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Expressionism And Fritz Lang

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Film Studies
Wordcount: 5003 words Published: 1st May 2017

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“I have been interested in a thousand things in my life, and out of these interests in a thousand things came one primary interest: mankind. And not only what he does- in innocence or in guilt- but what moves him to act, what makes him tick! And with that attempt to identify there grows not only personal awareness, but much more important, sympathy. Through this one’s own sphere of thought is enriched; as a reaction to it, associations with all things one has occupied oneself with for a lifetime are expanded… Who can honestly say how one arrives at a theme? What influenced him? It could be a falling leaf from a tree in Autumn, a sudden lull in the wind, a sudden thunderstorm…” (Fritz Lang in interview with Gero Gandert, 1963)

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Fritz Lang was one of the pioneers of German school of Expressionism, one of the few auteurs, who was able to make the successful transition from silent cinema to the talkies, and who also paved the way for the film noir genre in the United States. In this paper, one will be looking at his two of his films as case studies, Metropolis (1927) and M (1931) respectively, all the while keeping in mind the distinctive role of Lang as an auteur in context to the tradition of expressionist cinema. Throughout the paper, one is going to deal with object-subject relationships in German expressionist cinema as well as self-referentiality, private anxieties and public projections in the Weimar Republic and an attempt is going to be made towards a feminist reading of German Expressionism with respect to the case studies.

To give a brief background of the two films in question, both were made in the Weimar Republic before Lang went into a self-imposed exile in America. The circumstances of Lang’s emigration remain controversial; the story goes that he was offered a post of managing director of the entire German film industry by the ministry in Germany (to be precise, Goebbels, the propaganda minister) after banning his film, The Testament of Dr. Mabuse, and that he was given 24 hours to consider the proposal but soon afterwards he fled from Berlin to Paris. Metropolis was the world’s most expensive silent cinema at the time of its release while in M, elements of early film noir can be seen and the classic use of sound as a tool has been acknowledged by film scholars (this aspect of the film is going to discussed in detail later on in the paper).

As is well-known expressionism as an art movement stemmed from the school of impressionists and goes well back to the 19th century. It assumed an identifiable structure only in the 1900s though. It sought to utilize contemporary philosophical and psychological thinking (Freudianism to a large degree) and relied heavily on personal experiences, feelings and emotions rather than ‘impressions’ of reality. Weimar cinema has time and again been described as being proto-fascist and expressionism linked to National Socialism, which was popularized in the writings of Siegfried Kracauer and can be traced back to the theoretical debates of the 1930s, specifically to the views expressed Georg Lukács. In a 1934 essay, Lukács argued that “expressionism was undoubtedly one of the diverse bourgeois ideological currents that would later result in fascism” as its tendency towards subjectivism and romanticism linked it ideologically to the irrational mysticism of Wilhelmian philosophy, and therefore one of the central sources of Nazi beliefs. Lukács’ sociological argument was later expanded and applied to the analysis of German cinema by Siegfried Kracauer in his study of Weimar film culture, From Caligari to Hitler (1947).

John S. Titford begins his journal article with the sentence, “Expressionist cinema is an impossibility.” What he is trying to say through this is that the Expressionists and Realists alike cannot possibly transcend the limitations of cinema as a medium even if they exploit it to its fullest extent. It has to be mimetic, symbolic, never being the things it represents in exactitude. Art must, unlike reality itself, have a beginning and an end. Having defined its boundaries, cinema has proven to be the most appropriate medium for expressionism. It is more dynamic than expressionist painting, more able to instill a feeling of horror than expressionist literature, and more claustrophobic than expressionist theatre. Expressionism found an expression in the rapidly evolving motion pictures.

There is a dichotomy between the creator and his creation, the medium and the message, and there is a need to understand the artist’s perception of the subject matter so as to get a hold of the deeper meaning of the piece of art itself. For it is the artist’s, or the auteur in our case, thoughts and feelings which are being communicated through his actions. Christian Metz has hence, made the differentiation between the signified (human consciousness) and the signifier (work of art).

Anthromorphism, the process of inanimate objects coming to life, is a key feature of German expressionist cinema. Metropolis is an archetypal example for that. The live consciousness of the artist is, in a sense, metamorphosed into dead celluloid. Within the film, the humans tend to imbibe the characteristic traits of the world of objects while the objects exude human-like features and this is a cycle of life and death which the expressionist cinema follows. The figure of Rotwang exhibits qualities of a machine, or that of a prototypical cyborg to say the least, with a mechanical right arm, whereas the machines in the industrial underbellies of the city demonstrate signs of life as well as the Robot, which takes on the form of Maria, seemingly human but not quite.

