The Men and Women of German Expressionism (Silent Film Era)

Sunday, June 27, 2010 4:41 PM By Simon

(because I'm watching Metropolis)

The German expressionist movement, centered in pre-WWI Berlin, can be loosely defined as 'related creative movements', which, y'know, doesn't really tell you jack shit. I mean, we could call MTV the same thing.

I'd call it, in my own narrow knowledge, as a surge in subject matter not immediately accessable, perhaps the first in film history (all three decades of it) to be more than action-adventures, slapstick comedies, and romances. Subjects such as insanity, betrayal, the like. Surrealism and carefully stylized use of mise-en-scene simply riddled the films with deeper meaning, dreary or dangerous undertones that gave the thing a certain mood.

Anyway. Another defining characteristic I've noticed about the three GE films I've seen--The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Nosferatu, and Metropolis--is that the main male characters are (ahem) girls.

"What the fuck, blank?" you surely must be asking yourselves, "The only thing you can think to talk about the most influential subgenre of cinema is the pussiness of the dudes?" Yes, you overbearing asshole of a reader, yes I am.

Here's the thing. Of the three movies I mentioned, they all feature leading men who fit into some/all or the criteria: young, hysteria-prone, effeminate, wealthy and/or spoiled, fueled by emotion and only emotion, overtly-curious, and, let's call it, fainters.

Could this be a further subversion of the cinema at the time (and, very well, now)? That these mascara-laden young lads are a tongue-in-cheek response to the masculine action heroes and lovers of Hollywood, the Wallace Reids and Douglas Fairbanks? Or was it an offset, reflection of the film themes, insanity and such. Or were they merely victims of plot?

Take Francis (Friedrich Feher) of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. A lovestruck young man whose best friend is murdered by the nefarious Dr. Caligari (Werner Krauss) and his somnambulist accomplice Cesare (Conrad Veidt). He is a bit of a drama queen, to say the least.

He and his fiancee Jane (Lil Dagover) investigate the murder, only to have her kidnapped by Cesare, who has a (chaste) love for her.

This, in a quick abandonment of point, brings me to the ladies of GE. They, no matter how strong-willed, practical, or intelligent they are, they always end up in some state of kidnapped. This wasn't exactly uncommon at the time, for any country or genre. They, in juxtaposition with their American counterparts, don't faint nearly as much as their boyfriends, it could be noted.

For example, Maria (Brigitte Helm) of Metropolis. We first meet her as she leads acrowd of kids up into the Eternal Gardens, a lady-aplenty playground for all the sons of the upperclass surface dwellers. Her face is serene, pale, sensitive, an atypical 20s-movie star face. She tells the children that they are the brothers and sisters of the aristocracy now in their presence, fervently and such.

I have to say, Brigitte Helm is unintentionally hysterical, even by silent movie standards. To express fear, she basically feels herself up and shifts her eyes back and forth. To play her machine-man version, she does a lot of eyebrow twitching and arm stretching, squinting one eye like she has a bifocal. Sure, she gets points for having to wear the rather hazardous and uncomfortable-looking Machine-Man suit, but come on.

Anyway^2. She is first painted as a powerful figure, serenading the tired and anxious workers of the underground class, who kneel at her feet and worship her as a prophet for revolution, to keep going, to wait, uttering the film's most famous line, "There can be no understanding between the hand and the brain unless the heart acts as mediator."

Then, for the rest of the movie until the end, she girls out, gets kidnapped by POed, and wronged, and whatnot mad scientist Rotwang (be mature). Played by Rudolf Klein-Rogge...


Anyway, I forget what my point, which proves what a shit essayist I am. This is about as close to intellectualism as you'll get out of me.


SugaryCynic said...

*snicker* Rotwang...sorry. Extremely interesting. With the exception of some Chaplin I have never bothered to sit through a silent film, though Noseferatu and Metropolis were on my list. Good to know they're full of fainting nancy-boys :p

June 28, 2010 at 4:54 AM
Nick Prigge said...

This is one of the finest pieces I've ever read on German Expressionism. Eat your heart out, David Denby.

June 28, 2010 at 10:31 AM
Sadako said...

Great post. I saw the Cabinet of Dr. Caligari years ago and really enjoyed it!

June 28, 2010 at 4:24 PM
Aaron Weiss said...

Interesting post. It's interesting how you found those patterns during that period of German filmmaking. I wonder if the economic depression had an influence on German filmmakers. There is also the film Sunrise (Song of Two Humans) which I remember the male protagonist having similar traits.

June 30, 2010 at 6:37 AM