Through the traditions of national cinemas, cultures represent themselves to audiences both at home and abroad. Hence the function played by the arts in the development of national cinemas is most significant. Before and after World War I, the various national film industries in Europe distinguished themselves through allusions to domestic aesthetic traditions. In Italy, for example, Giovanni Pastrone's epic Cabiria (1914) draws on the grand tradition of Italian opera, complete with monumental sets and masses of extras. In Germany, Robert Wiene's Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari (1920) and F.W. Murnau's Nosferatu (1922) tap German romanticism's interest in origins and subjectivity while also drawing on the visual style of German expressionism. Both films cast the upheavals of the self in the jagged angles and skewed shapes familiar from German expressionist painting; the sets make visible a sense of spiritual anguish, and their natural locations suggest peaceful surfaces concealing mysterious evils. One of the most famous German expressionist films, Fritz Lang's Metropolis (1927), is an architectural film built on psychoanalytic allusions and images of industrial regimentation. In his direction of the actors and his handling of crowds, Lang was influenced by the theater of Max Reinhardt, who used sculptural groupings of automaton-like actors. By designing and streamlining the scenes featuring crowds—a feat of directorial control and vision—Lang evokes a sense of dehumanization.
In comparison to the expressionist taste for the supernatural, the so-called French impressionist avantgarde of the 1920s preferred a more psychological understanding of interiority. Germaine Dulac's La Souriante Madame Beudet (The Smiling Madame Beudet, 1922) uses musical allusions and visual effects to suggest the psychological complexities at the core of an unhappily married woman, thus depicting a feminine self torn by erotic repression and a desire for domestic rebellion. In the 1920s and 1930s, French surrealism thrived on unexpected analogies and unsettling disruptions of objects. The development of the surrealist director Jean Cocteau's esoteric shifts between word and image, tactile and visual references in Le Sang d'un poete (Blood of a Poet, 1930), anticipate many of Jean-Luc Godard's collages in Pierrot le Fou (1965). More generally, surrealism's taste for disruption anticipates the French New Wave's playful orchestration of literary, pictorial, musical, and popular sources in film. Before and after the revolutionary upheavals of May 1968, the French New Wave directors, especially Godard, wove together the legacies of different periods of film history, ranging from surrealist word-image games to the montage ensembles developed out of Soviet Constructivist art.
With film impressionism, surrealism, and expressionism, the national cinemas of France and Germany embraced the agendas of modernist avant-garde movements. Furthermore, around 1914 the Italian futurists published a manifesto about the cinema (they also made a few films, most of them lost). However, the silent Italian film industry steered away from avant-garde experimentation in favor of a more popular, operatic cinema based on great books and paintings of high culture. This edifying approach from Italy became a model for the development of the cinema in Hollywood as well. The Italian compromise between mass spectacle and famous works, populist entertainment and an attention to pictorial values, reappears in the work of the American director D. W. Griffith, notably The Birth of a Nation (1915), Intolerance (1916), and Broken Blossoms or The Yellow Man and the Girl (1919). Set in Victorian England and replete with opium dens and Buddhist references, Broken Blossoms is a melodrama whose artistic aspirations are confirmed by its tragic ending in which all three protagonists die. The film deals with alcoholism, family abuse, and racial miscegenation, deploying the style of Pre-Raphaelite painting in its representation of the self-effacing but sensuous character of the girl Lucy (Lillian Gish).
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