Monday, June 28, 2010

Critical Essay: Weimar Cinema

The period of German Cinema between 1918 and 1933 is referred to as “Expressionist Cinema,” and can be described as an early pinnacle of film experimentation of technology and special effects that utilized revolutionary filmic elements to abstract the mise-en scene, methods of acting/gesture, lighting, editing, and shooting methods. These abstractions are intertwined with ambiguous and unusual narratives that dismissed a sense of clarity and left the viewers grasp on the characters and their motivation not entirely clear. Many of the directors' aims was to create a form of "Art Cinema” where the “films appeared to be paintings brought to life.” Many films during this period were extremely popular, especially when they followed or reshaped the unique aesthetics and particular thematic concerns of the period. The two films I will incorporate closely into this analysis and are F.W Murnau’s horror masterpiece, Nosferatu (1922) and Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927) focusing particularly on their technical innovation, their revival of the Gothic, and their interesting statements on modernity.

German Cinema at this time can be described as a hybrid of both mass culture and modernist inspirations, including the development of the projector. The German Avant-Garde movement expressed a disdain for the American film medium, and the production of films, as ‘Art’ had to be popular amongst the elites and the masses, but also had to be marketable commodity. Through a threat posed on already established upper-class entertainments such as theatre and to provide a relief to upper class intellectuals, Gothic fairytales began to become introduced into the German film industry to marketable appeal.
Directors began to use the style of “Expressionism” to create a commodity, enabling the films to become marketable as uniquely German, and critiquing and presenting emphatically elements of the Gothic Narrative and German Romanticism into its feature films. The biggest Hollywood films, notably those by D.W Griffith (Birth of a Nation, 1915), and the linear sequence of narrative common to their industry was not followed by Weimar Germany who became a prominent European threat to Hollywood through their unique style of film making. Thomas Elsaesser argued that German silent cinema, however influential it has been on certain aspects of Hollywood film making (the horror film for example), remained non-imposed on the commercial cinema, and thus remained a form of ‘alternative cinema’ during this period. Lotte Eisner argued that the transformation was an act of repression and that history, through the Gothic narrative, had returned in the form of the distinctive uncanny or the ‘fantastic.’ W. Worringer introduced the concept of the ‘Gothic Line’ and describes the stories as lacking a linear narrative or plausible timeline and appearing to have no distinct beginning or conclusion, much like a film such as The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1920). Worringer also raises the idea of a dark agitation within the narrative, present in the techniques of editing, the use of light and shadow and the film’s backing score. Nosferatu is one such film that displays the full arsenal of these features.

German Neo-Gothic writers began to write for the film medium because narratives of this kind had the greatest potential for the use of special effects. As a result, the cinema of the “fantastic” has given rise to notable creatures as Dr Caligari, Nosferatu the Vampire and Maria the Robot who have a sense of vitality and occupy a state where organic/inorganic are discernible. The illuminated state of Nosferatu when he appears below deck, and the burning down of the Maria Robot are just two examples of the vitality created by very early forms of special effects. However, to complement the use of special effects, during the 1920’s German cinema also began to move to a style that worked actively with light. We will see that the importance of light as essential in creating a Gothic effect in films of this time. The characters were always the embodiment of the light and the dark, and are often present as parallels of being either spiritual or housing the presence of evil. The films derive from the use of the optic (working with light) and the appearance of colour can be established through the use of black and white and effective lighting techniques. This cleverly creates a dark, swampy, seductive atmosphere full of effective shadowing within the image influenced by past Gothic traditions. Murnau's work in Nosferatu tended to use either chiaroscuro or the dancing of light on bodies and objects to dematerialize solid things into “impalpable, translucent rays that evoke unworldly, spiritual realms.” One example is Nosferatu’s uncanny spirituality as he stalks across Wisborg to his new home holding his coffin.
The German cinema has been described as being subject to ‘unchaining’ of the camera, developing innovative ways to tell their narrative through the lens. One key example from Metropolis is the wonderful point-of-view (POV) shot of Freder when he spots a piece of Maria’s clothing in Rotwang’s house and we see only his hand emerging away from the camera as though we were watching this entirely through his eyes. An example from Nosferatu is the altering of the gaze when Harker descends the staircase and discovers the Count’s coffin for the first time in the depths of the castle. Murnau never shows this scene from the POV of Harker, but makes it feel like there is always someone watching him. The gothic frame rarely utilises the horizontal or the vertical but makes use of the uncanny diagonal, and the linear narrative is altered by the sense of a ‘broken line’.

