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Metropolis and German Expressionism By Melanie Jones

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Intro to Film 1851

Genre Essay

Metropolis and German Expressionism

By Melanie Jones

Thank goodness Kino on Video re-released Metropolis (1927, Lang) on DVD! Not only did they release it again, but teaming with Transit Films and the Friedrich-Wilhelm Murnau Foundation, they also restored it very close to its original quality. Now I can finally see that Gustav Fröhlich is indeed a handsome man, Alfred Abel has a mouth that moves, and Rudolph Klein-Rogge is not wearing a dress, just a long coat. Along with clearing up those problems with mise an scène, the restoration added missing scenes, used the proper takes from film that were already available, and borrowed from the novel of the same name to fill in any plot holes that the permanently lost scenes left. I had seen this movie in its degraded form many times before the restored version was released, and the reason I could enjoy a movie without being able to understand the plot is because the style of the film is so beautiful. This style is German Expressionism, and Metropolis was the last of its kind.

The genre started in the nineteenth century before motion pictures came into existence. Painters such as Kandinsky, Paul Klee, Franz Marc, etc. were famous for this style. The art was nonrepresentational, usually involving sharp angles and muddled subjects. The subject is there, but the object of the art movement was not to present realism, but to relay the emotion of the artist to the viewer.

In a time when movies had matured to a point where they could be realistic, some filmmakers chose to use this abstract form when creating their art, the first of which being Das Kabinett des Dr. Caligari (1919, Wiene). In film, the genre typically uses chiaroscuro and high contrast lighting, acute angles, and intense stories. The genre can be better classified by what it stands against than what it is promoting: it is against naturalism. Some of Metropolis’ attempts to leave the real world include: gardens of paper trees and flowers, magic that allows a robot to take on the likeness of a real woman, and a statue of death that comes to life. Most of the expressionists use lots of black and white geometric patterns for their sets and costumes. For example, in Die Nibelungen (1924, Lang), almost all of the characters are wearing long cloaks, dresses or tunics with black and white zigzag trim or triangular motifs on the fabric.

In formalist (expressionist) films, we can easily see that each director brings something different to the screen, though they all communicate the same alternate-universe of unreality.

Many different elements come together to provide this unique view of the world, but the two main ones are acting and location (sets).

Conrad Veidt as Cesare in Caligari acts in a very expressionistic style: he is stiff, but as graceful as a dancer; none of his movements would ever be duplicated by anyone off camera. In Metropolis, the acting is still a little stiff, but more emotional than in previous expressionist films. We see the main character, Freder (Gustav Fröhlich), express a wide range of emotions: at the beginning he is happy, athletic and even a bit of a romantic charmer; he is afraid and sad when the conflict starts, tired when he is finished working; towards the middle, he becomes so angry that he makes himself ill.

Most characters in this genre are more two-dimensional than this. The protagonist is usually only happy and concerned/afraid. The villain is angry or creepily calm. Sidekicks are afraid and distrustful and women are enamored with the protagonist and are also afraid and distrustful (but the sidekicks and women are usually the first to be kidnapped or killed, so we can’t really blame them for this). Keeping that in mind, Maria (Brigitte Helm) in Metropolis cracks the stereotypical female role. Yes, she is placed in a perilous situation and she is the object of Freder’s affection, but she is seen as a leader or prophet to the workers in the underground city. They look up to her and she comforts them. She plays a big role in the salvation of the workers and in the end helps in the last step of uniting them with the masters.

The sets in the expressionist genre are all constructed on studio stages so that reality can not interfere with the creation of the filmed world. The sets are usually elaborate, including the interiors and exteriors of many buildings and locations for “outdoor” shoots. Locations are deliberately artificial – “meant to represent a state of mind, not a place”. The aim for most German expressionist is to eliminate nature for a state of absolute abstraction. This also gives them more control over their creation. Models were often used for buildings, and trick photography was employed to communicate proper scale (mostly using mirrors). The buildings designed for Metropolis are angular, towering things, so unrealistic in their design that they were never built, even as models; what you see in the movie are paintings. Some of the best animation I have ever seen was used in this movie when the city is shown at night and spotlights move across the buildings. I believed they were models until a documentary corrected me.
Since the German expressionist movement deals with supernatural subjects, it is often classified today as horror. While sometimes elements of the movies are scary (like when the Golem (Paul Wegener) attacks Florain (Lothar Müthel) in Der Golem (1920, Wegener), or the M-machine turns into Moloch in Metropolis), horror would be the wrong classification for these particular films because of what the filmmaker is trying to communicate. (This is like saying that the movie Signs (2002, Shyamalan) is not about aliens, though they play a part in the story.) These stories are primarily showcases for the director’s display of unreality; the plot is just the vehicle to drive it there.
Metropolis was the last German expressionist film and the first in the Neue Sächlichkeit (or New Objectivity) genre which deals more with reality and less with emotion. If Caligari is primitive, Metropolis is revisionist; it gradually moves the audience’s focus from the surreal to reality. The behavior of the actors differed from that of their predecessors, the location was based on a much larger scale, and technology replaced magic: these are the main things this film does to twist the genre.

The characters are different from previous German expression films in their acting as well as their presentation. In Metropolis, the characters are more like real life because some of them show signs of being both good and evil. For example, the workers seem to change from good to evil and back to good towards the end of the movie. 11811 (Erwin Biswanger) is supposed to help Freder, but goes to a nightclub instead and gets arrested. And you almost feel sorry for Rotwang until he goes crazy at the end after he thinks he has died and gone to Heaven.

The German Expressionist movement was short lived because of failure after failure at the box office. Cultural changes also demanded a shift in style. Some of the most famous movies of the genre were virtually cast aside until historians dug them up again 50-80 years after their release. Unfortunately, after being poorly stored and neglected for so many years, many of these films have degraded beyond repair; while others, like Metropolis, are left in fragmented form (a third of this movie is irretrievably lost). But we can surely enjoy what we have – like visiting an art museum that moves.


Still #1: Metropolis – Freder at the Pater-Noster machine

Painting: Vogel – Franz Marc

Still #2: The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari – a shadow

Still #3: The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari – Cesare on his way to kidnap the girl

Still #4: Metropolis – Freder and Rotwang fighting on the rooftop

Still #5: Metropolisa building in the city

The Metropolis Case – Documentary by Enno Patalas

Understanding Movies by Louis Giannetti

Film – An International History of the Medium by Robert Sklar

Caligari’s Children – The Film as Tale of Terror by S. S. Prawer

Masterworks of the German Cinema by Dr. Roger Manvell

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