D.W.Griffith made this film in response to the negative critics for his “The Birth of a Nation”, as discussed in the related article on this site. This film was made only a year after “The Birth of a Nation” in 1916, when Europe was burning and suffering in the first world war. The anti-war and intolerance of races, nations and else ideology of Griffith that was shown well, but not understood in “The Birth of a Nation” is well spelled out in “Intolerance” and later on his future films. In this film, Griffith shows that intolerance, injustice, hatred, murder and war is not limited to a land or time, but spans across the globe and has always been a subject of human’s nature across ages and throughout the history. Beyond its great ideology and content concept, this epic film is the first to cover more than one time episode, but four across ages and nations, so needed the proper story telling, directing, editing and cinematography and work of camera that Griffith not just managed to do so greatly, but invented it. Since Griffith himself has been introduced earlier in the article on “The Birth of a Nation”, here his ideology then his film “intolerance” will be discussed briefly.
An Ideal Prophecy:
Griffith goes beyond his films! One cannot analyze his films without recognizing his idealism of condemning intolerance, injustice, hatred, murders and wars. He is seeking ideally to end the dark side of the wrong through love, for one another and the humanity at large, through his films. But as idealism in the humans history has been only an empty hope, Griffith not only succeeded in conveying his prophecy to others at his own life time, but he was sacrificed by his own creature, Hollywood! Fortunately his ideas were passed on and replicated by the great filmmakers after him, in anti-war movies and films against injustice and hatred, from “All quiet on the western front”, to “Dr. Strangelove” and “Deer Hunter”.
I will make a song for these states that no state may under any circumstances be subjected to another state, And I will make a song that there shall be comity by day and by night between all the states, and between any two of them, And I will make a song for the ears of the President, full of weapons and menacing points, And behind the weapons countless dissatisfied faces; And a song make I of the One form’d out of all, The fang’d and glittering One whose head is over all, Resolute warlike One including and over all, …….Democracy! near at hand to you a throat is now inflating itself and joyfully singing…….And I will not sing with reference to a day, but with reference to all days,
Walt Whitman Starting from Paumanok Leaves of Grass 1891
The birth of a nation, is an American epic movie about how this country was unified and became The United States of America or USA as we know it today. This frontier movie or the first major American feature film was made by David Wark Griffith (1875-1948) in 1915, at the time when Europe was burning in the World War I (1914-1919). The film was a pioneer in cinema with never seen before advanced camera and editing techniques, by the man who is collectively known as the Father of American Cinema or Hollywood. With a low budget cost of $110,000, it returned tens of millions of dollars in profits, making it, perhaps, the most profitable film of all time, taking into account the inflation rate. (1) Despite all these, the film for its content of portraying Ku Klux Klan (KKK) as the saviors of the white south against the blacks during the “Reconstruction” era after the Civil War, has been widely condemned. This collective condemnation, not only affected the film at least in US later on, if not at the time, it also outrageously disgraced Griffith, who had made 500 films by the time of his death in solitude! (2-3)
This silent film with a length of more than 3 hours, unheard and unusual for the time and years to come, in two acts, is a historical depiction of how the states of America, became united. The first act is on the civil war (1861-1865) of the north against the south to join them by force to the “Union” and make the whole country as one nation. The second act is after the civil war and during the reconstruction era (1865-1877) in the south, to transform the southern united states as directed by the congress with the reconstruction of the states and the society. Later on we will discuss and review these events, that are the content of the story of the film as a historical fiction, for the wrong understanding of many including the media, the film critics and film historians for the unjust condemnation of the film and its great creator. Unfortunately none of these critics have done a descent study and review of the historical events in the film, that indeed happened and cost Americans close to 1,000,000 lives in the civil war, more than any of their wars and both World War I & II combined, and the failure of their “Reconstruction” and transformation of the south and worsening the racial conflict in the south and the whole country. (4-5) But before all these, lets know better the man behind the camera who caused all these negative commotions, and at the same time is respected by other filmmakers, world-wide as a genius, and not deserving a life in isolation at the end!
