Exposition in films from the silent film era based on examples of “Modern Times” and “Metropolis”

What is the exposition? In narrative it means to expose the wider context of the story, introduce important background information, such as characters’ back stories, information about location, the setting, which shows how important it is for the audience to understand the film they are watching. After seeing Charlie Chaplin’s “Modern Times”(1936) I have decided to compare it to Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis”(1927). “Modern Times” were Chaplin’s reaction to the Great Depression, even that it was a comedy he still talked about important social and economic issues. Lack of jobs and sufficient housing, no perspective of better tomorrow, clash of two ideologies, communism and capitalism, mechanisation of factory lines(this actually inspired him to write the “Modern Times”), the idea of a man being a clog in the wheel.  These are all very heavy and serious issues that we wouldn’t not expect to see in a modern comedy.

Even that technology was there Chaplin decided to use very little sound in his film, as he felt that a certain appeal to his character, Little Tramp, would be lost. He was very sceptical towards using the sound as he thought that it would not work in the type of comedy that he specialised in, pantomime. He felt he expressed himself better with actions than with words. The only voices we hear in this film were the voices of the factory owner, radio and spoken instruction manual for one of the machines and at the end Chaplin singing a song which was gibberish.

“Metropolis” is a slightly different story, it talks about important issues to us, humans, but it takes place in the future. It challenges the subject of segregation in the society, how is the society going to look in the future. The wealthy rich living in the beautiful high-rise tower complex while the poor, oppressed workers live underground where they work to provide power for the wealthy elites. The setting is overwhelming, especially underground, where the individual person doesn’t matter. The tower complex is also enormous but it’s more pompous, rather than depressing and terrifying. It’s all used to give the idea of what’s going on to the viewer straight away.  It’s all established at the beginning of the movie, first in the scene will workers walking in line like robots and going underground. Another plot is reviled straight away as well. Freder’s fascination with Maria, girl from a different social class. He’s so intrigued that he follows her to the workers city when he sees how less privileged than him are living. The story of Rotwang, the inventor and his love to Hel, a woman that married Fredersen and was a mother of Freder is all reviled by a use of a prop, a map, which helps Fredersen find out what’s Rotwang is hiding and them let them plot against Maria and Freder.

The exposition is not always done right, sometimes it’s forced, like in a character’s monologue when he or she tells us what exactly are they doing, or what are they planning to do. In film it’s referred to as “information dump” or “idiot lecture”. None of that happened in Chaplin’s film or in “Metropolis”. Something were present in a quiet obvious way, but in my opinion it’s just how the cinema worked back in that era. Both are examples of a great filmmaking and take upon important social issues.


Modern Times, 1936. [Film] Beverly Hills, California, United Artists Corporation.

Metropolis, 1927. [Film] Potsdam-Babelsberg, Germany, Babelsberg Studio

David Robinson, 2004, Filming Modern Times [Online] Charlie Chaplin – Official Website, Available at: http://www.charliechaplin.com/en/biography/articles/6-Modern-Times [Accessed date:  03.12.2014]

Michael Schilf, Ten Great Film Exposition Scenes [Online] The Script Lab, Available at: http://thescriptlab.com/features/the-lists/859-ten-great-film-exposition-scenes# [Date accessed: 03.12.2014]

Chaplin Today: Modern Times, 2003 [TV documentary] France. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5lp4EbfPAtI