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Class Society of the German Silent Era

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In the German films of the Expressionist Era of 1920-1927, class and wealth distinctions between people were presented visually in a variety of ways. All the films produced in this time period were silent, so distinctions of any kind between human beings were necessarily visual. For the purposes of this paper, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919), Nosferatu (1922), and Metropolis (1927) will be examined in this regard.

The intertitles for each of these films were originally in German. Since translation is at best problematic, the diction and grammar of speakers’ words, which are common markers of class and education, in the English intertitles will not be considered. In addition, the musical accompaniments used for films at this time were variable for screenings at different times and theatres (Thomson and Bordwell, 22), and for different versions, so any consideration of accompaniment music as an explicator of social rank is impossible. Thus, the entire stratification of personal wealth, rank, and class will be examined only in the visual arena.

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The directors of these films (Robert Wiene, F. W. Murnau, and Fritz Lang, respectively) were skillful at this kind of visual communication, and used a variety of shared techniques to put these stratifications on the screen, and make them intelligible to the audience. There is a basic difference between the human perception of visual images, and the perception of sound: “There is a strong element of our ability to observe images, whether still or moving, that depends on learning. This, interestingly is not true to a significant extent with auditory phenomena” (Monaco, 125). The audience, to some extent, views what they want to see in a film. They may look to one part of the screen or other, whether it is the center or the sides, where the main action of the scene is taking place, or to a side or ancillary action, or to a part of the screen where no action is taking place at all, or not look at it at all.

The same is not true, at least not to the same extent, of listening to the sound of a film. Hearing is largely passive, and short of complete distraction, diminished hearing, or earplugs it is very hard for a listener not to hear what is happening around him or her. Barriers of language or vocabulary may exist, but it is not the same as choosing not to look at a certain part of a screen, or choosing to disregard a character’s costume or overall appearance by focusing one’s vision on only the face or the hands of a character. Therefore, for the filmmaker to have an effective way of visually communicating something about a character, it must be done in an obvious, visually attractive (in the sense of attracting attention, not of beauty or appeal,) and very clear way. The character in question, in a silent film, cannot step forward and say, whether directly or indirectly “I am a character of high or of low social status, possessed of wealth or living in poverty”. Most this information, (aside from information passed in intertitles, which have been disregarded for the purposes of this paper, see above) in a silent film must be presented in a visual way, and must be done in a way that is easily readable and agreed-upon by the viewers.

In The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, the clothing and occasionally the gestures connoting attitude of the characters function as the primary means of showing class and wealth. The mise-en-scene, while celebrated and certainly unique (mise-en-scene defined, according to Corrigan, as “all those properties of a cinematic image that exist independently of camera position, camera movement, and editing   including lighting, costumes, sets, the quality of the acting, and other shapes and characters in the scene.”  functions as the major means of conveying the characters’ class and place in society. The story of the film illustrates that stratification, somewhat, but the backgrounds of each character are so very vague and almost entirely implied that they cannot be relied upon for explication. It isn’t known, for example, the occupations or sources of income for Francis or Alan, and whether they were employed, idle, or students. Jane’s status as the daughter of Dr. Olson is known, but other than that there are few clues from the story as to the financial or social arrangements of any of these characters.

It could be argued that the social or economic rank of these characters is unimportant to the story, but it is also important to note that some details of these characters’ social standing were communicated to the audience, and therefore become part of the story. For example, the murder victim Alan is shown in his apartment (a garret-like artist’s or student’s residence, if ever there was one depicted in film – it is spare, clean, on an upper floor, and solitary–free of the clutter of domestic family life) in a young man’s free attitude. He has no family to care for, or parents to dominate him. He is shown rising alone, surveying the beautiful weather, and reading a book. This connotation of learning is also implying that Alan, while not wealthy, is one of the leisured or at least scholarly or artistic class, and is not obliged to spend his days in manual labor. Once Alan decides to go out, he dons a coat with an attached cape, slung over his shoulder in a jaunty manner. This is not a workingman’s coat. It has some style and is worn in a manner connoting the wearer’s individuality, and not only the utility of the warmth and protection of the garment. This also, in a few frames of film, gives us the impression of a young, free man with at least some source of independent income.

