German Expressionism • Metropolis

Greenscreening Series #05

After WWI, German filmmakers created a wild style of films that paved the way for Hollywood's horror, suspense, film noir, and science fiction genres.

September 9, 2022

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This Time on Greenscreening

We look at German Expressionism. Get ready for shadows, dramatic camera angles, and gloomy plots. Some of the most successful films of the 1920s were German Expressionist films, and while brief, this movement left a lasting legacy on generations of directors and film genres.

Metropolis (1927) directed by Fritz Lang.

Synopsis: In a futuristic city sharply divided between the working class and the city planners, the son of the city's mastermind falls in love with a working class prophet who predicts the coming of a savior to mediate their differences.

Find Metropolis streaming via Reelgood. Again, probably at your library if you want a physical copy. Try to watch the 2010 restoration of the film, as it is the most complete version.

The trailer showcases most of the incredible visuals, so even if you don't watch the entire movie, you can understand some of the film's importance just by watching the trailer (and reading this email, of course).

German Expressionism

Expressionism emerged in German art, primarily painting, around the turn of the century, as a way of confronting modern, industrial life. Expressionism was a reaction against realism, which artists felt could no longer represent the inner turmoil and alienation caused by modernity. Instead of depicting reality, expressionism sought to evoke strong reactions by using wild colors, distorted figures, and often absurd geometry.

Example of German Expressionist Art

After the war, Germany was economically devastated by sanctions and trade embargoes, and hyperinflation decimated the middle class. On the heels of 19th century nationalist movements, the industrial revolution, and the devastation of total war, all of this combined into a feeling of German society coming apart at the seams.

A new generation of filmmakers emerged after the war. Many of them had served during WWI, and they weren't interested in telling stories about romance or heroism. Instead, they told dark and twisted stories, with plots dealing with the macabre, crime, insanity, betrayal, and monsters. And expressionism gave them an effective visual language to tell these dark stories.

The key characteristics of German Expressionism were: * Anti-heroic characters * Themes of madness, paranoia, obsession, evil, and crime * Dramatic camera angles * Heavy use of shadows and stark contrast between light and dark --- what's become known as chiaroscuro lighting * Heavy emphasis of atmosphere - dense urban areas, stairways, mirrors, complex architectural structures and angles

One other significant variable enabled German Expressionism to flourish: isolation from outside influence. Germany had banned imports of foreign films during the war, which forced the German film industry to become completely self-sufficient. Budgets were sparse immediately following the war.

In the late 1910s, the German government helped consolidate all of the various film companies in the industry into a giant conglomerate, UFA, which like a German version of the Edison Trust controlled every aspect of filmmaking from equipment to production to distribution. This consolidation would have significant consequences and implications for the German film industry, including on the key films and filmmakers of the expressionist movement.

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)

One of the early hallmarks of German Expressionism was The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1915), directed by Robert Wiene. The story dealt with a hypnotist sideshow performer who uses the sleepwalker from his show to commit murders. Coming on the heels of WWI, the film is commonly read as an allegory where the German government, embodied by Dr. Caligari, ordered German soldiers to kill their enemies.

Caligari was a low-budget horror film that used absolutely wild set design to create its upside-down, dreamlike world.

*The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari*

Look at that set design. Completely unrealistic, with geometrically absurd angles. Often, the shadows and objects were painted directly on the sets, which enhanced the nightmarish, otherworldly feeling. The director also used harsh lighting to project heavy shadows from the characters.

Caligari was a global box office hit. Audiences had quite literally never seen anything like it - both visually and thematically. This is where the horror genre as we know it was born. It was also the first film about serial killers; a sub-genre still quite common today.

Nosferatu (1922)

The second major film in German Expressionism is F.W. Murnau's Nosferatu (1922). The film is an uncredited adaptation of Bram Stoker's Dracula, and immediately upon release, Stoker's estate sued to have the film destroyed, quite literally, as the judgment against the film ordered every copy be destroyed. However, one print had made its way overseas, so the film has been preserved for future generations to enjoy.

Nosferatu influenced generations of horror films. Its depiction of the vampire inspired how monsters appear in films - grotesque, caked in makeup. Notice in the images below, the use of stark black and white and shadows projected against walls to create atmosphere. In scenes where the monster is about to strike - the monster moves slowly, ratcheting up the tension.

F.W. Murnau's *Nosferatu*

It was only a few years before Hollywood began producing horror films in a similar style, with Dracula and Frankenstein both appearing in 1931, both using German Expressionist sets, lighting, shadows, and makeup.

