Hollywood Sentiment Vs German Expressionism

Over back-to-back classes, we watched ‘Metropolis’ directed by Fritz Lang and ‘It’s a wonderful Life’ directed by Frank Capra.

It is an interesting comparison as a way of exploring time and space i.e where a nation ‘is’ in a given era. Metropolis, is set in a futuristic dystopia where oppressed laborers work in the depths of the city to keep up the wealthy lifestyle of those who live in the luxury above. Released in 1927 and made in Germany, it is interesting to note that Germany was a tough place at the the time the film was made. Just entering a depression, the industrial era upon them and the Nazi party taking root, it is easy to see these influences in Langs film. I found this a difficult film to watch. It is not entertaining in the way that we as modern audiences are used to. Being silent, black and white, having very German themes and running for 127 minutes (even without the newly recovered extra footage) makes it challenging, but still it is hard not to be impressed by the technical aspects and lavish sets.

Lang makes brilliant use of the contrast between the two worlds in the film. On one hand, the gloomy, mechanized world below evokes themes of slavery and torture, on the other, a luxurious garden of Eden where the wealthy play games and frolic in the sun. The creativity of the film-makers to give life to these worlds on film was unprecedented in 1927 and the film is lauded for its technical achievement. In some scenes, its almost like Lang could foresee the future, with giant suspended roads floating like monorail tracks.

To juxtapose these themes, It’s a wonderful life is like a celebration of the optimism of America. It explores the life of George Bailey, a happy-go-lucky man who never fulfills his dreams of adventure mostly due to his kind nature. After seeing a vision of what the world would be like if he didn’t exist, Bailey decides he is happy and has a lot to be grateful for. That seems to be the sentiment of the film, the importance of being noble and individual, knowing your place in the world and the value of life.

Released in 1946, it was Capra’s first film after returning from WWII, quite an optimistic and fruitful time for the USA and a time when American movies were full of sentiment. There are also American capitalist undertones in the film, with George Bailey being a banker and spreading his joy to the town by lending them money so they can buy things to make them happy.

These are two very different films made by two countries on opposing sides of 2 wars that would dominate their time. An interesting look into the mindset of each one through film.

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