Comparing & contrasting examples of film modernism in Metropolis and Man with a Movie Camera and illustrating how their respective approaches exemplify modernist principles

In the early 20th century, the world found itself immersed in an exciting and dynamic new artistic movement. That movement was called modernism, and wrapped up within it lay a host of ideals and thought processes. Modernism presented a self conscious look at what comprises art and tried to find a new type of aesthetic, a new way of seeing. It was in this that Modernism found its focus, the qualities of observation and insight, how looking deeper at the world that surrounds us can throw up all kinds of previously unseen revelations. However, Modernism, by its very nature of being a global movement, is built up from many different and often wildly contrasting examples. From the German Expressionism of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927) to the ethics of Soviet Montage evidenced in Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera (1929) we are presented with two films that explore and exemplify the principles of the movement in a variety of ways. Through close analysis of these techniques we can gain not only a better understanding of the films themselves, but also the intentions of the film-makers and their own individual take on the Modernist movement.

Looking first at German Expressionism, this aspect of the movement is defined by an idealist focus on the inner life of a person, the individual themselves. Metropolis then, with its clearly defined central character of Freder, is perhaps the perfect film to explore this concept. Expressionism investigates this concept of the inner self by presenting visualisations of a person’s internal state, something that is picked out with Metropolis’s highly melodramatic acting style. In numerous scenes we see Freder’s emotions highlighted by his exaggerated facial expressions and gesturing – the physical acting out of the character’s emotions and state of mind. This stands in direct contrast to the ‘truth’ depicted in Man with a Movie Camera which sets out through its documentary-like style to give the viewer a snapshot of life as it is, an essence of fact rather than fiction. In the film, there are no traditional actors, those being filmed are the real populace of the city, any emotions they portray being as they would be in real life, often possessing a subtlety that is a far cry from the style of Metropolis.

Man with a Movie Camera falls into the category of Soviet Montage, another branch of Modernism that defines itself on a film language based on effects. Through a multitude of editing effects, a montage is created, depicting events in a dynamic way that concerns itself fully with the ideas of seeing and imagery. Most crucial is montage’s aesthetic of catching life unawares, something that lends itself highly to the documentary feel of …Movie Camera. Indeed, it is telling that Vertov worked for a period at the Moscow Film Committee’s news reel section as well as serving as editor at the Kinopravda (film truth) company. Both place significant evidence on the documentation of fact and truth through the film medium, something that this film serves as a direct extension of. This truth is highlighted by the fact many of the people in the movie react to being filmed, there is that breaking down of the 4th wall between what is being recorded and the act of recording itself. This stands at odds with the fictional narrative of Metropolis where we are merely an observer, removed from the events taking place on screen.

In Metropolis, truth is constantly masked behind a facade. On a most basic level, there is the city itself, a thing of grandeur, extravagance and modernity above ground – but go beneath, into the workers’ quarters and machine room and you find a place of hard manual labour and squalor. Go even deeper and you find the catacombs, somewhere even the city’s creator Joh Fredersen doesn’t know about. There is this aspect of knowledge, of how things appear to be and how they are in reality. This is presented further in the sequence where Freder finds himself in the M Machine room and sees the machine transform into a horrific Moloch, a pagan god of sacrifice. Now the workers are not merely slaving away, but they are offering up their lives. Yes, Metropolis might be a shining example of technology reaching its peak, providing a utopian life for the aristocrats above, but it is based on this terrible reality below ground.

This transformation, from the mechanistic precision of a machine to the gross distorted view of a monstrous god is achieved by way of a cinematic technique Lang uses throughout the film, that of the crossover dissolve. The technique is used again in the actual creation of the robot Maria, the film dissolving back and forth between the human and robotic faces until they become one. Thus, in one of the film’s central characters we are presented with another facade, a machine dressed up in the appearance of a human. Wrapped up in this juxtaposition lies a key element of Modernism, the idea of knowledge and ways of seeing, of truth being something that is previously hidden but now revealed – hence the significance of them workers’ horror as the true robotic nature of Maria is uncovered towards the end of the film. They have now seen the truth and in this case it disgusts them.

The blurring of the lines between what is man and what is machine is explored in Man with a Movie Camera also, specifically, in the stop motion sequence where the camera moves about and takes on human characteristics. Vertov’s inclusion of this sequence is telling as it alludes to a statement made by him in his manifesto “I, a machine, show you the world as only I can see it. Now and forever I free myself from human immobility”. In this statement we have an important relation to the principles of Modernism – Vertov is claiming that the machine is not only capable of everything a human can do, but it is in fact better, that it can perform tasks only a machine can. Indeed, by its very nature Soviet Montage presents sequences of images in a way the human eye cannot produce itself. In this way, it is able to present something previously unseen.