German expressionist film offers a penetrating analysis of the society along with the philosophy and psychology of its age. It is important also because of its filmic process. Unlike other forms of art, it is not static (before the advent of pop art and kinetic models), and transforms inert photographic frames into rendering a semblance of truth. Thus, film can make an object assume personality and vice versa. The workers in Metropolis operate like machines, often being grouped together in abstract geometrical shapes. The figure of Rotwang, as stated earlier, is the model for sub-human forces embodying the concept of Destiny, or a threat to the nation of Germany, depending upon the interpretation. He is perceived as a monster, hardly convincing as a living creature than the true monster like the Robot Maria. One of the scenes in M epitomizes the process whereby the animate becomes the inanimate. Beckett, the child-murderer, has been captured by the underground criminals and is brought into a room where they are about to give him a trial. As he confronts the mass of people assembled to indict him, the camera pans around the group. It is not a moving mass that we see, but a still photograph: the image is frozen. It has thus taken the nature of an inert, static painting.

Buildings become demoniacal in expressionist films; foreboding houses are used for shock effect, and rooms and enclosed spaces create a sense of claustrophobia. Maria in Metropolis is persistently pursued by a strong beam of light as she struggles to find a way out of the catacombs. The streets are merely an extension of the threatening building and dominate and control the lives of its inhabitants. In general, diagonals and oblique angles in the sets are employed, and the buildings and streets are distorted, ghostly, and with painted shadows and streets that seem to lead nowhere. Since the films were mostly shot in the studios with the help of painted canvas scenery, the world thus created was usually two dimensional.

The mood or the stimmung and the claustrophobia of the expressionist world is further intensified by the use of lighting. There is a predisposition for the world of twilight in which the inanimate can readily become alive with no warning. Expressionist films are frequently lit using sharp, often jarring, blacks and whites, distorted shadows, and large areas of darkness. Precisely because light or absence of light gives space its reality, it can effect a transformation of concrete into abstract, living into dead, or vice versa, making us doubt our own senses, and even our awareness of figure and ground distinctions. Chiaroscuro affects our perceptions, and shadows themselves can become alive. Expressionist cinema was by no means limited to the city, even though the two case studies portray the cityscape. Expressionist directors were more concerned with life as a process ending in death, and their art was almost totally pessimistic. The game expressionist cinema plays with itself and its audience is that of Russian roulette, with destiny as the bullet, and death the prize. German expressionist cinema was concerned with the powers of darkness, with people trapped by their environment and with claustrophobia pervading everyday life.

To back to the lighting in the early Weimar Republic cinema, the use of chiaroscuro effects of artificial lighting was unsurpassed. Lighting was used as a narrative device, and while in some early Weimar cinemas it was a little more than a decorative element or a creator of mood, in later films chiaroscuro elements and specifically shadow assume a precise communicative element. Chiaroscuro manipulated the visual sense to create emotions whereas the shadow rather than being a merely expressionistic mannerism, added narrative depth to the silent cinema. The employment of shadow as a communicative metaphor is found as early as Plato’s Republic, where he talks of the cave-men perceiving shadows and echoes as reality itself, which is not totally false; it results from reality even though it might be a weakened, diluted version of the real. The traditional motif of the shadow as a metaphor of perception later appears in the 20th century in Jungian psychology. Jung used the shadow metaphor to describe the underside of the human psyche, which if acknowledged brings forth the survival responses, stimulating the libido, whereas if repressed can bring about the downfall of the individual. However, the intention of the early popular filmmaker was to involve the viewer in the film event. Thus, the shadow metaphor was appropriated as a narrative device, and the philosophical and psychological significance of the shadow became subordinated to the film’s fictional narrative, and the function of the shadow was sublimated in the narrative act. It became a device for communicating a simultaneous, secondary narrative to the viewer. Shadow’s significance is neither good nor evil but instead projects an ‘other’ reality, another interpretation of sorts. Instead of seeking an escape from the pursuing shadow, one needed to acknowledge and accept it. In M, the character of Beckett was seen running away from his shadow, which relentlessly pursued him, stronger than the man himself, and the only way out for him was to embrace his darker side, even if it made him commit cruel, inhuman acts of violence. The early cinematic shadow enabled a possibility of multiple narratives which was later achieved through the use of sound. There was first an adoption and then rejection of shadow as metaphor within the conventions of the cinematic code, adoption during the silent period of cinema and rejection with the onset of sound in the 30s. The shadow as a metaphor was used most effectively in the early period of silent cinema. By the late 1920s, the New Objectivity had brought heightened realism in German films, and more “natural” lighting had replaced the intense chiaroscuro of the early 1920s. The cinematic shadow had become a cliché, and its narrative function was soon overtaken by other devices: the “significant object” of the late silent films and the soundtrack of the early sound films.

