Come one, come all

Aleksandrov and Simkov’s 1936 work of “Circus” combines the elements of farce, comedy, vaudeville, and melodrama in order to produce a ubiquitously enjoyable, light-hearted tale of heroism in the face of adversity laced with prominent themes of existing world politics and the Soviet socialist cause. The simple plot revolves mainly around the exploits of a fictitious American circus performer, Marion Dixon, and her engagements in love and peril as she tries to seek sanctuary in the Soviet Union in an attempt to escape the bigoted derision she faces in America at the cause of her being the mother to a black child. The film opens with her running away with the diabolical Franz von Kneishitz, a German theater agent with a visage and ideology blatantly reminiscent of Adolf Hitler’s, and his assistant, a farcical cane-wielding Charlie Chaplin-esque performer.

Throughout the film, we can clearly see Marion’s avid willingness to transform into a joyful member of the Soviet Union with the utilization of the cannon performance as a metaphor. She begins the performance by singing about how she would desperately like “to get to the sky, but the stars are just too high.” ((Circus, Grigori Aleksandrov and Isidor Simkov, 1936.)) Once she is fired from the canon, she lands on the moon contraption and sings of “knowing no fear, knowing no plight”, essentially paralleling the envisioned view of the socialist utopia, in which every individual would receive equal happiness. Marion continuously dreams of a better life in an unprejudiced Russia, but is constantly thwarted by Kneishitz. He himself is threatened by the Russian circus performers who wish to build an even better cannon, reflecting the intrinsic Soviet desire to modernize, industrialize, and become a dominant world power.

Marion also proceeds to fall in love with a fellow performer, Martynov, who retains the image of the flawless, handsome, and swashbuckling Soviet man. The two play the piano and sing a song glorifying the country: “Our border stretching far and wide / Walk our man, a master of his country / In his heart, and overwhelming pride / Each day is better than the previous one”. ((Ibid.)) Martynov is the antithesis to Kneishitz, who struggles to control Marion while the former strives to free her, as the two face off in a cannon-building competition. This conflict may also be seen as a Soviet disapproval of Hitler’s ideals of Nazi racism and the perfect “Aryan” race. Towards the end of the film, Kneishitz proclaims Marion as a criminal when he reveals her black son to the crowd, whom he expects to denounce her. On the contrary, they gleefully accept her and the child, passing him around while singing a collective lullaby between the hands of many different ethnicities, as a reflection of the socialist national policy of korenizatsiya. In a dazzling scene of synchronized choreography, Marion is surrounded by light, and looks up to Martynov, who stands with blazing torches in his hands upon an immaculate stairway, a scene resembling religious Christ-like imagery of ascension to heaven and paradise. The film concludes with a prideful, militaristic march of the circus performers in uniform that eventually evolves into a procession donning flags of Lenin, Marx, and Stalin, emphasizing the central political message of promoting revolutionary socialist and egalitarian ideals.

“To Catch Up and Overtake”

Watching Aleksandrov’s “Circus” it’s certainly hard to not notice the main message of the film, propaganda of national equality and tolerance among the soviet people. However, the plot itself is based on another interesting idea.

“To catch up and overtake [capitalists/America/etc]” is the slogan used for a really long time to explain the motivation of soviet people to work hard to reach the level of the Western countries and to be better then they are in everything. How the country without industry and proper level of economic and social development could be able to do it? The first idea, widely spread among “developing” countries during, probably, the last two centuries, is to try to copy the practice which are considered to be successful from Europe and, later on, from America. And here we can see a great illustrations to this slogan.

First of all, the whole story starts in the Moscow Circus, where the guest performer comes with a successful, popular in the entire world show “The flight to the Moon”. Watching it, the Circus’ director decides to, literally, copy it. He changes decorations, call it a different name, but the outline of the performance is absolutely the same. And the idea is that he’s taking the work and ideas of this Western artists, but has no longer to pay a huge compensation to these guest performers, because soviet people can do it themselves (and, probably, not care that much about the monetary stimuli).

Besides, one of the main characters, Marion Dickson is in many ways copied from German Marlene  Dietrich. It is seen not only in the appearance of Lyobov Orlova, but also in her dance while performing “The flight to the Moon”, which to a certain extent resembles Marlene’s scenes from “The Blue Angel”. Looking more broad at Aleksandrov and Orlova’s filmography, we can find some other analogies. So, in some way this film, as well as “Jolly Fellows”, is a try to build a “local”, soviet star of the level comparable to Dietrich’s in the world.

And it’s very surprising how both anti-western campaign and showing the “capitalistic” output which the country would be happy to copy are combined here so that it doesn’t create a dissonance in the mind of soviet people who are watching it. Does’t it resemble Orwell’s “doublethink” to the certain extent?