Hollywood's monsters of the 1930s were straight out of German Expressionist imagery

Fritz Lang and Metropolis (1927)

The third major film from German Expressionism that we'll look at together is Fritz Lang's Metropolis.

Fritz Lang was an essential director in German Expressionism, and had a tremendous influence on Hollywood.

Lang originally wanted to be a painter. He was badly wounded in WWI, losing an eye, and while recovering from his injuries, began writing scenarios for German silent films. He graduated from writing to directing shortly after the War, and his films were wildly successful in Germany. He filmed a two-part version of Die Nibelungen, one of the quintessential works of German folklore, and for that became a celebrated national hero with essentially carte blanche from UFA.

Importantly, as Lang's career took off, German society was at peak Weimar Republic disaster. The economy was in shambles, unemployment was high. And a radical right-wing party was riding a wave of populist anger and disillusionment to power.

Metropolis was a reaction to these conditions. Lang made a film about a future society where poor factory workers are essentially slaves to the very wealthy, working conditions are incredibly dangerous, and technology has run amok. The plot follows Freder, the son of a wealthy businessman/dictator as he learns about the other half - the subterranean factory workers - and attempts to help the workers by partnering with a revolutionary, Maria. Conflict ensues between son and father, between rich and poor. And an evil genius, Rotwang, hatches a plan to control the workers through a wild plot involving a robot lady.

By today's standards, the plot may be fairly simple and obvious; even heavy-handed and at times a bit muddy. But in its day, the story was audacious and controversial. Remember, this was the 1920s, and Russia was about 10 years into the Bolshevik revolution, and European leaders feared the revolution would spread. A story about class conflict and a sympathetic portrayal of the working class got Lang a bit more scrutiny from bureaucrats, particularly those on the far right.

At the time, it was one of the most expensive films ever made. It brought UFA to the brink of bankruptcy.

It's clear where all that money went. The imagery throughout the film is stunning. Lang and his team used a combination of massive elaborate sets, miniatures, and matte shots to give a realistic sense of the city's scale and the people's tiny presence within it. Lang also used over 30,000 extras in the film. As with Birth of a Nation, this was filmmaking on an epic scale almost unthinkable today.

Visuals from Fritz Lang's *Metropolis*

After the film's German premiere, UFA demanded that Lang make significant cuts to make the film more marketable abroad. As a result, the publicly released version was heavily truncated (from 150 minutes to around 90), and only a few thousand people saw the original cut. Nevertheless, Metropolis was a hit, though it met with some pushback over its themes of class struggle.

The film and Lang suffered a blow, however, when the Nazi Party rose to power in Germany. UFA began collaborating with the Nazis, and the Party offered Lang a central role in the propaganda machine. But Lang refused and fled to the US. His wife stayed behind to support the Party, and divorced him. The Nazis retaliated against Lang by destroying most prints of his films, and refusing even after the war to screen many of his later films.

With Metropolis, we encounter two key issues in film history: preservation and restoration. First, preservation. Film is a fragile medium. Nitrate film is easily damaged. This is one of the reasons you see so much grain on old films. The Library of Congress has incredibly detailed instructions for handling motion picture film, among these a clean and stable environment, within a proper temperature and humidity range, protection from light, protection from leaks, minimal dust and pollutants, distance from radiators and vents. That's asking a lot, especially for generations-old films, and those produced in countries that were ravaged by war.

So for old films like Metropolis, and Nosferatu, only a handful of high quality prints are left.

Further complicating matters with Metropolis: the UFA-mandated edits. Preservation of cut scenes wasn't really a priority, especially when the Nazis destroyed most of Lang's work.

With the development of film study as an academic discipline, scholars became interested in Lang and recognized Metropolis' influence and impact, and historians tried to find his original cut of the film. Unfortunately, no single pristine print of the original Metropolis exists. Various efforts have stitched together cuts using Lang's production notes, the novel the film was based on, and fragments of different prints of the film. Thus, if you watch a restored version of the film, you'll typically see black frames inserted, with titles describing the lost footage.

Ironically, one of the films Metropolis' influenced most heavily, Blade Runner, suffered a similar fate with its studio, where after disastrous premieres, the film was heavily cut (and the ending famously changed). And thus we have at least 4 different distributions of Blade Runner director's cuts, on the strength of the film's cult following.

The 2010 release of Metropolis is marketed as a complete version of the film, though there are a few black frames where footage was lost. Regardless, this is astonishing, as for nearly 60 years, it was just a widely accepted fact that Metropolis was incomplete. Apparently an Argentine was in Berlin for the 1927 premiere of the full film, bought a copy of the film on the spot, and transported the reels back to Buenos Aires in his luggage. The film was part of a critic's collection, and in 1970 was donated to a government agency, who in turn donated the print to a cinema museum in Buenos Aires in 1992. A film scholar finally uncovered the film in 2008, and now we have a near-complete version of Lang's original vision.

