At the beginning of the 20th century

At the beginning of the 20th century, a dark movement came to life. Its shadowy, dark compositions and stylish depiction of urban nightmares became well known to one man: Friedrich “Fritz” Lang. The Austrian born director was known as the “Master of Darkness,” and was at the front of German filmmaking. In addition, he was one of the first filmmakers to introduce monstrosity. Fritz Lang was a key figure in the German Expressionism movement, and later, film noir. His contribution and role as a filmmaker influenced countless future films.
Monstrosity, also known as the horror genre, started as early as the late 1880s, but did not become popular until the early 1900s. The category consisted of anything that incorporated horror-like features, such as a monster or villain, death and fear. According to Ian Roberts in his scholarly journal, “Primitive Miasmas and the Iconography of the Future in Fritz Lang’s Frau Im Mond (1929),”
“Lang’s ?lms in the early twenties were twisted allegories of the human soul which featured tortured individuals seeking to escape from death’s ineluctability, and implacable villains who would coldly manipulate the lives of their minions, as well as brave but often hapless heroes who, ?nally, succeeded in winning the love of a pure ingénue” (99).
The films Roberts is referring to are Dr. Mabuse: The Gambler (1922) and Die Nibelungen (1924). They both have a villain/evil mastermind that symbolizes the protagonist. Other films such as Destiny (1921) dealt with horror of the already deceased. According to Lina Kuhn in “Oh the Monstrosity: Vigilante Mobs and Biopolitical Justice in 1930s Film,”
“By demonstrating that ‘true’ monstrosity hides below the surface and, even once discovered, cannot be completely divorced from considerations of humanity, Lang destabilizes the ‘justice’ of biopolitical discriminations and actions, whether against individuals or larger populations” (70).
During his peak, Lang’s work on Metropolis (1927) and M (1931) were possibly his most famous as he made a name for himself as an expressionist.
German Expressionism emerged in the early 1900s. The movement was known for its highly stylized techniques. According to Michael Koberstein in “What Causes German Expressionism,” “lighting was deliberately artificial, emphasizing deep shadows and sharp contrasts; camera angles were chosen to emphasize the fantastic and the grotesque; and the actors externalized their emotions to the extreme” (Koberstein). In Die Nibelungen and Metropolis, many scenes included fabricated affects to the scenery, specifically gaseous emissions.
“The skeins of fog which wrap themselves about the legs of Siegfried’s charger as he seeks the beautiful queen Kriemhilde, the dense clouds of incense in the cathedral where Siegfried’s body is laid to rest, the vapors which escape from the demonic machinery deep below the city of Metropolis – all enthusiastically taken up by the directors of Germany’s expressionistic ?lms. They symbolize a chaos which is only a heartbeat away, lurking just beneath the surface of the civilized world in which humans live, regardless of whether that world is set in the past, the present or the future” (Roberts 100).
The shadowy, dark layout created a sense that something dramatic should be anticipated. The same techniques were also used in his films that followed. In M, the angular cinematography aided in displaying deep meaning to scenes. According to Olga Solovieva in “The Portrayal of a Murderer in Fritz Lang’s M: Toward an Effect of Three-Dimensionality in the Classical Cinema,”
“The starkly alternating angles of the camera and rapid editing of the trial scene convey the same sense of elusive instability as the murderer’s performance: the shots of Beckert change swiftly between medium close-up, medium and long formats, inflating and deflating his figure…” (50).
The quick back-and-forth motion of the camera angles altered the character’s figure. Lang used techniques of expressionism to portray his films in a way that stood out, and that was able to catch the audience’s attention.
Another scene in M that displayed angular cinematography would be the murder of Elsie Beckman. In David Fine’s “From Berlin to Hollywood: Echoes of Expressionism in Fritz Lang’s ‘The Woman in the Window’ and ‘Scarlet Street.,'” “M consisted of multiple murders, but only one was presented in the present tense. At that point in the film, a montage was shown, a series of juxtaposed parallel cuts that disclosed the action, and Beckman’s fate, to the audience” (284). Instead of showing the event take place on screen, Lang used mixed cuts to create something that would have an effect on the audience. The work done in M was arguably Lang’s best.
Not only was the camera work important in Lang’s work, but the setting was as well. According to Koberstein, expressionism called for “grossly distorted, largely abstract sets that were as expressive as the actors.” Lang clung himself to the idea that the décor would make all the difference – and it did.
“Lang studied both architecture and graphic design in his homeland before starting his film career. For him, buildings are not simply backgrounds against which the action is placed, but integral to the composition, projections of the feelings, the moods of the main characters, as if what the screen allows us to see is elicited, or evoked, in the minds of the characters” (Fine 283).
The setting played a role in how Lang’s film plots and characters were portrayed. Before his work classified as film noir, Lang incorporated expressionism that’s very similar of the movement ahead.
Film noir began in the 1940s and went into the 1950s. The movement consists of gritty themes and portrayals. It brings to mind shadowy city streets, flashbacks, convoluted crime plots, rampant corruption and a world lacking justice. Since film noir was highly influenced by expressionism, both movements share the same qualities. As Fine states in his scholarly journal, “it was the arrival in Hollywood of so many German and Central European expatriate filmmakers schooled in 1920s German filmmaking that contributed so strongly to the proliferation of noir in the forties and early fifties” (282). Lang was a part that wave; and today, his 1940s films are identified as film noir.
At first glance, some would associate film noir as masculine. “Although noir is often claimed to be a male genre, many of the films were more ‘feminine’ than is often acknowledged” (Jancovich 172). A good example of this would be Scarlet Street (1945), directed by Lang. According to Jeanne Hall in “‘A Little Trouble With Perspective:’ Art and Authorship in Fritz Lang’s Scarlet Street,” the film “involves Kitty Marsh, a femme fatale who has captured the imagination of Christopher Cross, a professional cashier and amateur painter, and Johnny Price, a huckster who has encouraged Kitty to take advantage of Chris’ infatuation with her” (Hall 34). As a result, Chris was manipulated enough that he lost everything, became homeless and had to witness Kitty succeed elsewhere.
In conclusion, Fritz Lang was a key personality in German Expressionism. “He was an established and successful director, with a growing reputation for slick thrillers with masterful production techniques” (Roberts 99). “He has been described a man who constructed his life as ‘the melodrama of the life of a great artist” (Hall 43). With added affects to scenery, angular cinematography and all expressionist techniques combined, Lang set the tone. Despite his downfall late in his career, his role as a horror filmmaker and contribution to alternative cinema propelled him to be one of the most influential figures for filmmakers to come.