Performance can be difficult to analyse especially as the acting profession tends to mystify the process when interviewed. Maybe they, too, find it difficult to analyse or maybe they prefer the mystique. Possibly the key factor in performance is non-verbal communication which includes body language, posture, clothing and vocal tone. Their position and movement in the frame is likely to be determined by the director and the scriptwriter provides the words; how their body ‘speaks’ and how they speak those words is determined by the actor. Of course, even these can be directed but if we are to think of actors as more than Hitchcock’s ‘cattle’ then we must give them some credit.
I first noticed Michael Fassbender in Hunger, Steve McQueen’s debut, and since I’ve found him to be the most compelling male actor in cinema. What follows is an extract from the 2nd edition of my Introduction to Film (forthcoming):
The smartly-dressed Erik Lensherr (Michael Fassbender), in X-Men First Class (US-UK, 2011), is visiting a Swiss banker to find out the location of Dr Klaus Schmidt, the concentration camp doctor who experimented on him when he was a child. He’s brought an ingot of Nazi gold as a pretext for the visit and to make his point about the fate of Jewish wealth in Germany in World War II. (DVD: Ch.4 13mins 37secs.)
Once he’s seated Lensherr’s framed in medium shot, his eyes appeared almost closed but they are looking down at the ingot that we know is on the desk in front of him. He looks up, at the banker, but his head doesn’t move at first, suggesting he is in complete control of the situation. When he explains to the banker that he wants to deposit the gold, his eyebrows move, suggesting urbanity, while the rest of his face remains impassive. He is controlling his anger, beneath a veneer of respectability, against bankers who continued, in 1963 when the film is set, to benefit from Nazi appropriation of Jews’ wealth.
Lensherr agrees with the banker that he needs to understand the bank’s terms but then he starts to threaten, by explaining the deal will be on his terms. He picks up a photograph of a young child (presumably the banker’s) from the desk, looks at it with an obviously false smile. The falsity contains threat for we expect people to like (smile at) photographs of children but Lensherr obviously doesn’t like what he sees. His gaze flicks to the ingot on the desk reminding us of the purpose of his visit.
The banker understands the threat and tries to sound the alarm but Lensherr’s uses his X-Men powers to stop him.
Lensherr moves to the banker’s side of the desk; he’s about to get nasty, his face contorted in a grimace. At one point Fassbinder thrusts his bottom teeth forward in a feral gesture showing the violence that’s brewing just beneath his urbane demeanour.
Lensherr is now in the process of extracting a filling, via his powers, from the banker’s mouth; using torture as the Nazis did in the camps. Almost imperceptibly the merest hint of enjoyment flickers in his expression; his eyes move slightly, as if taking in all the banker’s facial expression of pain. Fassbender is signifying the sadistic side of Lensherr, a character with whom we have sympathy given his treatment in the concentration camp.
After he’s caught the filling, that’s flown out of the victim’s mouth, Lensherr looks at it with a slightly amused (at his own ability) expression which quickly hardens as he gets back down to business.
Fassbender has conveyed very controlled determination of Lensherr at the start, and end, of the scene to emphasise the violence of the mid-section. This mirrors Lensherr’s (and the film’s?) attitude toward the business of the Swiss bank, which is to deal, in an exceedingly polite way, with ill-gotten gains. The urbanity of the setting is therefore hiding the violence that is the source of their wealth.
Virtually everything that Fassbender wants to portray about Lensherr’s character is shown through subtle changes of facial expression. It is a masterclass of acting.