Once in the carnival runway, Alan and Francis walk about in a friendly posture, surveying the sights. They lean on each other’s shoulders in a convivial way, showing long friendship and perhaps even a kind of brotherly intimacy. This also gives some clue to their social standing. These are “young men about town”, able to have leisure to see the sights, and take pleasure in each other’s company.

The young men’s mutual regard for Jane, as shown in the street scene where they walk her home, also gives the viewers the impression they are gentlemen. Here, the intertitles do give us some clue as to the social rank of these men, but in a dramatic rather than linguistic way. They agree to remain friends no matter whom the lady chooses. This is a gentlemanly, chivalric code of conduct usually associated with the upper classes. It is a civilized, non-violent way of averting possible conflict in the future, over a common source of strife between people-jealousy in love.

Their clothing, throughout, remains nondescript suits and gentlemanly ties and hats. They are clean-shaven, with smoothly combed hair. Their appearances, however, are contrasted with the attire of the murderer of the old woman blamed for Cesare’s crimes. His heavy boots and thick coat, and unkempt hair and beard definitely show him to be a desperate man of the working class, possibly murdering for financial gain. Perhaps this was presented to the audience in order to incite less sympathy for the wrongly accused man, and have the story continue unimpeded so that Cesare would have his chance at murdering Jane. Often, though not always, lower-class persons in films are presented in a less sympathetic light than the upper class, or at least those characters representing “upper-class” values and behaviors, such as the chivalric behavior of Alan and Francis, regardless of their own financial situation, rather than characters representing lower class values in any strata of society.

Jane’s social standing and lack of occupation are clearer; it is evident she is a doctor’s daughter. She lives in a comfortable, luxurious home with a richly furnished bedroom, tall windows, and servants. She is contrasted, only briefly, with the woman who sounds the alarm for the murderer of the old woman. There is less room for costume comparison here because Jane is essentially the only woman in the film.

Nosferatu presents some other challenges in categorizing the visual clues to social rank and status by appearance, for it is a story set in 1838. The costumes of the time were necessarily different from the costumes of 1922 Germany, and would have to be presented in a way understandable to the contemporary audience. This was achieved in a few ways. Harker wears a coat (incidentally similar to Alan’s in Caligari) with an attached layered shoulder-cape, and matching cap. It is quite obviously the traveling costume of a gentleman, or at least a man of gentlemanly pretensions. This is contrasted with the appearance of Harker’s putative superior, the madman Renfield, who wears ill-fitting and eccentric clothing, and has hair of the most wiry and erratic type. Harker’s hairstyle, in comparison, is fluffy and artistic-looking, and what one might expect of a young man of a scholarly or artistic bent (again, like Alan and Francis) to wear in that day and age.

The oriental headdress of Count Orlak is an example of an old-fashioned headdress commonly worn by Romanian aristocracy (Ionescu.) The turban, of course, was used to conceal the vampire’s horrible pointed bat ears, but it also served a couple of other functions, providing visual cues for the viewers. Turbans were considered fashionable aristocratic affectations in that region and time period, and especially were worn in of the previous century to the time of the story, the 18th (Ionescu.) This gives a clue to the advanced age of the vampire (perhaps even his immortality,) and also is a mark of his high social rank.

The attire of the women in this film, Nina and Lucy, was simple and modest dark day-dresses, noticeable and noteworthy only, perhaps, for their being made of silk. This was a somewhat luxurious fabric, but the occupation of Nina doing fine embroidery (a lady’s type of handiwork, rather than basic clothing-making or knitting for her family or for profit) speaks more to her availability of leisure time. She is never seen in any occupation other than reading or embroidery, implying she has the time and money for such leisure activities. These, while adding to the overall tension of the story of her constantly waiting and watching for Harker, imply that the Harkers are of a somewhat leisured clerk class, on the educated end of the middle class.

