An Analysis of Film Critic Andre Bazin's Views on Expressionism and Realism in Film

By Katherine Blakeney
2009, Vol. 1 No. 12 | pg. 1/1

critic Andre Bazin had very strong feelings on the subject of montage and . In his article “The Evolution of the of Cinema”, he explains his theory that montage, although necessary in many cases to make a film work, can be heavily overused. From the start he makes a distinction between “those directors who put their faith in the image and those who put their faith in reality”.1

In fact to Bazin, reality and everything that can support it such as sound, deep focus, and invisible editing, define what film should be. Although he admits that “it was montage that gave birth to film as an art”2, he is apprehensive of anything that supports “the creation of a sense or meaning not proper to the images themselves but derived entirely from their juxtaposition”.3 He feels that any manipulation of the image such as the suggestive editing developed by Eisenstein or the dramatic sets and lighting of German Expressionism stands in the way of releasing film’s true potential for realism. He claims that the introduction of sound, far from destroying film as an art form, actually enhanced it as an essential element of reality.   

Bazin makes a distinction between two different movements in silent film, one in which “montage and the plastic composition of the image are the very essence of cinema” and therefore in no need of support from sound, and another where the “image is evaluated not according to what it adds to reality but what it reveals of it”.4 In the second instance the introduction of sound helped reveal an aspect of reality that was missing before, and actually enhanced the art of film instead of competing with it.  A good example of the first movement would be Robert Wiene’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.

The atmosphere and plot of the film are revealed entirely through visual means, using wildly abstract sets and dramatically exaggerated makeup. The film unfolds in an enthralling, completely artificial environment where even the movements of the actors echo the distorted angular shapes of their setting. Bazin is right in stating that such films are an entirely separate art form. The story is conveyed through the intricate interactions between images, lighting, composition, and movement. If The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari was suddenly flooded with sound, its delicate visual would have been destroyed by the harsh invasion of reality. Reality has no place in this hallucinatory world of illusion, its beauty is in its dreamy detachment from the grounded, solid world outside the screen.

Bazin argues against any device that can be used to manipulate the audience’s perception of the scene and its potential to remain ambiguous and open to interpretation. Naturally he is strongly inclined against the montage techniques displayed in the films of Eisenstein.5 The famous staircase sequence from The Battleship Potemkin employs montage to create the illusion that the staircase is almost endless, and intercuts shots of a stroller rolling down the steps with close-ups of horrified faces and dying people, thus destroying the reality of the actual space and using metaphors and juxtaposition to create a specific response. The scene definitely conveys a message and manipulates the audience in a very obvious way. 

He writes enthusiastically about the style of Erich von Stroheim whose of filmmaking Bazin describes as “Take a close look at the world, keep on doing so, and in the end it will lay bare for you all its cruelty and its ugliness.”6 He appreciates neo-realism as “a kind of humanism” first and a “style of filmmaking” second.7 This is really apparent in his review of Umberto D, where he describes how the scene with the maid waking up in the morning is broken up into smaller and smaller units and shot continuously turning “life itself” into “spectacle” and “visible poetry”.8 He seems very taken by the idea of shooting an entire film about a man to whom nothing happens for ninety minutes.9

He is very specific in his ideas and beliefs, but he sometimes almost contradicts himself with his choice of examples. He singles out F.W. Murnau among the German Expressionists as a director who is primarily interested in “the reality of dramatic space”, eschewing artificial montage techniques for genuine settings and movement.10 However he seems to entirely neglect Murnau’s Faust, which is entirely dependent on the manipulation of montage and space for its dramatic effects. The scene at the beginning of the film where the monumental figure of the Devil spreads his menacing black wings over an unsuspecting town, sending down clouds of contagion, is dramatically intercut with images of suffering and destruction in the streets below. This scene makes no pretense of realistic space and gains much of its intensity from the art of suggestive montage.

Bazin gives Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane as a vivid example of the replacement of montage with depth of frame. By using deep focus, Welles is able to “cover whole scenes in one take”, allowing the audience to see the whole picture and interpret the scene independently of intrusive editing.11 There are definitely many elements of realism in Citizen Kane, but Orson Welles indulges in a great deal of symbolic and metaphoric montage to tell his story. Welles even uses the “realistic” device of deep focus to create symbolic effects such as placing a character further into the room to make him seem smaller and more insignificant.