In the opening credits of M, one sees a hand with the letter ‘M’ inscribed on it. The drawing style evokes the exaggerated shapes and dramatic textures of German Expressionist painting, but due to its linear abstraction and dynamic simplification the hand’s image is also reminiscent of 1920s techno-culture: of New Objectivity’s cold modernism and of Futurism’s celebration of speed, energy, fluidity, and prosthetic body-machines. It strikes the viewer as an artificial limb taking on the uncanny function of living, or conversely, a human charged with the strength of a robotic apparatus. The first scene opens to a Berlin backyard populated by a bunch of children, their positions resembling that of a clock, with one girl standing in the middle and functioning as the clock’s hand so as to count and count out the other players. The girl sings a song of brutal murder and dismemberment, a blatant endorsement of terror and violence itself.

In Lang’s first sound film, M, sound had for the most part supplanted the communicative function of the shadow; the film’s basic distinctions between good and evil, rationality and irrationality, appearance and reality is rendered perceptible by shadow somewhat and mirror reflection, but mostly by sound. In M, nothing is as it seems on the surface: an apparent innocent is a psychotic killer, an apparently peaceful crowd can transform into a raging mob, apparent friends can become suspicious accusers, apparent organization (the police) is ineffective against the killer and the apparent disorder (the underworld) is really more orderly and efficient than the police. Even seemingly innocent children are tainted by the evil: the film’s opening sequence shows a group of children playing as they sing a variation of “One Potato, Two Potato”, a song about another non-fictional mass murderer Harmann, who not only murdered but also cooked and sold his victims as canned meat. What we see is innocent childhood, but what we hear refutes this appearance. In M, appearance is always deceptive, true reality is only perceptible to the observant viewer and listener.

In M, the shadow metaphor has become secondary to the metaphors of reflection and sound. Shadows only appear infrequently. For instance, when Beckert leaves his home, he is followed by his shadow, a constant and quite visible reminder of his irrational psychosis. Later in the film when Schränker and his band of criminals plan to trap the murderer, the camera moves from them to their shadows on the wall, depicting their transformation from a group of individuals to a retributive force, sort of vigilantes, which by its organization is able to capture the murderer. The most effective use of shadow in the film undoubtedly is at the beginning of the film when the shadow of the perpetrator falls across the poster describing his previous murders, at the same time his voice addressing the little girl, Elsie. The juxtaposition of the visual and the aural helps in the unraveling of the plot and is used as a device for placing the viewer on a level of knowledge or awareness exceeding that of any of the characters (including Beckert himself, who it is implied, is unaware of his condition). Even though the killer appears to be harmless, Lang informs the viewer very blatantly the shadow as killer and the girl as the victim. In Jungian terms, the shadow of Beckert is the actual killer. The shadow is used to establish Beckert’s villainy. Later in the film, when he makes his first appearance he is shown inspecting himself in the mirror, probably trying to come to terms with his own predicament and grasp the reality, which he seemingly fails to perceive. What the viewer sees is two Beckerts, comparable to Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde where at times Dr. Jekyll loses complete control over himself and the monstrous Mr. Hyde takes over his person. In a later shot, Beckert does get to know of his own reality when he becomes the ‘marked man’ and sees the letter ‘M’ imprinted on his overcoat in a glass reflection.

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Lang has reinforced the shadow and the mirror images by sophisticated sound, where it complements and supplements the visuals. The oft cited example here would the voiceover commentary during the scenes of police investigation: the voice of the police commissioner giving an overall explanation to the minister about the police actions that are seen. Sound, however, is also used to contradict the visual image, communicating a real threat to an apparent tranquility. In one sequence a little girl walks alone along a street, apparently safe. Had M been a silent film, the danger to the girl’s life might have been shown by an ominous shadow pursuing her. Instead, Lang replaced that with Beckert’s characteristic whistling tune. As soon as the girl meets her mother, the whistling stops, the silence signifying the girl’s actual safety.

However, the shadow and the chiaroscuro element never entirely disappeared, even though it was replaced by a more realistic lighting. The shadow was incorporated into American cinema as an element of film noir where it became an emblem of the criminal unknown.

Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927) is one of his most well-known and widely recognized films of all times. It has either been termed the silliest film or the most unique and remarkable spectacle ever shown on screen, but the reaction or response towards it has at all times been extreme. Widely acknowledged as a bravura display of film craftsmanship, it has also been equally denounced as unbearably trivial, naïve sentimental and even fascist. Some of the problems raised by the narrative structure of Metropolis stem from the fact that much of the original version of the film is missing. Nevertheless, it marks a significant moment in the history of cinema and represents a culmination of Lang’s early style.