Metropolis takes place in another world far removed from the 1920s Germany that conceived it. However, the clothing put on the characters is very recognizable, and the costume-language shows differences between the classes that would have been easily understood by the audiences of its time.

The most obvious show of rank and class in costume is Freder’s white silk shirt and tie, with matching jodhpurs. This is very obviously the outfit of a gentleman of leisure, the jodhpurs even suggesting the aristocratic “horsey set”, though no animals are seen in this completely mechanized future environment. The pale color and luxurious fabric is in direct opposition to the dark colored rough fabrics of the worker’s uniforms, and an even more stark comparison to the dark leftover rags in which the workers’ children are clothed. There is no doubt of Freder’s playboy status, even before the cavorting in the Eternal Gardens begins, simply by his clothing and manner. Also, his fair, soft-combed, fall-over-the-forehead style of haircut is very obviously a leisured man’s affectation. In addition, Freder quite obviously, more so than anyone else in the film, including Maria, wears eyeliner and lip color. Perhaps it was implied that the rich young men in Metropolis chose such affectations, hearkening back to the effeminate male styles of 17th and 18th century France. Regardless, Freder’s appearance quite obviously puts him in a leisured, moneyed class, in sharp contrast to the uniformly ill-clad workers below.

Maria’s attire in Metropolis is a plain, but not shabby, modest dress. She is shown with a demure white collar, and a very modest bodice and modest-length hem. She is differentiated slightly from the workers and the children of the workers by the slightly lighter color of her plain dress, but she is not presented as above the workers in any way. The other women workers are depicted in similar costume, though they are not as neat and clean as Maria. Her attire is more evocative of her moral status (saintly, virginal) than of economic status.

The clothing and appearance of characters in silent films must be made intelligible to the audience, so they may draw conclusions about how those characters fit into the hierarchy of the film’s characters, and into the hierarchy of society at large. This classification is necessary for the audience to make judgments about those characters, and become emotionally involved in the story of the film. The directors of these three films knew the visual language of clothing and appearance, and applied it to the characters in their films to achieve this effect.

Works Cited

  1. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Dir. Robert Wiene. 1919. Videocassette. Republic Pictures Silent Classics Home Video, 1991.
  2. Corrigan, Timothy. A Short Guide to Writing about Film. New York: Pearson Longman, 2004.
  3. Ionescu, Adrian Silvan. “Romanian fashion and european modernization 1830 – 1920”. [sic] Muzeul National de Istorie a Romanei. (1/6/2004): 11/18/06 <http://www.mnir.ro/ro/publicatii/periodice/muzeul-national/rezumate/2004/adrian-silvan-ionescu.html>.
  4. Metropolis. Dir. Fritz Lang. 1927. Videocassette. Corinth Films, 1993.
  5. Monaco, James. How to Read a Film. Rev. ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 1981.
  6. Nosferatu. Dir. F. W. Murnau. 1922. Online film source, accessed 11/17/06. http://jonhs.net/freemovies/nosferatu.htm
  7. Thompson, Kristin, and Bordwell, David. Film History: An Introduction. 2nd ed. New York: McGraw Hill, Inc, 2003.

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Class Society of the German Silent Era. (2018, November 05). GradesFixer. Retrieved May 11, 2021, from https://gradesfixer.com/free-essay-examples/visual-distinctions-of-class-and-wealth-in-three-german-films-of-the-silent-era/
“Class Society of the German Silent Era.” GradesFixer, 05 Nov. 2018, gradesfixer.com/free-essay-examples/visual-distinctions-of-class-and-wealth-in-three-german-films-of-the-silent-era/
Class Society of the German Silent Era. [online]. Available at: <https://gradesfixer.com/free-essay-examples/visual-distinctions-of-class-and-wealth-in-three-german-films-of-the-silent-era/> [Accessed 11 May 2021].
Class Society of the German Silent Era [Internet]. GradesFixer. 2018 Nov 05 [cited 2021 May 11]. Available from: https://gradesfixer.com/free-essay-examples/visual-distinctions-of-class-and-wealth-in-three-german-films-of-the-silent-era/
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