An additional way in which Metropolis links man and machine is in the city itself. The audience is told of the Heart Machine that functions as the source of the city’s power, and high above, Lang presents us with great, sweeping vistas of the city’s skyline, roads and railways threading their way through the buildings like the arteries and veins of a circulatory system, feeding the traffic and people throughout the city. The people of Metropolis are its very lifeblood, a crucial element in the vast complex that is metaphorically presented as a body. Indeed, the film is bookended by a further emphasis of this, the film’s motto being ‘The mediator between head and hands must be the heart!’ – here, again, we have reference to parts of the body, linked together to comprise one being. This is a classic example of the Modernist view of having an idealist focus on inner life, the concept that all the elements that make up a ‘thing’ work harmoniously together. It presents a certain machine-like aesthetic, a desire to see everything functioning perfectly.

Of course, the reality is far removed from this; despite all the trust Joh Fredersen puts in the perfect functioning order of his city, Metropolis as a film is full of underlying fears of modernity. Whereas Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera embraces machines completely and the technical capabilities of montage; filling his film with images of trams, the epitome of a city running like clockwork, to a perfect orderly timetable, Metropolis presents a darker side. In the sequence with the Moloch Machine we are presented with a horrific mechanical accident that results in the loss of life of workers – here, machines are not perfect, they are threatening and can kill. This is brought to a climax as the robot Maria instigates the destruction of the workers’ city – a creation that Rotwang believed would be the perfect being is instead a corrupt, chaotic and highly dangerous killer. We even have Rotwang’s house and the catacombs underneath the city, gothic vestiges of a long lost age, signs that deep down, people still long for a more simple time, that they still fear handing over complete control to machines. For a Modernist film then, it seems strange there would be so many fears of modernity presented – but equally, a core element of German Expressionism is the notion of a divided self and in Metropolis’s conflicting views on machines, we are presented with this.

A number of key themes run strongly through both films, that of birth, death and work. …Movie Camera presents this in its realistic documentary-esque way, an observer of natural everyday processes; we see a woman giving birth, people moving about the city in the process of doing their jobs. Metropolis chooses to instead present these three themes in highly symbolic ways. Here, the birth is a bizarre, alchemical distortion; the creation of the robot Maria. Death manifests itself physically as a skull-headed character, swinging his scythe, physically scratching the film stock. Work becomes a twisted, agonising dance as the workers shift the dials in the machine room. In this contrast between the two films, we see two differing approaches in Modernism to three themes that define life itself, the cinematic treatment of them prompting us to consider these things in a new way, to understand them with new insight.

This plays into a key principle of Modernism and how the movement is highly concerned with ways of seeing and perspective. Both films explore this through the use of manipulation of space – in Man with a Movie Camera the opening shot presents to us the impossible image of a man placed on top of a camera. Here, our traditional views of how looking, viewing and comprehending what we see are challenged. Metropolis is built upon its impressive shots of the city, the film itself made possible by way of the Schüfftan process which allowed actors to be placed against models by using mirrors to construct shots that would be impossible in reality. Thus, in the presentation of the finished film, we marvel at the modernity and scale of the city, constructed through the manipulation of perspective.

…Movie Camera goes further in its manipulation of space by way of its montage structure, presenting the audience with a city that is in fact an amalgamation of multiple cities. Through the use of a cinematic technique, Vertov has manipulated the film medium to present a certain image to his audience – that of a universal city, an idea that goes beyond traditional concepts of place and setting. Metropolis presents a similar idea in the very idea of the city itself. Its name is ‘Metropolis’, a universal term for a large city. We are never told where this city is within the world; instead, it can be seen to a generic city, becoming almost a concept rather than an actual place.

Again, this plays into the notion of a divided self, where the setting becomes the thing being divided, the finished item being comprised of many elements; much like the Modernist film itself. It also sets up the idea of Modernism as a truly global thing, the concept of the universal, generic city serving as an idea that transgresses borders. Whether it be in Germany, Russia or beyond, Modernism manifests itself in different forms and by examining the principles that make up the variants of the movement we can come to a greater appreciation of the films in question, the intentions behind them and perhaps most important of all, what those intentions prompt us, the audience, to consider.

 

Bibliography

Eisenstein, Sergei, Film Form, Harcourt Publishers Ltd: 1969

Elsaesser, Thomas, Metropolis (BFI Film Classics), BFI Publishing: 2000

Girgus, Sam, America on Film: Modernism, Documentary, and a Changing America, Cambridge University Press: 2002

Hicks, Jeremy, Dziga Vertov: Defining Documentary Film, I B Tauris & Co Ltd: 2007

Pinteau, Pascal, Special Effects: An Oral History, Harry N. Abrams, Inc: 2004

Roberts, Graham, The Man with the Movie Camera (KINOfiles Film Companion), I B Tauris & Co Ltd: 2000

Roberts, Ian, German Expressionism, Wallflower Press: 2008

Tsivian, Yuri, Lines of Resistance: Dziga Vertov and the Twenties, Indiana University Press: 2004

Vertov, Dziga, ‘We: Variant on a Manifesto’: 1923, [http://artsites.ucsc.edu/faculty/Gustafson/FILM%20161.F06/readings/vertov.pdf] (accessed 7th March 2010)

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