Metropolis, a film released in 1927, is undoubtedly regarded as a highlight from the German Expressionist Era.As critics attempt to describe Metropolis, David Fine remarks that it is a film of “ruthless capitalism…rendered in a disorienting, abstract, expressionistic visual composition” 4. The countless cinematic and film set structures of this mise-en-scene period undoubtedly differentiate itself from other nations’ styles at the time.
However, as Robert Sklar writes, “Many critics have found it easier to characterize German expressionism not by what it was but by what is was against: naturalism, efforts to depict reality, the idea that there were artistic forms through which the “real” could be represented”[i](page 73).
The influence of the German government on its country’s cinema, especially during WWI since “War had transformed the world of cinema”  was great. German expressionism became prominent as a movement in all the arts during the years 1914-1925  (page 83). Specifically shown in Metropolis, German Expression is known for experimentation with cinematic techniques. Fritz Lang truly captured the essence of an era, and as this film gave him and the actors “immortal places in motion pictures history”[ii] (page 424).
Experimentation in cinematography is prominent in Metropolis in a number of ways. It begins with Point-of-View shots, like the example where Dr.Rotwang reaches for an object and the camera is in his POV. Additionally, there are shots that help define the space using only lighting; such as the scene when Dr.Rotwang chases after Maria in the catacombs with a flashlight, and the flashlight flies through the cave-like space to the terrified face of Maria. Lastly, another example is the action shots, where Fritz Lang used a car or a dolly to create the shot itself. In the scene where John Freder’s son is first presented in the Stadium, running a race, there is an insert of the boys running towards the camera where this action shot is recorded. The cinematography truly evolved in ways during this era as it began moving the camera in untraditional ways to portray divergent messages.
German Expressionism, especially in Metropolis, presents clear characteristics in its cinematic style. The staging of the majority of shots resembles the staging of an opera theater and the set designs are extremely abstract. An effect many of the Establishing Wide shots have in Metropolis is to make the human beings look as small and vulnerable as possible, as these abstract sets symbolize how the machinery dominates humanity. The actors’ performances also parallel those in opera performances, in that they are extremely dramatic and prolonged in the displaying of emotions; an example of this is when John Freder’s son asks, “Who- is That?”[iii], when Maria leaves to go back to the machine rooms. Furthermore, the lighting’s effect in Metropolis creates a dramatic atmosphere with harsh shadows and high exposure. Also, as done on many Hollywood sets in the 1920’s, an eye light is placed over the main subjects’ eyes in a shot or in a scene so as to intensify the glint in their eyes. This can be shown in Metropolis’s first Medium Close-up of Maria, where the glint in her eyes is extremely prominent and gives her an angelic look. Also, the headlight behind subjects, such as on Freder’s son2, gives them a halo-like effect amplifying a theater-like presence to the subjects.
My very short film, The Tale of Alavia the Forest Fairy, reflects the cinematic style in Metropolis and of German Expressionism in a number of ways. First, I purposefully deleted half of my recorded footage, as to specify how there were only a very small number of films from the German Expressionist Era, which have been restored in their entirety. Additionally, the first shot of Alavia parallels to the presentation of Maria in Metropolis, in that it is a head-on shot of the subject moving its eyes from the ground to the camera in an angelic way. I chose the lighting in the shots to be very exaggerated in its highlights and its values; such as in the Medium shots of Alavia in the Gazebo. In the scene where Alavia is dreaming about James and her running around the Gazebo, I directed their running by making it match exactly to Metropolis in the scene of to the running of Freder and his entertainer in the Eternal Gardens. In my piece, I also purposefully left some small black blocks between the shots, as it was a common error in films in the 1920s and pre-1920s. Due to the fact that film was extremely expensive at the time, I reused many of my establishing shots as I would if I was a filmmaker in the German expressionist era to save money. Metropolis, although it being the most expensive film production in the 1920s, using around 40,000 extras[ii], it reused certain shots saved a certain amount of money (page 423). Additionally, to mirror how the makeup of characters, such as Freder’s in Metropolis, is dramatic in it’s very white skin, it’s dark lips and eyes, I applied the same makeup to both my actors. Overall, I used many aspects of the cinematic style of German Expressionism on a smaller scale in my project.
Watch my film here!
[i] Sklar, Robert A WORLD HISTORY OF FILM New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 2002. Print.
[ii] Kleeper, Robert K. Silent Films, 1877-1996 A Critical Guide to 646 Movies Jefferon: McFarland & Company, Inc Publishers, 1999. Print.