Hesse (Der Steppenwolf) bear the stamp of Nietzscheism; the sanatorium in Davos in The Magic Mountain symbolizes the “disease” that runs rife in decadent European societies. In this struggle between life and morbid instincts, the shadow of Thanatos hangs over our western civilizations. The Czech-born German-language writer Franz Kafka (1883–1924) differs from these authors in both style and thought; his nightmarish novels (The Trial, The Castle, America) contain a vision of a dehumanized world dominated by anxiety and the absurd. The works of Vienna-born Stefan Zweig , one of Kafka’s contemporaries, were of a less tortured nature. This highly cultivated man, citizen of the world, traveler and translator proved in his best short stories (Amok, Conflicts, The Royal Game) to be a remarkable story teller with humanist sympathies.

The early 20C also witnessed a revival in poetry. Stefan George (1868–1933) published poems which, in their formal perfection, ally him with the French Symbolists, while the Austrians Rainer Maria Rilke (1875–1926) and Hugo von Hoffmannsthal (1874–1929) reach the peak of lyrical impressionism.

The 1930s and 40s were marked by an intensified search for the meaning of life; spurred on by Husserlian phenomenology, Heidegger and, to a lesser degree, Jaspers , put the question of being back at the heart of philosophy. Based on our essential finiteness, Heideggerian existentialism distinguishes between an existence marked by a sense of being and an “inauthentic” existence, led astray into the impersonal self.

The world of theater was dominated by Bertolt Brecht (The Threepenny Opera , Mother Courage , Galileo) . A committed socialist, he rejected the “theater of illusion”, advocating “Verfremdungseffekt” (the alienation effect): the spectator must observe the action on stage with a critical eye and be able to decipher the methods by which the strong exploit the weak.

National Socialism forced numerous poets and writers into exile (Walter Benjamin, Alfred Döblin, Lion Feuchtwanger, Else Lasker-Schüler, Thomas and Heinrich Mann, Carl Zuckmayer, Stefan Zweig). Gottfried Benn (1886–1956) withdrew into silence, while Ernst Jünger (1895–1998) courageously published his novel On the Marble Cliffs in 1939: “...Such are the dungeons above which rise the proud castles of the tyrants... They are terrible noisome pits in which a God-forsaken crew revels to all eternity in the degradation of human dignity and human freedom.”

Post-1945 literature

Twelve years under National Socialist rule had broken the flow of literary creation in Germany, necessitating repair work in this domain too. The association of authors known as Gruppe 47 (after the year of its founding), which centered upon Hans Werner Richter and Alfred Andersch , was instrumental in putting Germany back onto the map as far as world literature was concerned. This loosely associated group of writers served as a forum for reading, discussion and criticism, until its last conference in 1967, exerting a lasting and formative influence on the contemporary German literary scene. Authors associated with Gruppe 47 included Paul Celan , Heinrich Böll (Nobel Prize winner in 1972), Günter Grass (Nobel Prize winner in 1999), Siegfried Lenz , Peter Weiss and Hans Magnus Enzensberger . By the end of the 1950s, works of international standing were being published: Günter Grass’ masterpiece The Tin Drum is an extraordinary novel in the tradition of Celine; Uwe Johnson ’s Speculations about Jacob , Heinrich Böll ’s Billiards at Half Past Nine and Martin Walser ’s novel Marriages in Philippsburg . Increasing politicisation was what finally put an end to Gruppe 47’s activities. Authors not associated with Gruppe 47 were hard at work also; Arno Schmidt developed a very original and high-quality body of work, while Wolfgang Koeppen produced some wickedly satirical novels on contemporary society. The literature of the 1960s was characterized by a wave of criticism, but, by the following decade, German literary concerns were withdrawing to a newly discovered “inner contemplation”. A particularly prolific amount of good writing was produced by women during the 1970s and 1980s ( Gabriele Wohmann , Karin Struck , Verena Stefan ).

In the world of theater, dominated initially by the dramatic theory of Bertolt Brecht, a new band of writers began to emerge, with works by Tankred Dorst ( Toller , 1968), Peter Weiss ( Hölderlin , 1971) and Heinar Kipphardt . Rolf Hochhuth was particularly successful with his “documentary dramas” in which he examines contemporary moral issues ( The Representative , 1963), and Botho Strauß , the most widely performed modern German dramatist, has won international acclaim with plays such as The Hypochondriac (1972), The Park (1983) and Final Chorus (1991).