Metropolis began with a segment which appeared totally expository, having, however a definite function in the narrative. Lang’s film begins with a depiction of the totally alienated condition of the workers, their lack of control over their own conditions of existence. This lack marks the workers as the film’s first “subject” or hero (as a collective unit) although their function as a performer of a set of operations changes throughout the course of the film. The dichotomy between machine/self-movement and Machine/Human is highlighted in this segment of the film, which is to form an important device in the narrative structure. The notion of space is central and his definition of all narrative events as some sort of real or attempted transfer of an object is accompanied by or imply a special discontinuity. This happens in the second segment of the film when Maria, as ‘subject’, takes a group of children (the object of value) to the ‘pleasure garden’ in the upper level from the worker city. She is forced to leave and this unit of narrative is ended by the failure of this attempted transfer. This narrative unit may seem isolated but is not unconnected with the narrative as a whole, as through it another hero is created in the form of Freder, whose main aim would be to return these children to the upper level. In this segment itself, Freder realizes his own lack of knowledge of the workers and he descends to the machine rooms to observe the workers and witness the accident at the central power room. This however, constitutes his first stage of acquisition of knowledge. This portion of the narrative ends with him leaving the space of conflict to return to the upper level with his knowledge. When Freder returns to the upper city, the residence of the ruling class, he attempts to give his father, John Frederson, his understanding of the workers’ condition. But Frederson, in this segment, being the anti-hero/anti-subject/traitor prevents the transmission of this knowledge. Frederson is the ‘subject’ of another ‘story’ in which the object of desire is the control of the workers. Another lack is revealed when Freder discovers a map in the pocket of the dead worker- the lack of the ruler’s knowledge of the maps and the workers’ intentions. From this point on, the object of desire for both father and son would be to seek knowledge in the catacombs, which would then enable them to function as hero and traitor in the later stages of the narrative. Knowledge will be acquired in stages all throughout the course of the narrative and so following the interview in Frederson’s office, Freder descends to the machines and Frederson goes to see the inventor, Rotwang, each in search of a more adequate knowledge. The film shows the similarity with the use of parallel editing. Freder discovers the grueling effects of time and repeated effort by taking charge of the machine deserted by a failing worker. Frederson is shown the Robot by Rotwang, and mystery of the maps is deciphered partially which are revealed to be guides to the catacombs below the worker city. Parallels are established between these acquisitions of knowledge by intercutting. In the catacombs, the acquisition of knowledge is completed but this gives way to further problems; Frederson realizes he has no control over his workers while Freder comprehends his responsibility as a ‘mediator’. The new object of desire is Maria; she is desired by both as a means of obtaining another object, the workers, for their elimination (by the father) or their liberation (by the son). The abduction of Maria from the catacombs by Rotwang to his house and the confrontation between Freder and the scientist resulting in the latter’s victory over the former with the use of machinery, is replete with symbolism. Machinery, as a sign of evil, remains a constant throughout the film, and is always utilized by the traitors as a helping agent. Freder is denied access to Maria and her features are quite literally transferred to the Robot so as to transmit a false knowledge to the workers, deceive them and lead them astray. Transmitting false knowledge is the classic means of neutralizing power. The Robot Maria convinces the workers to act violently and turns them into traitors temporarily, allies of Frederson and Rotwang. The children, the metonymic representatives of the proletariat are left behind in the lower city. However, the deception of the workers is soon followed by the restoration of Freder’s power, by his acquisition of knowledge that Robot is not Maria. Subsequently Maria is released and destruction of the children is prevented by moving them to the upper city with the help of Freder and Joseph. The second abduction of Maria by the evil Rotwang is the final lack which is eliminated by the hero vanquishing the evil. At the end of the film, traitors are destroyed (Frederson is redeemed through his sons actions) and peace and balance restored.

The heroes in the film are Freder, Maria and the workers while traitors are Frederson, Rotwang and the Robot. There is a tripartite division of the objects of value: the knowledge of the proletariat, the use of Maria, and the children of the workers who represent the proletariat as social entity. At the end of the film even though the children return to the ‘pleasure garden’ their status is ambiguous; as a result of the accord reached between ruling class and the workers they would have to return to their original space. Thus the film reaffirms the social structure present at the beginning.

