Leitmotifs in Cinema
A CultureMap®
by Sid Rosenzweig
Published on 8/15/13

Richard Wagner wasn’t the first to use leitmotifs, or melodic phrases associated with specific dramatic characters—but he did so more extensively and inventively than anyone before him. Today’s practitioners of Wagnerian leitmotifs include such composers as John Williams, who scored three of Hollywood’s first summer blockbusters. Wagner’s echo can also be heard in Fritz Lang’s M, which uses Edvard Grieg’s Peer Gynt, and even in Shaft’s superhip theme song. Watch closely and listen carefully.

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Richard Wagner  (1813–1883 | German composer)
to  Star Wars  (George Lucas (dir.) | film | 1977)

Love him or hate him (and many do), Richard Wagner left an extraordinary musical legacy, including an intricate use of leitmotifs—melodic phrases associated with specific characters, ideas and situations. His Ring cycle features dozens of motifs, but they’re not simple signature tunes. As the plot twists and turns, Wagner twists the music with it, introducing endless variations on the basic leitmotifs.

From the 1930s through the 1950s, Wagner’s style dominated cinema, exemplified by the scores of Max Steiner, Erich Korngold and Bernard Herrmann. So-called youth films like The Graduate (1967) and Easy Rider (1969) rejected lavish scores in favor of familiar pop tunes. Then came Star Wars, which established John Williams as the modern master of the leitmotif and rejuvenated the sumptuous symphonic score.

Both the Ring cycle and Star Wars are epic sagas with self-consciously mythic overtones and archetypal characters exploring eternal themes of love, power, betrayal and sacrifice. From heroic offspring (Siegfried and Brünnhilde, Luke and Leia) redeeming their ancestors’ sins, to the abundance of weird species (dragons and mermaids, Wookiees and droids), to details such as magic swords and lightsabers, the parallels are striking.

Lucas’s own term for Star Wars? Space opera.

Star Wars  (George Lucas (dir.) | film | 1977)
to  Jaws  (Steven Spielberg (dir.) | film | 1975)

Can two notes be a leitmotif? Just ask a few million Jaws fans. Signaling dread from the deep, John Williams’s “dom-bom, dom-bom” theme is one of cinema’s most memorable leitmotifs.

Still in his 20s when he got the high-profile, high-pressure job of transforming a huge best-seller into a hoped-for hit, Steven Spielberg turned to a familiar face in Williams; he had scored Spielberg’s first theatrical feature, The Sugarland Express (and has since scored all but one of his films). Spielberg initially questioned the theme’s simplicity but soon saw that its relentless, driving force perfectly expressed the inexorable movement of the monstrous munching machine. Although he’d previously written dozens of film and TV scores, Williams calls Jaws a landmark in his career. It won him his first Oscar for a completely original score.

Spielberg introduced Williams to another young filmmaker, George Lucas, who was preparing a sci-fi flick not expected to make much money. Lucas showed Williams the script, expressing his interest in archetypal characters, mythic situations and stunning visual effects. The eventual result was Williams’s most lushly symphonic, leitmotif-laden work yet. Often credited with bringing such scores back into favor, Star Wars won Williams his second Oscar for original music.

Superman  (Richard Donner (dir.) | film | 1978)
to  Jaws  (Steven Spielberg (dir.) | film | 1975)

What do a big, toothy mouth and a flying, caped man have in common? John Williams’s music, for one. The composer wrote Jaws’s Oscar-winning score, whose famed “shark theme” helped scare the swimsuits off audiences everywhere. Three years later Williams’s Superman score convinced similarly huge audiences that a man in a funny suit could fly.

Both films brought on headaches for their special-effects technicians. Jaws’s mechanical shark kept breaking down, and Superman’s producers spent millions trying to figure out how to make the superhero look as if he were flying. Along with Star Wars, these films announced the triumph of the action-driven, comic book–inspired blockbuster. But Jaws can also be seen as the last of the fatalistic disaster flicks of the early 1970s (most of which featured Williams’s music), while Superman ushered in film’s post–Vietnam war era, in which moviegoers hungered for heroes and healing.

According to Ilya Salkind (who coproduced Superman with his father), Steven Spielberg was eager to make Superman after Jaws. But the elder Salkind waited to see if the 20-something wunderkind’s“big fish” would swim to success. By the time it did, Spielberg had moved on to other projects.

Shaft  (Gordon Parks (dir.) | film | 1971)
to  Superman  (Richard Donner (dir.) | film | 1978)

“They say this cat Shaft is a bad mother…shut your mouth!

Even in 1971 the lyrics to Shaft seemed, well, silly. But they summed up the cat in question, and Isaac Hayes’s irresistible theme song became one of filmdom’s most popular (and most parodied). Smart, tough and fearless, Shaft was the first mainstream African American screen hero who took no crap from anyone. He didn’t wear a costume, but his turtlenecked, sideburned superdude look was as essential to his identity as his badass attitude, and, of course, that song. He was as close to a black superhero as the movies would offer—a fantasy figure for the era’s alienated youth who were angry about Vietnam and other social ills.

By 1978 that war had been lost, and audiences needed a hero to bring them together. Who better than Superman, champion of such unassailable values as truth, justice and the “American way”? His dual identity as an archetypal American farm kid and an alien immigrant from an ex-planet gave him phenomenal appeal. And John Williams’s Superman theme song—a soaring, symphonic reverie—truly made us believe, as the film’s posters proclaimed, that a man can fly.