Which begs the question: how did a museum have this film for nearly 30 years without realizing it?!

The Legacy of Metropolis

Before Metropolis, the major work of science fiction cinema was A Trip to the Moon, made 25 years earlier. Contrasting the two, you have a bleak, gritty depiction of a future with implications for contemporary society, where A Trip to the Moon depicts an unreal fantasy world of outer space; almost farcical and cartoonish. Utopian and dystopian, fantasy and grit would continue to be the two poles of cinematic science fiction.

It's safe to say Metropolis elevated the genre to high cinematic art, and it influenced countless subsequent science fiction films.

Starting with the visuals. You see the expressionist Metropolis skyline in the cityscape in Blade Runner, or in the battery city of The Matrix. But you can also see Metropolis' fingerprints in Gotham City.

The skyline from *Metropolis*

The depiction of a lifelike robot predicts future stories like Blade RunnerThe TerminatorRobocop, and The Matrix.

You can even see visual homage to Metropolis throughout film history. The automaton in Hugo could be a visual homage to Metropolis. The activation of the robot in Metropolis is echoed in Frankenstein's laboratory scene.

Robots bearing a resemblance to *Metropolis*

Activating a monster, or robot

And looking closely at the story, with a son who rebels against his father's empire by joining a working class rebellion, you can see echoes throughout science fiction, most notably Star Wars and Dune.

So if you want to sound like one of the cool kids on Letterboxd, you can say something like "Fun fact: Star Wars and Blade Runner are basically cousins, and Metropolis is their shared grandparent."

German Expressionism and Later Genres

Almost as quickly as it emerged, Expressionism faded away.

Hundreds of members of the German film industry, including Lang, Murnau and several other key German Expressionist directors, fled Germany as the Nazis came to power in the late 1920s and 1930s. Most of these industry personnel made their way to Hollywood and continued working, which helped their innovative techniques flourish.

You can see the stamp of expressionist visuals as well as themes across many genres, ranging from (as we discussed earlier) horror to science fiction, along with gangster films, film noir, and suspense / thrillers. The dark subject matter and heavily stylized visuals gave more directors ways to move audiences during the Depression and following WWII.

*Metropolis* and Film Noir

One of the biggest influences was upon a young aspiring director from Britain who worked for UFA in the 1920s: Alfred Hitchcock. He learned the techniques of chiaroscuro lighting, complicated matte shots, and expressionist set design, and went on to become the master of suspense. His early films bear the greatest stamp of UFA's influence, but you can still see German Expressionist echoes all the way into Psycho (1960).

The influence of German Expressionism on Alfred Hitchcock

Obviously, films today still have echoes of German Expressionism. I'd love to hear where you've seen this movement's influence.

In Closing

My introduction to Metropolis came during my sophomore year of high school. Our English class had a once-weekly "lecture" session, which in reality meant watching a movie related to whatever we were reading. The first novel we studied was Brave New World, and Metropolis was chosen to complement the novel. I loved Brave New World, but Metropolis was something altogether different. I think this was probably the first silent film I had seen. It was long and unruly. The visuals were dark and brooding, and eerily familiar. The version we watched was a restoration from the 1980s that used contemporary rock music as the score, which made it feel like a weird music video.

And Metropolis is generally a very weird film.

While some of my classmates used the time to catch up on sleep, I was hooked. Thinking back on it, I'm tempted to say it was a seminal film moment for me, one of the key moments where I started to appreciate films as art, and became interested in seeing more of the classics.

I'm pretty sure I haven't seen Metropolis since then. At the very latest it would have been college, so I'm excited to rewatch it. Tiffany loves science fiction, so I'm very curious what she'll think of it.

Supplemental Reading / Viewing

Additional Films:

  • The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) directed by Robert Wiene. Discussed below. This is the film they show in Film History classes, rather than Metropolis. It's kind of a doozy to watch. If you're feeling artsy, or you really like movies with a frame story / twist ending, this one's for you.
  • Nosferatu (1922) directed by F.W. Murnau. Discussed below. Straight masterpiece. If you like vampire movies, and you haven't seen this, you owe it to yourself. Available on YouTube and to rent elsewhere.
  • M (1931) directed by Fritz Lang. This might be Fritz Lang's masterpiece. Definitely his best German film. Disturbing tale of a serial killer.

Additional Readings:

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