The editing style, influenced by the work of D.W Griffith, is largely continuity editing, but a sense of ‘slowing down’ is utilized to create ambiguous narrative. In what can be described as a chase sequence in Nosferatu there is no action/reaction medium but a ‘slowing down’ affect that creates juxtaposition between the characters of Harker, Ellen and Nosferatu. Ellen waits by the water for the return of Harker (on horseback) from abroad. It is, however, Nosferatu who has commandeered a ship and is arriving by water, suggesting that the film’s truest marriage is between her and the Count. The action/reaction is based on a sense of affinity between the monstrous and femininity, a feature prominent in both The Cabinet of Dr Caligari and Metropolis and the crosscutting between the characters is not for a general understanding of suspense. Whose point-of-view can the story be assessed through? There is an argument to read the story through all of the characters and multiple readings can be made depending on the character in focus. All three protagonists share a secret affinity because each plays the role of instigator and victim, and the caller and the called upon. To further understand the non-narrative values of German Cinema we can call upon Tom Gunning’s work on the ‘Cinema of Attractions’ and his focus on early examples of primitive cinema and the work of Sergei Eisenstein (Stachka [Strike], 1924).

A film like The Cabinet of Dr Caligari has a very strange atmosphere and Weiner creates strange distorted perspectives through the odd selection of sets. Murnau’s film exemplified and furthered Expressionism most notably by using elements of the natural world for the creation of mood rather than the painted studio sets, a feature distinctly common in early Weimar Cinema. A perfect example of this is the wonderfully diverse use of the camera to shoot the outdoor environment surrounding the castle. During the horse and carriage journey Murnau speeds up the image, then experiments with the incorporation of a Polaroid negative technique. The whole of nature has the appearance of being disturbed by the intangible presence of evil, which lurks beneath the surface of nature, almost as a response to the supernatural element residing in the castle. Nosferatu is considered one of the greatest examples of both German “Expressionist” Cinema and the horror film itself. Drawing upon similar Romantic devices as The Cabinet of Dr Caligari and utilising the Gothic narrative of Dracula, Lotte Eisner has contended, “Nosferatu makes apparent the continuity between a Romantic sensibility and the Expressionist project.” As the taste for a Gothic revival became widely common in all forms of art during this period, the film's opening is clearly reminiscent of the ‘Red Tower in Halle’ (1915), a painting by Ludwig Kirchner.

In a direct parallel to Rotwang’s Gothic ‘ginger bread house’ in Metropolis the doors in Nosferatu’s Castle open by themselves, and we can conclude that while these examples depend upon specific cinematic technique, they also associate the vampire with magic. At night Nosferatu goes out to prey on the civilised world, bringing pestilence wherever he appears. This occurs until he is challenged by the positive forces of ‘good’ embodied in Ellen who refuses to be afraid of him and thus destroys him (through an exposure to light) at the end of the film. Another interesting observation to be made about Nosferatu is the fact that this film is about the enactment of a deal or an exchange. The image of Ellen that Harker accidentally displays to Nosferatu as he is signing the papers substitutes for the money that otherwise would have sealed the deal. As the closure of the deal, Nosferatu acquires a view (of Ellen across the street) and Harker gains a social status (by having the Count as a client). A negative outcome of this deal is Nosferatu's introduction of the plague to Wisborg.
Thomas Elsaesser makes a very interesting point in relation to the editing techniques used by Murnau, identifying that in a unique instance in German filmmaking, Nosferatu has over 540 shots. Through Alexandre Astruc, the assumption that can be drawn from this is that Murnau treats each individual scene and each shot as a self-sufficient unit. This has the effect of slowing the film down and creating ambiguity about the connections between each shot and the next. One such example, which once again alludes to a link between the feminine and the monstrous is the parallel editing of Ellen’s trance-like dream where she senses the approach of Nosferatu and reaches out to seemingly a figure off screen. We see the text emerge on-screen “He is coming, I must go to him” but the next cut is to the crew less boat, seemingly controlled by Nosferatu, traveling towards the town. We are under the impression that Ellen is reaching out for her husband, but the ambiguous (almost montage-like) editing creates an alternative meaning.

By examining the ornate architecture used throughout the film we can discover links to the Gothic but also curious links to the appearance of Nosferatu. Inside Harker’s house, the Castle and the Country Inn we repeatedly see the characters framed by round, relatively low arches. This decorative detail strikingly contrasts with the Gothic references present in the architecture of the town but also in the elongated body of Nosferatu, his long nails and his sharply pointed skull.
However, one of the most haunting images depicted in Murnau’s film is the arrival of Nosferatu’s boat into the harbour. The use of sound is very important in creating a sense of ‘horrific anticipation’ in that a haunting score and a number of shots of the boat, seemingly from the POV of Nosferatu despite the fact that he is within the confines of the ship and we never physically see him, mark the build up to the arrival. When the boat enters the harbor, however, the music stops for a few seconds at different intervals but we continue to see the boat moving along at the same speed. This is very effective, and an example of further use of the Gothic vitality. This scene is described by S.S Prawer: “the death ship glides along like a black cloud. For the first time in the silent cinema one actually hears silence.”

