By Sebastian Wurzrainer ’20, Dartmouth Film Society
About a year and a half ago, I passionately argued in a research paper for my Film History I: Silent to Sound course that German Expressionism as a film movement was a myth created thanks to the hindsight of misguided historians. While today I regret the argument presented in that essay, I certainly don’t regret writing it. If for nothing else, it sparked in me an ongoing fascination with German Expressionism. But what exactly is German Expressionism and how does it relate to Metropolis (dir. Fritz Lang)? [Ed. note: The Complete Metropolis will be screened Thursday, May 17, 7:30 pm in Loew Auditorium, Black Family Visual Arts Center, Dartmouth.]
Although German Expressionism originally began as an artistic movement during the decades prior to World War I, it wasn’t until after the war, during the early 1920s, that it made its way to cinema. The goal of the original art and then the subsequent films was to visualize the interior emotional experienced by the subject matter of the particular painting or movie. While it’s widely agreed that the film movement began with the highly influential and acclaimed The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (dir. Robert Wiene), I’d argue that the fundamental mistake of my research paper was to use Caligari as a barometer for all future works of Expressionist cinema. To this day, Caligari may be the quintessential example of how one can use mise-en-scène to externalize the internal, and was far too extreme to be easily replicated.
I’d argue that this is potentially why Fritz Lang’s magnum opus Metropolis is so widely remembered. If Caligari was Expressionism as its most extreme, then Metropolis was Expressionism at its most accessible. Indeed, the film is now almost solely remembered by the casual moviegoer for its aesthetic influence on subsequent works of art. Metropolis crystallized the idea of a heavily stratified dystopic future where towering buildings hide the reality of urban decay and social oppression, an idea that can subsequently be seen in films like Blade Runner (1982), Dark City (1998) and Gattaca (1997).
For many, Lang’s film seems to transcend historical or narrative concerns precisely because its aesthetics have proven to be so durable. As a direct result of the stunning special effects and world building, we tend to either easily forget or willfully ignore the banality of the story and the flimsiness of the central message. Metropolis chronicles the efforts of Freder, son of the titular city’s oppressive master, and Maria, a messianic figure, to unite the subjugated, slave-like underclass with their uber-wealthy masters. The film’s thesis, explicitly spelled out in a title card (“The Mediator Between the Head and the Hands Must Be the Heart”), could not be more basic.
Yet when considered within a broader historical context, this central conflict and resultant message serve as the connective tissue for a myriad of relevant, complex social, political and economic concerns. In 1919, shortly after losing the first world war, Germany became what has since been dubbed the “Weimar Republic.” Remembered primarily for its hyperinflation and socio-political chaos, this time period created fertile soil in which German Expressionist cinema could bloom. Although the majority Expressionist films fall under the purview of fantasy, science fiction or horror, most film scholars now widely agree that beneath the surface these stories reflect the societal anxieties and paranoias of the Weimar era.
However, this conclusion became far more problematic when formulated by film critic Siegfried Kracauer in his 1947 book From Caligari to Hitler. In essence, Kracauer alleges that German Expressionist cinema can be interpreted as a prophetic prelude to the rise of Hitler and the Nazis. He contends that characters like Dr. Caligari, Dr. Mabuse and the city master in Metropolis are all proto-Hitler figures who embody Germany’s desire at the time for a strong, fascist dictator.
Although Kracauer’s interpretation has since largely been discredited as the work of an overactive imagination, it is impossible to avoid when discussing German Expressionism. Moreover, his ideas might still possess some insight relative to Metropolis. Kracauer insists in his book that the compromise struck during the film’s conclusion actually grants the totalitarian city master even more direct control over the working class. Likewise, it’s worth noting that Metropolis was written by a member of the Nazi Party and Fritz Lang’s wife at the time, Thea von Harbou, and was also a favorite film of Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels.
So, are we to interpret the seemingly innocent message of the film as a secret paean to fascist leadership? To insist on a simple “yes” or “no” answer will not suffice. It is worth remembering that at the same time Goebbels was salivating over Lang’s accomplishment, others were criticizing the film for being too Communist, too sympathetic to the plight of an underclass. Indeed, while the film’s solution for class conflict might be naïve, it’s also hard to deny the narrative’s oddly Marxist impulses, impulses that occasionally feel at odds with the narrative that Metropolis has been endorsed by some of history’s most notorious fascists.
Why do I mention all this? Because in doing so I have only just scratched the surface. When it comes to cinema, we like to comfortably differentiate between good and bad or, to borrow from the brilliant critics Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert, thumbs up and thumbs down. But Metropolis, like most famous films, belies such easy categorization. The film has long since cemented its status as a cinematic landmark. It’s now on us to understand what that means. How do we address a film with such influence and also such a problematic history? To attempt to answer that question is to enter a maze with no obvious exit in sight. In fact, there may be no exit at all. But perhaps that’s the point of participating in the ongoing construction of film history – there are no definitive answers to be had, simply more questions. For some, that might be frustrating. However, I’d argue that’s the joy of watching and studying a film like Metropolis.