Before The Birth of a Nation:
Griffith was born in Crestwood, Kentucky to Mary Perkins and Jacob Griffith, who were of Anglo-Welsh ancestry. Jacob Griffith was a confederate army colonel in the civil war and was elected as a Kentucky state legislator. Griffith was raised a Methodist and was taught by his older sister, Mattie Griffith at home. After his father died when he was ten, the family struggled with poverty. When Griffith was 14, his mother abandoned the farm and moved the family to Louisville, where she opened a boarding house, that failed shortly after. Griffith then left high school to help support the family, taking a job in a dry goods store and later in a bookstore. He began his creative career as a playwright but met with little success with only one of his plays being accepted for a performance.Griffith then decided to become an actor, and appeared in many plays as an extra in Biograph company.In 1908, Biograph’s main director, Wallace McCutcheon became ill and his son, Wallace McCutcheon, Jr., took his place, but was not able to bring the studio any success.As a result, Biograph co-founder, Henry “Harry” Marvin, decided to give Griffith the position, and the young man made his first short movie for the company, “The adventures of Dollie”. Griffith would end up directing 48 shorts for the company that year. Four years later he produced, directed and released his first feature, Judith of Bethulia, in 1913, one of the earliest to be produced in the United States. Because of company resistance to his goals, and his cost overruns on the film, $30,000,Griffith left Biograph. He took his stock company of actors with him and joined the Mutual Film Coroporation, and formed a studio with the Majestic Studio manager Harry Aitken that became known as Reliance-Majestic Studios (that was later renamed Fine Arts Studio). (6-10)
The Birth of a Nation:
Through Reliance-Majestic Studios, Griffith produced and directed “The Birth of a Nation”, in 1915, as one of the first feature length American films, as most previous films had been less than one hour long. The Birth of a Nation changed the industry’s standard in a way still influential today, but aroused much controversy due to its depiction of the KKK’s as the saviors of the white south against the black south with strong criticism from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). But despite all these, the film was the first “blockbuster” motion picture, and broke all the box office records, and benefitted people such as Louis Mayer who with the money he made, started his own studios of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. (11)
Metropolis created by Fritz Lang in 1927, at age 37, is a frontier in epic science fiction film, that for years has influenced not only filmmakers, but artists of different trades. This groundbreaking silent movie, that is not only a science fiction, but an incisive depiction of social class struggles, and an avant-garde of “expressionism” merits an introduction of its creator. Fritz Lang (1890-1976) was an Austrian-German filmmaker, born in Vienna to parents of Moravian descent, catholic father and Jewish born mother who converted seriously to Roman Catholicism. After finishing high school, Lang briefly studied civil engineering and eventually switched to art. In 1910 he left Vienna to travel the world, throughout Europe, Africa, Asia America and the Pacific region. In 1913, he studied painting in Paris, and at the outbreak of World War I, he returned to Vienna and volunteered for military service in the Austrian army and fought in Russia and Romania, where he was wounded three times. While recovering from his injuries in 1916, he wrote some scenarios and ideas for films. He was discharged from the army with the rank of lieutenant in 1918 and did some acting in the Viennese theater circuit for a short time before being hired as a writer at a Berlin-based production company.
Lang soon started to work as a director at a German film studio, just as the Expressionist movement was building. In 1920, he met his future wife, the writer and actress, Thea von Harbou, who co-wrote all of his movies from 1921 through 1933, including “Metropolis”, “Dr. Mabuse” and “M”, his first talking picture. According to Lang himself, the Nazi’s propaganda minister Joseph Goebbles called him to his office to inform him that his late film “The testament of Dr. Mabuse” has been banned, but that he was nevertheless so impressed by Lang’s abilities as a filmmaker, especially “Metropolis’ and offered Lang a position as the head of German film studio “UFA”. Lang had stated that it was during this meeting that he had decided to leave for Paris, and from there shortly after immigrate to US. While most of Fritz Lang’s film before and after “Metropolis” have been “film noir” and to today’s description, thrillers and horrors, “Metropolis” stands out not just different, but a masterpiece that he or rarely anyone else for years to come could surpass!
Metropolis when first released, it was such a shock in pictorial beauty and complex in techniques and special effects, that was not understood well in its own time and received mixed reviews and reactions. The film’s extensive running time and also its social class struggles in a futuristic world, taken as communist, were criticized. Therefore the film was cut and censored substantially after its German premiere, removing a large portion of its original footage. Numerous attempts have been made to restore the film since the 1970s. Music producer Giorgio Moroder released a truncated version with a soundtrack by rock artists such as Freddie Mercury of “Queen”, Loverboy and Adam Ant in 1984. A new reconstruction of Metropolis was shown at the Berlin Film Festival in 2001, and the film was inscribed on UNESCO’s Memory of the World Register in the same year, the first film thus distinguished. In 2008 a damaged print of Lang’s original cut of the film was found in a museum in Argentina. After a long restoration process, the film was 95% restored and shown on large screens in Berlin and Frankfurt simultaneously on 12 February 2010.