“Circus” and the Portrayal of Racism in the West

“Circus” is an exciting, dramatic movie from the 1930s. The main character, an American named Marion Dixon, escapes from America (specifically the South) during the era of Jim Crow laws, as she gave birth to a black child. Working in a circus in the Soviet Union, she conceals the knowledge of her child from almost everyone. In one of the final scenes of the movie, her manager (a German), storms into the ring with her child, attempting to disgrace her. His plan backfires, though, as the Soviet people welcome the baby with open arms, declaring that they love all children, no matter what their skin color.

Without a doubt, the director intended for the film to be propagandistic. Though it’s certainly possible to laugh at the scene where the child is being passed about (for trying not to be racist, and failing by modern standards), more interesting is the critique on the Western world. The movie criticizes the backwardness of America and Europe. The man who attempts to disgrace the American dancer/circus performer (who escaped her own country due to persecution) is a foreigner, from the Western world. The characters who appear progressive throughout this movie are Soviet people. The foreigners, on the other hand, either come from a nation which is portrayed as not being progressive, or are bigoted themselves.
The hypocrisy in the scene, though, comes from a Soviet minority which is not included. Though the Soviet Union championed itself as a progressive country, anti-Semitic sentiment still existed throughout. Despite Jewish people living in the Soviet Union, they are noticeably absent from the scene. They appear to be one of the ethnicities or groups which cannot be brought into the fold, raising the question of how progressive the Soviet Union actually was.

Film in Weimar Germany

The excerpts from the primary source documents from the Weimar Republic show a Germany in reconstruction. The post war period for Germany was full of rough times of economic downturn and international repression; however the sources demonstrate a great national promise of growth a changing into modernity. Two, of many, very large themes within most of the works are the changing cultural identity of German people, and the modernization of the German state.

In many of the pieces discussing films or alternative forms of entertainment the “Future of the Feature Film in Germany” these themes are exemplified. First the changing place of the medium of film is argued. Lang says that development of the film industry is growing to “Know no bounds” and become the preeminent force of modern propaganda and cultural representation of the national identity. Lang, assuming that while the German cultural soft power and film industry will never be as strong as the American counterpart, sees the German application as a much stronger intellectual and cultural factor. This source continues to describe how the importance of the modern film builds Germany. More interestingly the idea that the German film industry builds the national identity, in the modern sense, begins with the emotional level and builds to the national level.

The idea of the growing power of films in the Weimar Republic begs the question in which way the propaganda machine of the Nazi party began the decade before. How the people viewed these pictures and to what degree they attended and believed these films are important to understanding the impact of the future films.

Future of German Film

In Fritz Lang’s “The Future of Feature Film in Germany,” he describes the various forms of expression that were utilized in German film. Lang states that German filmmakers and directors continued to push the limits, and continued to push for creative success. He then argues that Germans, unlike Americans, had a special ability to create film that had a deeper meaning, and resonated with the audience.

When comparing this description to the films we have watched in class, it is clear that the intent of German filmmakers was to make the viewing experience thought-provoking for the audience. Metropolis, for example, was one of the first science-fiction films, and was incredibly difficult and expensive to create. However, there was a deeper political meaning behind the entertainment. For example, the image of the lower-class men working to build skyscrapers for the wealthy was a very clear political statement.

Lang also notes the ability of German films to create a sense of empathy for the viewer. This has certainly been the case with the films that we have watched, because the point of the movie was to make the reader feel deeply connected to the film, and force them to reflect about their own lives.

How do you think political figures in Germany felt about the fact that they were clearly being targeted by filmmakers?

Metropolis’ Status in German Society

In 1927, Metropolis premiered to critical acclaim, citing both the incredible new film making techniques of Fritz Lang as well as its story, in light of recent political developments in Europe. While the film is seen as revolutionary movie in cinematography, it has undergone quite a few changes in the years since its original release in Berlin. I happened to watch the restored version (2010), which is the “most complete” version and is the one deemed closest to Lang’s original release. However, the movie that most audiences saw was not this release, but rather a fraction of the film due to cuts made at the studio level for commercial reasons.

The reasons for the cuts was profitability and recent political developments in Europe. The movie in its original length ran two and a half hours, a long stretch even for some modern films. The film released was pared down to ninety minutes, removing much of the thematic content and motivation for some of the action. For example, the entire plot line of Rotwang’s revenge was removed in order to speed the movie up. While this has little to do with its impact on Europe, it is the other cuts that change the thematic content of the movie.