The political division of Germany was also reflected in German literature. In the old East German Republic, the leadership viewed literature’s raison d’être as the contribution it might make to the socialist programme for educating the masses. The Bitterfelder Weg, a combined propaganda exercise and literary experiment launched at the Bitterfeld chemical factory in 1959 as part of the East German Republic’s cultural programme under Walter Ulbricht, was intended to unite art and everyday life and break down class barriers. Factory visits were organized for writers, so they could observe workers and then portray them glowingly in their novels, poems or plays, while the workers themselves were encouraged to write about their lives.

The results of the project were mixed, and although it gave authors a clearer idea of the primitive conditions that most East German workers were obliged to tolerate, those who wrote too honestly about what they saw found their works censored.

Poetry was the literary form least easily subject to Communist censorship, and poets such as Peter Huchel , Johannes Bobrowski and Erich Arendt produced some remarkable work. From the early 1960s the prose work of Günter de Bruyn , Stefan Heym (d. 2001) and Erwin Strittmatter was widely appreciated. Anna Seghers , who returned from exile in America after the war, was considered the greatest East German writer of the older generation, while rising star Christa Wolf won acclaim in both Germanies. Important contributions to the theater were made by playwrights Ulrich Plenzdorf , Peter Hacks and above all Heiner Müller ( The Hamlet Machine, 1978).

Any overview of German-language literature since World War II must, of course, acknowledge the enormous contribution made by Max Frisch and Friedrich Dürrenmatt , of Switzerland, and Ilse Aichinger , Ingeborg Bachmann and Thomas Bernhard of Austria.


Germany and the German-speaking world have made a considerable contribution to western music. After reaching an initial high point in the 18C with the Baroque period, German music was propelled back into the limelight by the genius of composers such as Beethoven and Wagner. Modern experimentation since the emergence of the twelve-tone system testifies to the continuing vitality of German music.

From Minnesänger to Meistersänger

In the 12C and 13C, feudal courts constituted the main forum for musical expression. The Minnesänger (essentially troubadours—”minne” meaning “love” in Middle High German), who were often noble knights, such as Wolfram von Eschenbach and Walther von der Vogelweide , drew inspiration for their songs from French lyric poetry. They would perform their love songs before the nobility, accompanying themselves on the lute.

The Meistersänger, or mastersingers, of the 14C–16C preferred a more sedentary lifestyle and organized themselves into guilds. They introduced polyphony to German music and clearly set the musical forms of their art. Anyone wanting to become a Meistersänger had to prove himself in a public contest. Among the prominent figures of the time was Heinrich von Meißen (1250–1318) who marked the transition from Minnesang (courtly love song/lyric) to the poetry of the Meistersänger. Hans Sachs (1494–1576), a cobbler by trade and an ardent supporter of Luther, was also a prolific poet; many of his compositions were turned into Protestant chorales. Sachs later became the subject of Wagner’s opera The Mastersingers of Nuremberg .

From the Renaissance to the 17C

In the wake of the Reformation, German music began to develop an individual identity with the emergence of the chorale, the fruit of the collaboration between Luther and Johann Walther (1496–1570). “ Ein’ feste Burg ist unser Gott(A Mighty Fortress is Our God) composed by the two men in 1529 was reworked by Bach. Originally a hymn with a simple melody, the chorale—sung in the vernacular—soon opened up to the secular repertoire, embracing popular genres of music. It subsequently gave rise to the German cantata and oratorio.

Religious music maestro, Heinrich Schütz (1585–1672) managed to produce a skillful combination of German and Italian elements. He composed the first German opera, Dafne , a work which was sadly lost. The Seven Words of Christ (1645) shows the influence of Monteverdi who, along with Gabrieli, was one of Schütz’s masters.

The second half of the 17C witnessed a proliferation of organ schools, one of the most famous of which was in Nuremberg. An inspiration for Bach, who is said to have walked hundreds of kilometers (1km = 0.6mi) to hear him play in Lübeck, Dietrich Buxtehude (1637–1707) organized the first concerts of sacred music. Johann Pachelbel (1653–1706) was the great master of the organ school in southern Germany; the only surviving piece of his work is the Canon in D Major .

Bach and Baroque music

His consummate skill as a composer, his genius for invention and his mastery of counterpoint enabled Bach (1685–1750) to excel in every kind of music he wrote. Based in Weimar until 1717, he spent several years at the court of Köthen, during which he composed The Brandenburg Concertos . In 1723, he was appointed “Cantor” at St Thomas’ School, Leipzig. Bach’s duties included the composition of a cantata for every Sunday service, as well as the supervision of services at four other churches. He also taught Latin and voice and still found time to write his own instrumental and vocal works. His masterpieces include The Well-Tempered Clavier (1722 and 1744) and the St Matthew Passion (1727).

