- Modernism and the Cinema:Metropolis and the Expressionist Aesthetic
There is a sequence of events towards the end of Fritz Lang's Metropolis (1927) that encapsulates many of the ideas that I would like to explore here concerning the film's relation to expressionism, to Weimar cinema and more broadly to modernism. In this scene the scientist Rotwang, who has created the robot-double of Maria, mischievously arranges for the protagonist Freder to discover her with his father. The shock at seeing his father Joh Frederson in an apparent embrace with what Freder takes to be his own beloved is such that he begins to totter and fall over in a faint. In rapid succession we see a special-effects shot depicting bright lights or an explosion (which we infer to be Freder's internal sensations from the effect of this shock), followed by a shot which shows Freder with a look of disbelief on his face, passing his hand before his eyes, as if his vision is now blurred and he wants to wipe away the coating obscuring what he is seeing. We then have a point-of-view shot from Freder's perspective of what he is reacting to: the father and the false Maria are pictured staring directly into the camera and, corresponding to Freder's wiping gesture, the image is noticeably hazy and out of focus. In a second point-of-view shot elaborating on this obscuring of vision we then see another image of Maria and Joh Frederson together, this time encircled by a prismatic montage of hazy and distorted, clocklike images rotating around them. As Freder begins to lose consciousness and fall down, graphics of explosions and starbursts are superimposed upon his image in the frame (which, even though it is not a point-of-view shot, we take to indicate his internal sensation), followed by a subjective shot from Freder's fevered perspective with a rapid montage of multiple successive images depicting the false Maria, his father, Rotwang, and a deathly skeleton-figure.
The viewer may at first seem to gain a slight foothold here in terms of vision and knowledge in so far as the haziness of the image and the graphics of explosions can be explained as Freder's internal sensations and hallucination. Yet at the same time the viewer's position of knowledge [End Page 105] is also substantially undermined in a number of ways. Firstly, it is difficult to decipher the more rapid and blurry rotating montage images; secondly, the rapid bombardment by unusual material (such as the trick shots) is difficult to assimilate and make sense of; and thirdly, the cuts and changes in perspective in the editing are abrupt and raise the question of the narrative agency: who is narrating/seeing here?1 One can characterize the viewer's position here and throughout the film as being subject to constant destabilization and marked by profound uncertainty and instability. Indeed, as Thomas Elsaesser has shown, various forms of instability abound in Weimar cinema.2 And although I will concentrate here on the case of Metropolis, I believe that similar arguments can be applied to a good deal of Weimar and modernist cinema. For elsewhere, too, there are frequently scenes like this depicting dreams, hallucinations, and fantastic events, as well as discontinuities and gaps in the plot, regular switches of narrator (including embedded or sub-narratives which interrupt the main narrative), and finely balanced ambiguities in the narrative.3
What I want to argue here, however, is that the audience's sense of destabilization and textual ambiguity, and its corresponding lack of interpretative mastery, is associated with the lack of a clear and reliable narrator or organising authority within the text, but more significantly, as I will show, this destabilization results from a radical structural aesthetic drawn from the anti-representational mode developed by German expressionism and related more generally to the modernist movement's literary response to modernity. For the films of Weimar cinema in which this expressive structure dominates frequently appear not only uninterested in depicting the external world in any traditionally realistic fashion, but further, in the manner of those modernist literary texts...