Cinema is still a young art form, at least relative to the other great arts of the world. A few decades younger than photography and seemingly eons younger than painting and music, it’s really only been around for a little over a century.
But what a century it has been.
As with all great movements, it’s important to take a look back and reflect on the pioneers– those who paved the way for cinema to become, for me, the greatest and most emotive artistic platform for human expression.
So today, three filmmakers. Three masters. Three true citizens of cinema from around the world. Fritz Lang. Carl Dreyer. Dziga Vertov.
Metropolis (1927) dir. Fritz Lang
If not the first science-fiction film, certainly a trailblazer that indicated where the genre was going and what, at its best, it was capable of. The futuristic city featured is home to two groups of people: a high society living amidst luxurious spires and towers and gardens and a lower class, working and toiling away in terrible conditions beneath the city surface. Yes, a film very much of its time as both Communism was taking hold of Russia and Nazism was on the rise in Germany, but still audacious and timely today as we take stock of our lives in the post-industrial world. The divide may not be as apparent, but it’s difficult to ignore that it still exists. And that’s what great science-fiction can do: take grand, social and cultural concepts and distill them into into a pure and palatable allegory. The robot. The city of the future. All window dressing to tell a very human story. It was true in 1927, is true today, and is why I continue to be a strong advocate for all forms of science-fiction.
The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) dir. Carl Dreyer
There is something viscerally real and haunting about Dreyer’s cinema. Perhaps it’s the human element, his characters often stuck in circumstances out of their control or beyond their realm of understanding. This was never more apparent than in his film about the trial of Joan of Arc. It’s a film about faces. Human faces, like the one above. Almost all of it is shot in extreme closeups. Closeups of our heroine, graceful (yet possibly mad?). Closeups of her judges, sentencers, and executioners. Disgusting, malicious, inhumane faces. We can’t escape them. Can’t turn away. Dreyer famously did not allow his actors to wear makeup. He wanted to expose bare, raw emotions through their expressions. We know Joan’s fate before the film begins, all aware she will be burned at the stake for her beliefs, but it does not make the proceeding any less harrowing or captivating.
Man with a Movie Camera (1929) dir. Dziga Vertov
For new citizens of cinema, those first approaching this global collective work, it may surprise some that in the 1920s some of the greatest, most exhilarating and innovative filmmaking was coming out of Russia. One only needs to watch the films of Eisenstein like Battleship Potemkin (1925) and this masterpiece by Vertov to understand. The cinematic techniques developed for these films were completely new and daring at the time. And “Man with a Movie Camera” may, to this day, be the most pure declaration of cinema ever conceived. There’s not much story. It captures an ordinary day in the life of a Russian city. But, oh, how it is captured. Vertov was an early proponent of freeing the cinema from the theatre and making it its own unique form. Bresson and Tarkovsky would pick up on this decades later, as would other filmmakers. Movies could go anywhere. Share any experience. They weren’t limited to linear time and could dig deeper into our wealth of emotion and memory through the succession of images and sounds presented before us. We’re cognizant, in this film, of the hands of the filmmaker. We can see the manipulations of the puppet master, pulling the strings through the assembly of his observations. It’s a film about film and how we would see the world through its lens over the next century.