A brilliant court composer, influenced by his travels in Italy, Georg Friedrich Händel (1665–1759) excelled in both opera and oratorio ( The Messiah , 1742). Born in Halle, he was organist at the town’s cathedral before pursuing his career at the Hamburg opera. Based in England from 1714, he spent most of the last forty years of his life in London, and even obtained British nationality.

Händel’s friend, Georg Philipp Telemann , (1681–1767) was influenced by French and Italian composers, and was himself a particularly prolific composer. He turned from counterpoint to harmony and composed chamber music and church music as well as operas. Telemann was godfather to Bach’s second son, Carl Philipp Emmanuel (1714–88), who popularized the sonata in its classic form.

From the Mannheim School to Beethoven

In the mid 18C, the musicians of the Mannheim School , under the patronage of Elector Palatine Karl Theodor, helped establish the modern symphonic form, giving a more prominent role to wind instruments. Influenced by the innovations from Mannheim, Christoph Willibald Gluck (1714–87) undertook a “reformation of opera”, producing refined works where the lyrics took pride of place; he provoked the enthusiasm of the innovators—and the horror of fans of traditional, Italian-inspired opera—by staging, in Paris, his Iphigenia in Aulis and Orpheus . This period was also marked by the appearance in Germany of the Singspiel , a popular opera in which dialogue is interspersed with songs in the form of Lieder. Mozart’s Magic Flute (1791) and Beethoven’s Fidelio (1814) are excellent examples of this genre later identified with operetta.

The contribution of Viennese Classicism during the second half of the 18C proved to be crucial. Joseph Haydn (1732–1809) laid down the classical form of the symphony, the string quartet and the piano sonata. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756–91) perfected these forms and created some truly immortal operas (The Marriage of Figaro, Don Juan) .

Born in Bonn, Ludwig van Beethoven (1770–1827) went to Vienna to study under Haydn and Antonio Salieri. With his innovative harmonizations, he developed a highly individual style and transformed existing forms of music, heralding the Romantic movement. The depth of his inspiration, ranging from pure introspection to a wider belief in the force and universality of his art, emanates from his work with extraordinary power, perhaps most particularly in his symphonies. It was in 1824, when he had already been suffering from total and incurable deafness for five years, that Beethoven’s magnificent Ninth Symphony —inspired by one of Schiller’s odes—was performed for the first time.

Romantic music and Wagner

Franz Schubert (1797–1826) brought Romantic music to its first high point. He focused much creative energy on the Lied (song), blending folk and classical music in a unique style.

Carl Maria von Weber (1786–1826), created Germany’s first Romantic opera, Freischütz (1821), paving the way for the characters of Wagnerian drama. It was a resounding success when first performed in Berlin, due in part to the use of folk songs. As for the lofty world of Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy (1809–79), it was far removed from the forces of evil that inhabit the Freischütz . Although espousing classical music forms, Mendelssohn, who was a conductor, pianist and founder of the Leipzig Conservatory, also reveals a Romantic influence.

Robert Schumann (1810–56), passionate and lyrical in turn, but brought up in the Germanic tradition, strives to reconcile a classical heritage with personal expression. A talented music critic (he founded the Neue Zeitscrhift für Musik newspaper in 1834), he initially wrote for piano alone (Carnival, Scenes from Childhood) . Then, spurred on by his admiration for Schubert and the advice of his friend Mendelssohn, he began to compose Lieder (Dichterliebe) , subsequently turning his attention to symphonies and chamber music. A close friend of Schumann whose wife Clara he loved with a passion, Johannes Brahms (1833–97) exemplified a more introverted style of German Romanticism. After long being accused of formalism, he was rediscovered in the 20C, notably thanks to the influence of Schönberg ( Brahms the Progressive ).

Crowning glory of the German Romantic movement, the work of Wagner (1813–83) revolutionized opera. Wagner claimed that music should be subservient to drama, serving as “atmosphere” and a “backdrop of sound” without which the opera’s message could not be fully conveyed. Orchestration thus becomes of paramount importance. Libretto and plot unfold continuously, preserving dramatic reality. Wagner introduces the use of “leitmotifs”—musical phrases used recurrently to denote specific characters, moods or situations—making them essential to the continuity of the action. Lohengrin was first performed in 1850 in Weimar, under the supervision of Franz Liszt .