There is an entire sub-plot of communist revolt that was not released to the masses during Metropolis’ original theatrical run. This theme was originally developed by the author of the short story in response to the Russian (and other subsequent) revolutions; but in light of recent political changes and the economics behind this content, the decision was made to cut this from the film. While there was no political body behind this decision, this is one of the first major examples of self-censorship by the studios. This decision, although it had little impact on movie-goers, set a precidence for future studio executives, leading to further censorship in cinema.


“The Mediator Between Head & Hands”

Fritz Lang’s Metropolis is a 1927 German science fiction film displaying the heavy influence of the impressionist movement.  The film portrays a dystopian future society (the eponymous “Metropolis”) in which the laborers that maintain the mechanical operations of the city are relegated to an underground living space while the upper classes enjoy a comparative utopia above.  The city’s leader, Joh Fredersen, attempts to augment his power by using the newly invented Machine-Man, who is made to look like the prophetic character Maria, to incite a rebellion in the working class which will simultaneously cripple their underworld home and justify any further punitive measures that he wishes to take against the laborers.  Upon realizing that his son Freder has posited himself amongst the working class and is thus endangered by the rebellion, Joh realizes the error of his ways and begins a policy of symbiotic cooperation with the labor force, due largely to Freder’s impassioned diplomatic efforts between the two.

Thematically, the film is centered around the opening epigram “The mediator between head and hands must be the heart!”  This epithet is invoked both explicitly and implicitly at numerous points throughout the film. One of the more subtle examples of this exultation of emotional literacy occurs approximately halfway through the film when Freder confronts the incarnation of the grim reaper that stands among the seven deadly sins.  Freder admits to the reaper that his death would have meant little to him up to this point in his life.  However, after having discovered his love for Maria, he defiantly warns that death must “stay away from me and my beloved.”  In this manner, Thea van Harbou makes a strong case for the value of the heart; it is so essential that human life without it is not only impossible, but meaningless.

Do you feel that the role of the “mediator” described in the film is as important as Lang and Harbou portray it to be?  In modern society, what offices/positions fill that role?

Film as a New Leisure Activity

Based on the way The Cabinet Of Dr. Caligari was set up, European cinema was establishing itself as the new form of art. Comparing it to Battleship Potemkin which came a few years after Dr. Caligari, there is a noticeable difference in the quality (and probably the budgets) when put side by side. Potemkin shows high quality film and excellent lighting; however it was backed by the state and most likely had a much higher budget than Dr. Caligari because of its designation as state propaganda.

Dr. Caligari however, was building itself like a novel, photograph or any other work of art, using technique and style to create a masterpiece. Because the film is suppose to be the founding of expressionism-which is clearly shown based on the amount of closeups used to convey emotion-it delivers emotion rather than story. Using the various lighting techniques, this movie paves the way for future work such as Triumph of Will and other important films in European Cinema.

As a whole, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari serves not only as a benchmark in film history, it serves as a guiding light for understanding European culture in the 20’s. The idea that man’s reality is controlled by a “state”- in this case the actual psychiatrist- really seemed to click with Germans and Europeans as a whole, leading to this film’s success and laying the groundwork for film makers like Eisenstein.  

Disillusionment and Fear Following WWI

Following the First World War, a sense of disillusionment fell over Europe, and Germany especially. In his 1920 film, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Robert Wiene depicts the bewilderment of the German people after losing the war, as well as a general apprehension about change in the world. On the surface, Wiene’s film may seem like merely a horror movie, but it is, like all art, influenced by the ideas and events of the time, giving us a glimpse of interwar thinking.

In the early 19th century, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein served as a cautionary tale about the dangers of science and attempting to play God. Bertrand Russell discusses the dangers of science, as well, in Icarus or The Future of Science, in 1924, a century after Shelley. At this point, technological advances are occurring in many fields, such as manufacturing and science. Russell warns, “physiology will in time find ways of controlling emotion, which it is scarcely possible to doubt.” He fears that someday people will be able to control others with hormone injections, and make them do their bidding. This fear is brought to life in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Dr. Caligari is a physiologist who controls one of his patients by keeping him asleep through hypnosis, then waking him and forcing him to murder people. Not only does this show the evil of playing God, in the end, the whole story was just the main character’s hallucination, who is himself an inmate at a mental institution. This represents the disenchantment of the time, especially in Germany. The German people thought that President Wilson’s Fourteen Points would be the basis of the peace treaty, but instead all of the guilt and economic burden of the war are placed on Germany’s shoulders, while at the same time, Germany is being stripped of her economic resources.

The time period after World War One was an awakening. The war had caused destruction and death of an unprecedented amount.  To express disillusionment with the world, many people turned to the arts. Why the arts? Why, especially, film? Why was and is film such a strong medium for conveying ideas? What is it about film that makes it so powerful? Or is film not powerful, and some other form of art is the best form of self and ideological expression? Why?