The influence of Metropolis (1927) on the history of screen science fiction is almost incalculable. The atmosphere and visual style created by Fritz Lang were to influence the concept of virtually every filmic portrayal of the future for many years to come. As one of the towering achievements of the Golden Age of German Cinema, the film’s politics owe much to its historical moment in Weimar Germany’s economic and cultural situation. Metropolis is a gallery of contemporary visions, a film of powerful expressive architectural metaphors and an important turning point in the development of film architecture, notably with the use of the Gothic temple as the feature of the film’s climax. While much science fiction or fantasy literature of the pre-cinematic age was concerned with the creation of utopias, cinema would be seen to carry forward the tradition of the dystopia inaugurated into Metropolis. Vivian Sobchack describes the portrayal of the city in Metropolis as ‘a place of delirious chaos, alienation, resistance and even improbable liberation.’ The cityscape in Metropolis is divided between high and low: the city dwellers that live above the ground are contrasted to, and in conflict with those who dwell beneath the streets. The scenes of the upper class revolve around pleasure, while scenes of the workers reveal mechanized, depressed figures that march in a ghostly unison and appear barely human.

With Metropolis Fritz Lang concentrated his vision upon the future. It was his first sight of New York from the Atlantic, which had given him the first visual idea for his project. Manuell and Frankel decipher the creation of the sets and state, “through the effects of a large budget, the ingenuity of the German camera, by the use of mirrors, could combine sets which were life-size in the acting area but miniature from above.”

The influence and utilization of the Gothic fairytale is cleverly used by Lang to express his visionary future, but also acknowledge the past Romantic traditions, and there are many examples throughout the film. Rotwang’s house and interior laboratory do not promote scientific enquiry but a sense of Gothic vitality like the world in Nosferatu. His main room, protected by a trapdoor, appears to be present within a cave and twisting, dark tunnels link his direct access to the worker’s underground catacombs. Is Rotwang a scientist or a magician? He generates a form of electricity to transform the metallic robot into a living form of the appearance of Maria, albeit for the use of evil. He also seemingly enables doors (that create a labyrinth feel) to open by themselves, much like the doors at Nosferatu’s castle.

The workers burn the Robot Maria, utilized during the film as a demonic force, at the conclusion and parallels can be drawn to Freder's delirious nightmare in which Death's dance dominates the imagery. The statues of the seven deadly sins can be seen positioned in Gothic temple, where Death comes to life, swinging his scythe and slowly moving towards the camera. In the background, the architecture is distinctly Gothic, evident by the stained-glass window directly above Death's head. Death's demonic dance is edited in parallel to Robot Maria's dance for her lustful male audience. Tom Gunning writes that the dance of Death "blends the mechanical and the allegorical in the one image." Maria's burning displays an allegory in the sense of technology in that the metallic robot, designed to replace the 'hand' of man, is melted down and then seemingly linked to the figure of Death, blending elements of modernity with the Gothic fairytale.

There is a Gothic vitality present in the parallel editing of this scene, which incorporates the three different scenes into seemingly appearing at exactly the same time, which is a terrific representation of Worringer's description of the 'broken' Gothic line. One of the most dynamic images of obtaining 'dramatic effect' with lighting as a notable Gothic representation of Rotwang's torch, which chases Maria through the tunnels, eventually trapping her in a circle of light and seemingly allowing no escape. The use of lights positioned at a low angle is very effective throughout the film in haunting the image and creating shadow, especially in the riot scenes at the conclusion. The German Gothic Cathedral, which rises at the heart of
Metropolis and is the setting for the climax, is presented as a "bastion against modernity and the decadence of foreign cultures" and is based on the descriptions drawn from Thea Von Harbou's novel. The design of the city in Lang's film has proven to be one of the most influential models of high-rise city in cinema history. The German "Expressionist" period has proven to be one of the most interesting and influential periods of early cinema history. Nosferatu and Metropolis have become classics in their respective genres and are the pinnacles of German film during this period, recognized as such for their technical innovations and distinctive style, but also for their abilities to successfully incorporate elements of German Romanticism and the Gothic Fairytale to extend their narratives.


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