The film can be divided into two dealing with political and scientific distinctions on the axis human/mechanical and with cultural and religious distinctions on the axis Christian/mystical-alchemical. The film starts with a montage comprising of several shots of stylized machines. This concludes with a shot of the whistle blowing indicating the end of the shift and the next shot shows the workers taking the elevators to go to the worker city. It is not only the machinery which is identified with the traitors as oppressors, but also the concept of time. Time is the measure of the repetitive effort required of the proletariat. In the ‘pleasure garden’ Freder is essentially depicted as being out of vicious circle of time and is removed from all types of machinery. Also, out of the traitors, only Frederson, who would be transformed into a good man, is wholly human. Rotwang is part-human part-machine while the Robot is fully mechanical. There are other such examples all throughout the film- when the workers ply to and from work; they use the elevators, whereas when they need to descend to the catacombs, they do so on foot. Also when Freder, Maria and Joseph take the children to the upper level, they do so by purely human effort.

Metropolis has heavy and significant allusions to religion. There is a consistent opposition present between the vague Christianity and the mystical and the alchemical, most evident in the connotations produced by Rotwang. He is portrayed to be some sort of a medieval sorcerer (his robot will be burned like a witch); compared to the archetypal Aryan appearances of Freder and Maria, the inventor looks distinctly Semitic. On his door and above his robot in his laboratory is a five-pointed star. He lives alone in a curiously distorted, old-fashioned house, set apart from the rest of the society. His science is ‘occult’ and solitary. The Christian tradition is most apparent in Maria and Freder. While working in the circular machine, he clearly crucified at the hands of the clock face. Maria is undoubtedly Christian; in the catacombs while retelling the tale of the Tower of Babel, she is standing in front of a number of crucifixes and viewed reverently by the workers from below.

Metropolis can also be analyzed on psychoanalytic terms. The oedipal aspect of the film is quite apparent. A three-member family is created with Frederson as the Father (leader of the society), Freder as the Son (representative of the workers) and Maria the Mother (spiritual creator of Freder and the workers/mother of the masses). Freder to negate and assume the power of the Father must have access to the Mother. This is achieved at the end of the film when the Father is stripped of his power (castration), and is seen kneeling in front of Freder, which is transmitted to the Son.

Metropolis has not gone without criticism and Don Willis in his article has thoroughly bashed Lang for his overtly simplistic plot, going on to say that the “spectacle seems almost incidental” where the spectacle has been sacrificed to the message. He says of the film, “…the eerie delicateness of this image of foreboding is betrayed by the crudeness of development of plot and character…” Barry Salt has been quoted in his text as stating that “…Lang’s film is not even much of an improvement in craftsmanship, despite the several years of development there had been in film technique elsewhere.” The rave reviews that the film opened in Germany are dismissed as “sensationalistic”.

The position of an author is defined by the relationship which he maintains with his characters. In the film, one form of this relationship rests on the systems of vision which the pictures reveal: how the author fragmentarily indicates and encloses the viewpoint of his characters within the continuity of his own viewpoint constitutes the viewpoint of the film. Lang allows ambiguity to hover over the relationship which unites character and director in the vision. He is showing that only a well-crafted device can precisely situate a viewpoint, which the vision of the real alone cannot, or he is deliberately moving to a symbolic level, which results in distancing the author from the characters even more. The author defines himself by his point of view towards the objects he unveils. This point of view is manifest in the first place by the distance at which the camera is held. With Lang, it seems to be vivid or in a disguised manner. There are innumerable formal and thematic references, configurations which come into play from film to film and organize the enigmatic web of Langian knot-work. Hence, the sign, the token, around which the narration is organized, the significant object Lang always indicates with a close-up which is the first easily located link between the chain of shots and the thematic chain. The generally intensified demarcation of space disrupts the viewpoint in order to lead it to its more rightful place which carries to an extreme, in cinematographic space, dialectic of subject and object finding its origin in German cultural tradition and its achievement in the fundamental materialism of industrial civilization. This subject-object game, when divided, provokes the eye, making an incredible fissure in Lang’s films. Lang bases the possibility of his narrative on the richness and the perversity of oppositions. It is the logical outcome of writing and vision. Lang keeps the point of view in perpetual hesitation; for the event, whether it is foreshadowed or already occurred, always seems linked to something else. There is an incessant disequilibrium and abstract waiting which marks all of Lang’s films. Lang plays with counter-shots and at times tends to lose sight of his narrative, obscuring his characters. There is a subtle defeat in his films, which is revealed by the impossibility of the closed system. His films are extremely dense; in every shot, a writing unfolds which is strictly defined and structured, a part of the larger picture. Thus, by distancing himself from his films, Lang’s works always seem to be in the process of creating itself.


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