Is it really possible for any film to truly be worthy of Bazin’s ideals? Bazin himself admits that it is hardly possible to make a film without montage at all. Some compression of time and shifts in camera position are inevitable. But it is equally as impossible to make a film without making some sort of statement and imposing some type of perspective on the viewer. A film, however it is shot, is and always will be a work of art. It cannot help but express in some way the views and feelings of its creator. It can be more or less relatable, it can push its message forward in an obvious, metaphorical, or subtle way, but the message is still always there. The very act of making a film is already tampering with reality by capturing it in an artificial form.

Even Umberto D, lauded by Bazin as “one of the most revolutionary and courageous films of the last two years”, which “destroys drama at its very basis” is susceptible to manipulation.12 Escaping the snares of visible montage it nonetheless demonstratively uses images to manipulate the audience’s sympathies. The figure of Umberto D’s dog is a perfect example of this. The film does an admirable job of not over-sentimentalizing the figure of Umberto himself. A small, scruffy, cuddly dog sitting on the pavement with a hat in its teeth begging for money, however, is hardly an image worthy of Bazin’s high standards. The purest form of Bazin’s vision of the ultimate realistic film, with no visible montage, no plot, no artificial or suggestive elements, and no signals sent to the audience to aid in its interpretation, is perhaps contradictory to the very purpose of this art form’s existence.


Bibliography

Bazin, Andre, “The Evolution of the Language of Cinema”, in Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen ed., Film Theory and Criticism (1999),

Bazin, Andre, “Umberto D: A Great Work”, in What is Cinema?, trans. Hugh Gray, (Berkeley : University of California Press, c1967-71)


Films

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Produced by Rudolf Meinert and Erich Pommer and directed by Robert Wiene. 51 min. Decla-Bioscop (Germany), Goldwyn Distributing Company (US), 1920. DVD.

Faust. Produced by Erich Pommer and directed by F.W. Murnau. 106 min. UFA, 1926. DVD.

The Battleship Potemkin. Produced by Jacob Bliokh and directed by Sergei Eisenstein. 75 min. Goskino, 1926. DVD.

Umberto D. Produced by Giuseppe Amato, Vittorio De Sica, and Angelo Rizzoli and directed by Vittorio De Sica. 89 min. Dear Film (Italy theatrical), Janus Films (US theatrical), Fabulous Films (UK VHS), Criterion (Region 1 DVD), 1952. DVD.

Citizen Kane. Produced and directed by Orson Welles. 119 min. RKO Pictures, 1941. DVD.


1.) Andre Bazin, “The Evolution of the Language of Cinema”, in Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen ed., Film Theory and Criticism (1999), p. 43

2.) Andre Bazin, “The Evolution of the Language of Cinema”, in Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen ed., Film Theory and Criticism (1999), p. 45

3.) see note 2

4.) Andre Bazin, “The Evolution of the Language of Cinema”, in Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen ed., Film Theory and Criticism (1999), p. 47

5.) Andre Bazin, “The Evolution of the Language of Cinema”, in Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen ed., Film Theory and Criticism (1999), pp.44-46

6.) Andre Bazin, “The Evolution of the Language of Cinema”, in Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen ed., Film Theory and Criticism (1999), p. 47

7.) Andre Bazin, “The Evolution of the Language of Cinema”, in Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen ed., Film Theory and Criticism (1999), p. 48

8.) Andre Bazin, “Umberto D: A Great Work”, in What is Cinema?, trans. Hugh Gray, (Berkeley : University of California Press, c1967-71), pp.81-82

9.) Andre Bazin, “Umberto D: A Great Work”, in What is Cinema?, trans. Hugh Gray, (Berkeley : University of California Press, c1967-71), p. 82; Andre Bazin, “The Evolution of the Language of Cinema”, in Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen ed., Film Theory and Criticism (1999), p. 55

10.) Andre Bazin, “The Evolution of the Language of Cinema”, in Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen ed., Film Theory and Criticism (1999), pp.46-47

11.) Andre Bazin, “The Evolution of the Language of Cinema”, in Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen ed., Film Theory and Criticism (1999), pp. 50-54

12.) Andre Bazin, “Umberto D: A Great Work”, in What is Cinema?, trans. Hugh Gray, (Berkeley : University of California Press, c1967-71), p. 79, 81

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