Designed by Wagner himself as a stage for the performance of the entire work (Gesamtkunstwerk), the Bayreuth Theater was inaugurated in 1876 with The Ring of the Nibelung ( Rheingold, Walküre , Siegfried and Götterdämmerung ). The fruit of 22 years’ work, the magnificent first public performance of The Ring lasted 18 hours. Although its artistic success was undeniable, the Bayreuth episode ended in financial ruin for the composer. Parzival , Wagner’s last opera, revolves around the theme of redemption through sacrifice, and was first performed in Bayreuth in 1882.

At the end of the 19C, Gustav Mahler (1860–1911), Czech-Austrian composer and creator of the symphonic Lied, and Hugo Wolf (1850–1903) developed a new musical language which forms a bridge between Romanticism and dodecaphony.

Richard Strauss (1864–1949) excelled in orchestra music (Thus Spake Zarathustra) , uniting a certain harmonic audacity with a dazzling and multifaceted style.

Contemporary music

Contemporary musical experimentation is derived principally from the Austrian school of atonal, or serial (especially 12-note systems) music, represented by Arnold Schönberg and his two main disciples Alban Berg and Anton von Webern . Introducing a new method of composing music, the twelve-tone system was first revealed to the public by Schönberg in 1928 in the Variations for Orchestra. Berg applied his master’s innovation to lyrical drama (Lulu) , while Webern, turning his back on Romanticism, focused on the concision of form. The brilliant Paul Hindemith (1893–1963), initially influenced by Romanticism, remained untouched by Schönberg’s innovations; in a break with German tradition, he forged a path of his own between atonality and dodecaphony.

Carl Orff (1895–1982), creator of the Orff Schulwerk, propounded innovative ideas about music education. His highly original theatrical compositions combine drama, speech and song in a fascinating rhythmic framework: his powerful collection of secular songs with infectious rhythms, Carmina Burana (1937), soon gained international renown. The compositions—mainly opera and ballet music—of Werner Egk (1901–83), a student of Carl Orff, reveal the influence of Igor Stravinski and Richard Strauss. As for Kurt Weill (1900–50), influenced at the beginning of his career by the atonal composers, he returned under the impact of jazz to tonal music, and composed The Threepenny Opera (1928) in collaboration with Brecht.

Although Wolfgang Fortner (1907–87) was influenced initially by Hindemith, he nonetheless later turned to modal 12-tone serial music. His mature works introduce electronic elements into his musical compositions.

Bernd Alois Zimmermann (1918–70) perceived past, present and future as one, and the multiple layers of reality are reflected in his composition technique. Quotations and collage were particularly important to him. His major work is the opera The Soldiers .

From 1950, a younger generation of musicians developed the potential of electronic music under the aegis of Karlheinz Stockhausen (b. 1928). Hans Werner Henze (b 1926) created expressive operas, in which modernity and tradition, and atonality and tonality are combined. Wolfgang Rihm (b. 1952), a student of Fortner, like Henze, also mixes traditional stylistic elements with new techniques in his extremely complex musical language.


After producing a number of masterpieces during the Expressionist period of the 1920s, German cinema fell into a decline from which it did not emerge until the 1960s. Although now struggling to make its mark in the face of the American productions, it has managed to produce some remarkable international award-winning works.

The golden age of Expressionism

The creation in 1917 of UFA (Universum Film Aktiengesellschaft), a production company of considerable means which, from 1921, was directed by producer Erich Pommer , led to some lavish productions. The Expressionism that was apparent in literature, theater and painting also seeped into film production in the troubled post-war political and social scene. Deliberately turning its back on Realism, it often revelled in angst-ridden atmospheres, cultivating an exaggeration of forms and contrasts; it was typified by the use of chiaroscuro lighting effects and the geometric stylization of the décor. Very few works could actually be classed as purely Expressionist, but among them is Robert Wiene ’s masterpiece The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1919), which was well received in the United States and France. Nevertheless, Expressionism was a great source of inspiration for German cinema in the 1920s; this period was dominated by the films of FW Murnau ( Nosferatu the Vampire , 1922; The Last Laugh , 1924; Faust , 1926) and Fritz Lang ( Dr Mabuse , 1922; Metropolis , 1925). Lang’s German work reached its high point in 1931 with M , the director’s first talking picture. Initially entitled Murderers Among Us (the title was changed under pressure from the Nazis), M paints the picture of a diseased society which, unable to cure its own ills, seeks scapegoat sinners on whom to place the blame. The Last Will of Dr Mabuse in 1932 attracted Nazi censure. Soon after being invited by Goebbels to supervise the Reich’s film production, Lang went into exile, first moving to Paris and then to California, where he pursued his film-directing career.

