Perhaps one of my favorite aspects of early cinema is that the possibilities were wide open. There were no formulas. There were no molds. There were no voices (yet). The entire spectrum of artistic expression was open to the daring filmmakers that would take a chance with a new medium. And while many countries experimented with much of what we take for granted today, very few came close to the Germans. By the mid 1920’s, World War I was in the past, and World War II wasn’t even a consideration. And yet, the artistic movement of German Expressionism reached a crescendo in this critical juncture of German history. Many of the films produced in this movement’s climax demonstrated just what film could do. This week’s two films are great examples of German Expressionism in film.
Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans
Rating: Not Rated
Length: 94 minutes / 1.57 hours
While not actually made in Germany, F. W. Murnau had already established himself as one of the great filmmakers of the German Expressionism movement. With his hauntingly creepy Nosferatu in 1922, Murnau used camera tricks like stop motion to bring a supernatural feeling to the screen. Also seen in Nosferatu was a sharp distinction between darkness and light, a common artistic theme for these types of films. It’s no wonder that when Murnau moved to the United States,that his most well known film is titled after that boundary between these opposing forces. In fact, Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans ended up being much lighter in subject matter when compared to his other films.
Winning three Oscars during the very first Academy Awards, Sunrise is the simple tale of a man who is tempted to commit not only adultery, but murder as well. Don’t worry, it has a happy ending, but not without progressing through a very touching love story between a man and his wife. Light on special effects (like some incredible double exposures), and heavy on emotion, Sunrise was a great introduction to American audiences of the kind of art that was being created in Germany. If anything, I’d be willing to forgive what happened during World War I after watching a film like this. That is, if I had lived back in the mid-twenties . . .
Rating: Not Rated
Length: 153 minutes / 2.55 hours
Meanwhile, back in Germany, Fritz Lang was creating another masterpiece of the German Expressionism movement. Perhaps one of the most impressive aspects of the films created during this era were the sets. Films like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) were filmed on sets that had no right angles, creating an eerie and twisted environment in which to film an equally eerie and twisted plot. And while Metropolis had some impressively large sets, some innovative camera techniques made these sets seem even larger than life. The only unfortunate aspect of Metropolis is due to the ravages of time and censorship. For many years, a severely edited version of this film was the only surviving copy. In 2008, a complete print was found in Argentina, resulting in the closest version to the original we can get. Cinephiles like myself hope that another full print is discovered so that the damaged and irreparable sections can finally be fully restored.
Of course, the reason that Metropolis was so heavily edited when it first came out has to do with its content. In a country that was still reeling from its loss in World War I, a film that advocated overthrowing the machines that maintained people’s lives certainly would give people the wrong ideas. Obviously tame in comparison to today’s films, the societal message was meaningful to many who were fed up with a government that had failed them. Unfortunately, the film points out that the relationship between humans and their machines is a very symbiotic one. In order to break free from their control, humans risk their very lives. On second thought, maybe that straight message (with no governmental metaphor) is as apt today as it was back in 1927.
2 sum it up: 2 films, 2 German works of art