I always find that in mainstream cinema and quirky cult movies, we often find characters that are so cool or charismatic, they’re more than easy to fall in love with. I’ve already discussed my unholy obsession with Tarantino and Luc Besson and touched on the sentiment of John Hughes movies – but outside of the last few generations of influential auteurs and actors, there have been so many forgotten films which made an extraordinary impact in times when filmmaking wasn’t so free & liberal.
In fear that this post may bore some readers, I felt it really quite important to take it back to the turn of the 20th Century and have a look at how German filmmaking has made a remarkable impression on modern cinema with an analysis of how one particular female character made a real statement without saying very much at all…
Germany has been responsible for producing a dynamic range of cinematic texts and genres throughout the last century. Quite notably, common examples of classic German Cinema are particularly influenced by a strong political and historical past which ensures rich cinematography with a distinctive style that is unique to that Nation. Dating back to the late 19th Century, such artistic and cultural contributions began with dominant examples of silent expressionist movies like The Student of Prague (1913), The Cabinet of Dr.Caligari (1920) and Nosferatu (1922), all proving central to the 1920’s German Expressionism movement which encompassed elements of art, music and architecture.
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) Directed by Robert Wiene. A classic example of a German Expressionism film.
The stylistic conventions and format of the German Expressionism genre initially remained refined to the isolation of the country due to the reclusive political and cultural themes, enforced by the Government; who in fear of propaganda, banned all other forms of foreign films from exhibition. This ban of foreign films generated a real influx in filmmaking within Germany, as the Nation demanded films to screened in theatres at an increased rate. An exciting demand for fresh cinema meant that the production of films between 1914 and 1918 more than tripled, with a rise in production from 24 films to 130 a year by 1920.
Now with a real boost in the production of films, came further creative opportunities and more freedom of expression. Film-makers were experimental and innovative, utilizing bold set designs and obscure framing to denote dark themes, inspired by first World War experiences. When I first began to study the expressionism movement at University, I felt really overwhelmed by their enigmatic nature and the often, austere overtones but Fritz Lang’s revolutionary sci-fi thriller Metropolis (1927) absolutely captivated me.
Innovative special effects in the creation of 'Rotwang's Robot' - Metropolis (1927)
It’s clear to see how the political and constitutional influences of post-war Germany have had a distinct and direct effect on Metropolis. The films focus on a futuristic dystopia, controlled by machines pays reference to the idea of ‘capitalism’ with a stark contrast between working class people who operate the machines and the wealthy and unsympathising ‘elite’.
Despite, the complex themes and incredible use of symbolism, Lang constructs characters who are able to act as literal metaphors in the discourse of the film. One of these characters is that of Maria. Maria, portrayed by Brigitte Helm is the only prominent female character within Metropolis (if you excuse the ‘fembot’– also portrayed by Helm) and her presence in the narrative is both essential and refreshing. She is the calm amongst the chaos and a catalyst in the transition of spreading a political message, which is very much centered on inequality and anxiety. Her introduction into the film comes when she is showing the poor, workers children around the dwellings of the elitists and sparks, protagonist, Freder’s interests. This could have been a really quite awful storyline which substitutes Maria’s charisma for her beauty but Lang refrains in a way that keeps Maria unbroken and perceptive.
Brigitte Helm as Maria and 'Rotwang's Robot' in Metropolis (1927) - Lang's cinematic metaphor for good and evil in a futuristic dystopia.
This may have been an interesting choice for most influential female film characters but I’ve always felt that, without Maria, the message which Fritz Lang was so intent on delivering in Metropolis may not have been so poignant. As a heroine in such a dark and complicated film her character is in perfect balance – not too sweet that her need for equality verges on ‘Disney Princess’ and not too robust that her innocence is faltered. Perfectly contrasted by her counter-performance as ‘Rotwang's Robot’, Maria, is a sophisticated example of how some characters in cinema do not have to be bold, sexy or super-cool to enrapture an audience.