M  (Fritz Lang (dir.) | film | 1931)
to  Shaft  (Gordon Parks (dir.) | film | 1971)

A city falling apart. People out of work. Crime everywhere. 1931 Berlin or 1971 New York?

Fritz Lang’s M features Peter Lorre in his first major starring role as serial child murderer Hans Beckert, hunted by both cops and crooks. Though M was Lang’s first talkie, its use of sound is incredibly sophisticated—and essential to its mystery. Skulking Beckert rarely speaks, but he’s caught because a blind man recognizes the tune he whistles.

Lang’s shadowy, claustrophobic sets strongly influenced the look of the Hollywood noirs of the 1940s and the neo-noirs that followed, including Gordon Parks’s Shaft. One of the earliest blaxploitation films, Shaft features former Ebony model Richard Roundtree, in his film debut, as a supercool African American private dick. While silent Beckert steals little girls, the highly voluble John Shaft is hired to find a Harlem drug dealer’s daughter, kidnapped by Mafia baddies who want in on the action. Shaft too must contend with cops and crooks, and he does so with swagger and a signature theme song.

Beckert whistles Edvard Grieg’s “In the Hall of the Mountain King” from Peer Gynt. Shaft struts to Isaac Hayes’s Oscar-winning “Theme from Shaft.” Each became its composer’s biggest hit.

Richard Wagner  (1813–1883 | German composer)
to  M  (Fritz Lang (dir.) | film | 1931)

Richard Wagner dreamed of creating the Gesamtkunstwerk, the “total work of art” that combines music, drama and dance with lavish sets, lighting and costumes. As egomaniacal artist in chief, he demanded total control of his productions, eventually building his own theater in Bayreuth, Germany. Though he believed his works’ universal themes would speak (or sing) to all people, Wagner based them on distinctly German myths and folklore. His huge, heroic compositions, such as the four-opera Ring of the Nibelung, were infamously appropriated by the Nazis.

Today some film scholars argue that the cinema comes closest to Wagner’s ideal Gesamtkunstwerk. Though Fritz Lang didn’t use the term, he was another artistic control freak with an ego equal to Wagner’s. He wrote scripts, designed his sets and costumes, and abused actors until they satisfied him. He filled his first talkie, M, with innovations such as asynchronous sound (letting us see one thing while hearing another) and having each of his three main characters whistle a leitmotif-like tune. The Nazis didn’t like M’s darkly satirical portrait of contemporary Berlin, but they still asked Lang to be their official filmmaker. After all, in 1924 he’d made his own epic, two-film version of Die Nibelungen.

M  (Fritz Lang (dir.) | film | 1931)
to  Peer Gynt  (Edvard Grieg | music | 1876)

Normally a quiet, unassuming fellow, Hans Beckert is occasionally overwhelmed by the urge to kill. We know because that’s when he whistles “In the Hall of the Mountain King,” from Edvard Grieg’s music for Henrik Ibsen’s play Peer Gynt. Brilliantly embodied by Peter Lorre in his first major screen role, Beckert is the short, sweaty, psychopathic child murderer haunting the Depression-ridden streets of Berlin in M. Because Lorre didn’t know how, director Fritz Lang whistled the melody himself.

Lang said he didn’t know why he chose Grieg’s tune as Beckert’s leitmotif, but a look at Ibsen’s play calls this claim into question. Peer Gynt is an astonishing amalgam of surrealism, social satire, romantic adventure and Norse mythology. During its ultracomplex, peripatetic plot, in what may be a dream, the unheroic Peer visits the mountain lair of the troll king. Sometimes portrayed as ugly, misshapen creatures, other times as barely distinguishable from ordinary nasty people, trolls pop up throughout Scandinavian folklore. In some stories, they steal children and leave changelings in their place. Pudgy, troll-like Beckert also steals children, and—in one of the film’s most poignant images—leaves a balloon, bought for one of his victims, tangled in telephone wires.

Richard Wagner  (1813–1883 | German composer)
to  Peer Gynt  (Edvard Grieg | music | 1876)

In 1907 literary critic Jennette Lee wrote, “No one familiar with Wagnerian opera and with Ibsen’s dramatic form can fail to be struck by the kinship between the two.” Lee was comparing Henrik Ibsen’s symbols to Richard Wagner’s leitmotifs and may have been onto something. Both artists were cultural nationalists: Wagner drew from Teutonic sources, Ibsen from Scandinavian and Norse ones, but both hoped to communicate with contemporary audiences by tweaking traditional myths and folklore. And both created works too big and complex for their respective eras’ stagecraft. Peer Gynt had to wait nine years for its first production; Wagner had to design his own theater in Bayreuth to properly present his operas.

Ibsen chose Edvard Grieg to compose music for Peer Gynt. Another cultural nationalist, Grieg sought to create uniquely Norwegian music, finding inspiration in folk tunes and popular melodies. Unlike Wagner, whose operas reached epic proportions (the Ring cycle runs about 15 hours), Grieg was a musical miniaturist, writing mostly short piano pieces and songs. But Grieg admired Wagner’s work. Peer Gynt premiered in February 1876. That August, Wagner held his first Bayreuth festival. Grieg was there, sat through the entire Ring and declared it “divinely composed.”