Understanding Movies by Raphael Shargel, Lesson 2: German Expressionism and Russian Montage

This series follows the film course Understanding Movies by Raphael Shargel. To view all the parts I completed, visit this page.

In this section, we are learning about silent movies still, but these filmmakers took the art of silent film to its max. I really enjoyed this chapter and had a lot of films to watch, which is why it has taken so long to get this 2nd chapter up.

The main movements discussed are German Expressionism and Russian Montage. In German Expressionism, we are looking at using film to create a heightened emotion. If you remember, in chapter 1, we looked at cinema as a way to reflect everyday life, in a documentary style, and as a way to explore the imagination, such as a fantasy. German Expressionism is closer to the latter, but it is beyond that. Rather than an emphasis on the story, filmmakers took a special interest in creating a mood or feeling--mostly a dark mood. There was a special interest in what impact the movie would have on the audience. Some of the staples in this genre are mad scientists, dark shadows, deranged madmen, or crazy camera angles.

There is also a constant battle between man and society. Look for that in most of these films.

The first film I watched was Metropolis. I have heard of this movie but never took the time to watch it, especially since I find many silent movies to be boring. This film is about a contrasting world. Above ground you have the beautiful wealthy people who don't work. Down below you have the poor who work constantly and live in the darkness. A man who lives above ground, Freder Fredersen, falls in love with Maria, a woman from below. He bravely enters the darkness below out of concern for her. What he finds is horrifying, but this same woman whom he loves has inspired a community of underground dwellers to hope for the chosen one who will unite the head (the city planners above) and the hand (the laborers below). She calls him the heart. As I watched this movie, I was surprised at how engrossing it movie is, even though it was made about 80 years ago. The director is Fritz Lang, and he is the master.

Like Lillian Gish, the actors do get melodramatic somewhat. Everything is overacted, but that's part of the expressionism style. Each facial expression and gesture speaks volumes. You can tell this is expressionism because there is little logic. We don't really understand what the underground workers are tasked to do. One worker just has to move the hands of the clock to match the lights. If he does not keep up with this task, something explodes. It doesn't make sense, except on an emotional level.

You can see how Lang used many things in this movie to create a heightened emotional experience for the viewer. There is fog, darkness, the catacombs, candlelight. The special effects are still impressive today.

Here is one version. The soundtrack is not original. Scads of people have created soundtracks for Metropolis. The original soundtrack was lost.

If you have not taken the time to watch Metropolis, do it now. This is one of the best and most original movies I have seen in awhile.

We also have the Cabinet of Dr. Caligari by Robert Wiene. In this story, a somnambulist (sleepwalker) goes on a murderous rampage. Or does he? The story starts at a carnival with creepy music and distorted angles. We know immediately we are in a nightmare type of world. It turns out the whole story takes place inside the mind of a madman. Truly this story inspires feelings. This would be a predecessor for Frankenstein and many other horror films. The soundtrack on this one scared my cat.

The next film is Karl Freund's The Last Laugh, which introduces one last important German innovation: the moving camera. In this film a man who is a doorman at a fancy hotel gets demoted to janitor. He gets to his lowest point ever, and at the end, gets the last laugh. The moving camera is so natural to us that it is hard to spot this technique. The camera was released from its static spot and mirrored its protagonist by climbing buildings, spinning drunkenly, or walking a floor. For its time, this was quite astounding. It allows the viewer to experience the story as if they are in the room rather than just watching from one spot, similar to watching a play. The opening credits are the easiest to spot. Watch as the camera rides down the elevator, walks across the floor, and moves through the rotating doors.

Now we can talk about Russian Montage movement. The Russians realized that no matter how much the camera moves, it is always on one side of an 180 degree line. The 180 degree line is a term that describes an invisible wall or line that we are watching the action take place across. Think about the TV show Friends. At the Central Perk coffee shop, we always watch the characters sitting in front of that one couch. We are never behind the couch. That camera is always sitting at that one invisible wall. Most TV studio sets are like this. There are 3 walls, and a fourth imaginary wall where the camera crew goes. That is the 180 degree line. You are always on one side of the line rather than the other. In film then, if you don't "cut" to another angle or side, there is always the danger of being removed from the action, like you are watching a play on stage. The Russians could use the "cut" to view multiple sides of the action, therefore getting the audience more involved in the action.

The cut is also a way to manipulate the audience into seeing what you want them to see. For instance in Storm over Asia (I could not find a clip for this), the directors wanted the Mongolian peasants to appear amazed by a set of animal pelts a trader showed them. But the hired extras were not amazed by the pelts. The director next hired a magician who performed tricks for the peasants. They were amazed at the magic tricks. So the director intercut the trader showing the pelts with the Mongolians who were amazed at the magic tricks. The film then came out looking like the peasants were amazed at the pelts.

The Russian Montage school thought that it was the director, not the actor, who had the most control over what the viewer would experience. This is a foreign concept for our movies today. The emphasis is on acting, and when the acting stinks, the movie fails. If modern directors would use some of these techniques, they could make great movies out of any performance.

The most famous example of this, what Professor Shargel calls "the richest 8 minutes in the history of motion pictures," is the Odessa Steps sequence in the Battleship Potemkin. This is a powerful scene, so I want it to speak for itself. But in this scene, there is so much happening, yet we are clear at all times as to what is taking place. Shargel says that in the modern action film, sometimes we aren't sure what is happening until the dust clears. There is just a continuous sensory overload. We know load noises are happening and bodies are being thrown all about, but the cutting is not done so well. In this scene, we see the soldiers marching down steps, people running down steps, people walking back up the steps, the baby carriage rolling down the steps, and so on. The director, Sergei Eisenstein, has complete control of his camera at all times. And even though this isn't all actually happening at the same time (this must have taken a long time to film), we think it is.

As you watch this, see if it looks familiar. It has been copied multiple times, but never done as skillfully. This film marks the end of the silent movie era and moves us into lesson 3.