The 1920s in Germany also witnessed a shift towards Realism and away from the dominant Expressionist trend. Examples of this new trend include the films of GW Pabst ( The Joyless Street , 1925; Diary of a Lost Girl, 1926; Lulu, 1929) and Josef von Sternberg ’s The Blue Angel (1930) starring Marlene Dietrich and Emil Jannings .

An abrupt halt

The promising surge of German cinema after World War I was sadly stopped in its tracks with the arrival of the Third Reich. Many actors and directors went into exile. The Nazis turned cinema into a tool to serve the regime’s ideology. Filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl (1902–2003) stands out in the generally disappointing and inartistic genre of propaganda films, with her productions of amazing cinematic beauty, such as The Gods of the Stadium , a glorification of the 1936 Berlin Olympics.

The period immediately after World War II was a cultural desert. While “Socialist Realism” prevailed in East Germany, film production in the Federal Republic of the 1950s was of poor quality. Only a few films, such as The Last Bridge (1954) and The Devil’s General (1955) by Helmut Kaütner , managed to escape the pervasive mediocrity. The 1962 Oberhausen Manifesto , signed by 26 young filmmakers, signalled the birth of a new cinematographic language; the long-awaited revival was here at last.

The revival of the 1960s and beyond

In the 1960s and 1970s makers of “New German cinema” rose up in the wake of the French nouvelle vague , seeking to distance themselves from old-style cinema with its run-of-the-mill commercial superficiality. Films made by Werner Herzog , Volker Schlöndorff ( Young Törless, 1966) and Alexander Kluge ( Artists at the Top of the Big Top: Disorientated , 1968) quickly met with success. It was not long—the mid 1970s—before this younger generation had reestablished German cinema on an international scale. Volker Schlöndorff made The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum (in collaboration with Margarethe von Trotta , 1975), and The Tin Drum (1979). Werner Herzog went on to explore a fantastic, often quite exotic world in Aguirre, Wrath of God (1972), Nosferatu the Vampyre (1979), and Fitzcarraldo (1982). Prominent figures in the Munich School include Rainer Werner Fassbinder (1945–82), who also worked in television, and who was responsible for a considerable number of excellent films ( Fear Eats the Soul (Angst Essen Seele Auf), 1973; The Marriage of Maria Braun, 1978; Berlin Alexanderplatz, a 14-part television series, 1980), and Wim Wenders ( The American Friend, 1977; Paris, Texas , 1984; Wings of Desire , 1987; Buena Vista Social Club , 1999). Important and innovative women film directors include Margarethe von Trotta ( Rosa Luxemburg , 1986; Das Versprechen , 1995). Wolfgang Peterson’s fantasy world in The Neverending Story (1984) was a resounding commercial success.

Edgar Reitz won international acclaim with his film epic Heimat (1984) and its sequel Heimat 2 (1993).

However, West German cinema has been characterized by a strongly individual narrative feel which perhaps makes it less approachable to outsiders. One refreshing filmmaker worthy of note is Doris Dörrie who, with Men... (Männer) (1985) and Bin ich schön? (1998), reduced the Zeitgeist to a humorous point. Other successful films include Tom Tykwer ’s 1999 Lola rennt ( Run Lola Run ) and Wolfgang Becker ’s Goodbye Lenin , which won the Best European Film award at the 2003 Berlin Film Festival. The most successful German film of late has been The Lives of Others , written and directed by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck , which won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film in 2007.

Cinema in the former East German Republic

East German cinema, like all other art forms, was compelled by the state to fulfil a didactic function. Thus a number of films used literary classics as a theme, since directors felt unable to confront issues relevant to contemporary East Germany. Konrad Wolf made his mark on three decades of East German filmmaking, with films such as Sterne (1958), which won him recognition worldwide. In Solo Sunny (1979), he put forward the case for individualism, thus paving the way for a breakthrough in the East German film industry. Egon Güntheb made the highly successful Der Dritte (1971), while the greatest hit was Heiner Carow‘s Die Legende von Paul und Paula (1973).

1984 was a particularly fruitful year, with Hermann Zschoche ’s Hälfte des Lebens , Iris Gusner ’s Kaskade Rückwärts , and Helmut Dzuiba ’s Erscheinen Pflicht . One of the leading East German filmmakers of the 1970s and 1980s was Rainer Simon ( Das Luftschiff , 1982; Die Frau und der Fremde , 1985).

Finally, Lothar Warneke studied the problems of everyday life, and endeavored to dismantle rigid ideological points of view ( Bear Ye One Another’s Burdens (Einer trage des anderen Last) , 1988).

Top of page