Individual Lives

Closeups are an important part of filmmaking, but sometimes a well-placed long shot can be just as revealing, like in Metropolis, which I saw at the Redford Theatre on October 3, 2015, and in The Third Man, which I watched at the Detroit Film Theatre on October 4, 2015.

In both movies, a distantly placed camera showed the risks of people in power seeing other groups of people as dispensable members of a faceless society, instead of as separate individuals, each with their own hopes and dreams.

In The Third Man, during a ride on a very large Ferris wheel in post World War II Vienna, Orson Welles gazed down on ant-like images of people walking on the ground, and asked Joseph Cotten if it would really make a difference if any of those people died.

In the silent film Metropolis, a long shot made the workers in an underground power plant seem like interchangeable parts of the machinery that they were running.

These powerful images were used to show how easy it is to lose sight of the humanity of individuals, both by people with evil intentions (Orson Welles in The Third Man) and by a business manager whose focus on the larger issues of the business made him unaware of the difficult conditions of the people that he supervised.

Both movies built dramatic conflict and momentum out of attempts to counterbalance the actions and inactions of Welles and the manager. It took long, complicated, and tragic journeys to bring resolutions in the two films.

Both Metropolis and The Third Man used the underground world to show what people had in common.

The underground power plant in Metropolis was the source of energy for all activities in the great city which gave the movie its name. In The Third Man, the sewer ran anonymously under all sections of Vienna, which had been politically divided after World War II.

The casts of both movies were predominantly male, but the female lead characters in Metropolis and The Third Man were used to show the ambiguities and divided loyalties of the societies of the movies.

In Metropolis, Brigitte Helm played two versions of one woman.

  • First was the good-hearted version who tried to help people at all levels of society get in touch with the better parts of their natures.
  • Then, a cloned robot version of this first woman who tried to counter all of the good works through cynical, sensual manipulations of the baser emotions of both management and labor at the power plant.

In The Third Man, Alida Valli maintains a love and a loyalty for Orson Welles, even after finding out about the terrible things that he had done.

Effects on Children

As the adults in the movies went about their tasks, the children were used to show who was most vulnerable to the irresponsible behavior of adults.

In Metropolis, Brigitte Helm takes a group of poor-looking children to a penthouse area that is a playground for rich young men, and tells those men that the children are their brothers. At the end of Metropolis, a flood in the lower levels of the city threatens the children.

In The Third Man, Trevor Howard shows Joseph Cotten the terrible effects of the diluted penicillin that Orson Welles created, in an attempt to get Cotten to help Howard find Welles.

The narrative force of the stories of the 1927 Metropolis and the 1949 The Third Man were driven by the powerful use of music and images.

At the Redford, organist Clark Wilson used the original Gottfried Huppertz score for Metropolis to create both atmospheric and lyrical effects that added to the emotional impact of the film. I’ve also enjoyed Clark’s silent film work at his home base, the Ohio Theatre in Columbus.

The Third Man is probably most famous for the persistent, omnipresent music of the zither, as written and performed by Anton Karas. Its sharp sounds were used several times to jolt the viewer during one of many plot twists.

The special effects of Metropolis included electric halos around a robot, and multiple film exposures that gave a disoriented feeling to the scenes where they were used.

The Third Man created another type of disoriented feeling with tilted camera angles. The camera also caught the mystery of the nighttime shadows of postwar Vienna.

After watching Metropolis and The Third Man, it was hard not to think about the historical contexts of the movies.

Metropolis was made in Germany at a time when it was recovering from World War I, but not yet under the spell of Adolph Hitler. In some ways, the dramatic sets helped to show off the industrial strength of Germany.

Then a day later, I’m watching The Third Man, a movie that is set in the actual post-war Vienna. The rubble, despair, and confusion of that time and place were made possible by Germany’s destructive march towards World War II, like in the final scenes of The Sound of Music.

By coincidence, a few days before I saw The Third Man, I saw the intriguing new German film Phoenix, which is set in post World War II Berlin.

In both The Third Man and Phoenix (which I saw at the Michigan Theater on September 28), individuals moved in mysterious ways to connect with others as they tried to find themselves in a city ravaged by war and controlled by the unpredictable nature of international politics.

Copyright © 2015 by Robert Hollberg Smith, Jr.

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