Film Stills: Magical Moments

Film stills as drama suspended, art as advertisement: Even if you’ve never seen the movie, chances are you know the image

They are the indelible visuals of the 20th century; they overshadow even the horrific images of wars. They are iconic bits of collective memory: Max Schreck as Nosferatu in monstrous silhouette, his claws reaching down to the helpless viewer; Chaplin’s Great Dictator wrestling pathetically with an over-sized globe; or Anita Ekberg taking a dip in the Fontana di Trevi in La Dolce Vita. Curated by Walter Moser, now 130 of these iconic, images are featured in a special exhibition.

Film Stills
Nosferatu – Deutschland 1921; Regie: Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau // © Deutsch Kinematic

Created as publicity material from the 1900s to the mid-1970s, these opulent cinescapes are both diverse and powerful, driven by commercial requirements and technical limitations that led to special picture sessions at the end of the day’s shoot. Photographers seized the opportunity to re-create magic moments of studied intensity with the superb clarity of large-format plate cameras, often recomposing scenes for dramatic effect. Early silent movie directors frequently worked consciously in the artistic context of the moment: Horst von Harbou brilliantly captured Fritz Lang’s Jugendstil (Art Nouveau) heroic tableaux in Die Nibelungen; and Robert Wiene’s unsettling expressionism in Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari is chillingly intensified by a (sadly) anonymous photographer. The high point of the exhibition is von Harbou’s chimerical material for Lang’s silent masterpiece Metropolis, visually breathtaking and disturbingly intense.

Metropolis // © Horst von Harbou, Deutsche Kinemathek

Much of the later material, however, sadly lacks the punch of the early stills. Attempts to use 35 mm technology to take pictures while shooting are intriguing for movie buffs but visually tepid. A handful of iconic moments live on – Cary Grant desperately trying to escape a rogue biplane in North by Northwest and – of course – Marilyn battling her skirts in The Seven Year Itch, restaged with scant respect for the scene’s actual prominence in the film. As early, washed-out Technicolor took over though, the great days of movie stills rode into the monochrome sunset. But powerful images were still possible: Angelo Novi’s dynamic rear view of three duster-clad desperados for Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West, a black and white image re-worked in color, became one of the greatest cinematic posters of all time.


Film Stills
Cabinet of Dr. Caligari // © Österreichisches Filmmuseum

Highly effective in the stunning catalogue (a worthy alternative to the exhibit) the selection can feel somewhat arbitrary up close. However, the individual images lose nothing of their standalone impact, potent celluloid milestones of 20th century zeitgeist.

Through February 26, Albertina


Simon Ballam
English, studied in NY and worked in London, Düsseldorf, NY, Fankfurt, Prague and Vienna. This covered stints in market research and the film industry, international advertising coordination and strategic planning. Currently business school lecturer and journalist.

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