“Man with a movie camera” of 1929 by Dziga Vertov without any doubt is the ultimate definition of cinema, and the gold standard of filmmaking that any other film should be rated by. Ranking any film or making any list of the greatest film is not complete without having seen this film and comparing others with this film that has been made almost 90 years ago. Only “The Battleship Potemkin” by Sergie Eisentein that was made four years earlier could stand above this film, for being an earlier creation, having invented some cinematographic and filming techniques prior to this masterpiece, and also having a story to show. Surprisingly both films are made by two Russian film masters, who defined cinema at its inception. One believing in the medium for telling story and narrative, while conveying ideology and provoking emotions (Eisenstein), whereas the other used the screen to experiment the art and techniques of cinema, camera movements and editing, albeit conveying his poetry (Vertov).
Vertov’s experiences with a simple camera of 1929 has been and will be an invaluable lesson to any camera man or film director, what camera and editing can do. The vast experiences with camera and editing (done by his wife, Elizaveta Svilova) in this documentary film has taken others for many years later to absorb and replicate some of the techniques in their films to this day. This masterpiece of cinema was definitely beyond its time in every frame, technique and content. “Man with a movie camera” should be taught in any schools of filmmaking frame by frame and students need to appreciate how such a grand work came to possibility with a simple camera in 1929. Vertov could not possibly achieve this great work in a feature film content, though his documentary or camera work experience is not without content. The film in fact is the story of urban life of men, women and children in the Soviet cities of Kiev, Kharkov, Moscow and Odessa, at work, play and else. The man with the camera is as well part of the film and story, as he is shown frequently in the film. Therefore the people of Soviet Union, including the cameraman are characters or actors of the film. This masterpiece that perhaps deserves a book to write about, needs an introduction of its creator.
Vertov (his pseudonym) born as David Abelevich Kaufman, also known as Denis Kaufman (1896-1954) was not only a pioneer filmmaker, but also a cinema theorist. Vertov first studied music at Bialystok Conservatory, then writing poetry, science fiction and satire. From 1916 to 1917, he studied medicine in Saint Petersburg, while experimenting with sound collages in his free time. He eventually adopted the name “Dziga Vertov”, which translates loosely from Ukrainian as “spinning top”. In his early writings, Vertov emphasizes on the camera lens as his “second eye”, that can perceive and record the nature of individuals, their interrelations with each other, the nature, machinery, and their emotions. After the Russian revolution of 1917, at the age of 22, Vertov began editing for Kino-Nedelya studio and started the Russian first newsreel series in 1918.
The Battleship Potemkin directed by the Russian filmmaker, Sergei Eisenstein in 1925, at age 27, portraying the mutiny that occurred in the first defeated Russian revolution of 1905, when the crew of the Russian battleship Potemkin rebelled against their officers.This great silent film that has been voted the best film of all time by many international filmmakers and critics many times from its inception to this day, and influenced many other films in part or in whole, needs an introduction with his creator. Sergei Eisenstein, born in 1898, before filmmaking studied architecture and engineering, then served the red army in the Bolshevik revolution, before starting his career in theatre, creating quite a few plays, then a theatre designer, an art theorist and finally a filmmaker. Two years before making the Battleship Potemkin, in 1923 Eisenstein attempted his first trial in filmmaking with a short film. “Glumov’s diary”, then in the same year of 1925, he made his first feature film of “Strike”. Eisenstein’s filmography continued with other masterpieces such as “October: Ten days that shook the world” in 1927, “Alexander Nevsky” in 1938, “Ivan the terrible” part I and II in 1944 and 1945, and quite a few others in the between years. Eisenstein has written extensively on film theory and editing, such as “Film form: essays in film theory”, “The film sense”, and “Towards a theory of montage” among others.
Eisenstein’s “Alexander Nevsky” after 13 years from “The Battleship Potemkin” and after his extensive travels to Europe and Mexico, proved to the world that he could create great work in the sound films as well, so that the great Russian composer of the time, Sergie Provofiev would write the music for his film, that Eisenstein reciprocated him by designing sets for an operatic rendition of “War and Peace” that Prokofiev was developing. Like the Battleship Potemkin that for years to come, provoked mutinies around the world, in or out of the water, in or out of the film industries, with many copies of mutiny films even in the west, “Alexander Nevsky” warned the world against the German Nazis expansive worldwide infiltrations, a year before the inception of the world war II. Unfortunately Eisenstein died prematurely from a heart attack, even before finishing the third part of the trilogy, “Ivan the terrible” in 1948 at age 50, otherwise the world would witness more masterpieces from this unique filmmaker of all time. This unparalleled life of not only a filmmaker, but a theorist, theatre and stage designer and producer, engineer and architect, could only make such great films such as “The Battleship Potemkin” that after years of censorships around the world by different governments, still is heralded a “the greatest film of all time” and still released and shown on screen, studied piece by piece in the schools of cinema and above all is still heart beating for the new audience who would be mesmerized by the possibility of such production more than 90 years ago!