How the mask has played a leading role in the history of cinema | Cinema | DW

Hiding identities, deceiving the viewer for good or bad reasons: the mask has a long history in cinema. And film crews and actors have to wear masks on sets during the coronavirus crisis, so that may just be the start of face coverings. Is the mask about to take center stage?

In the era of silent movies, masked heroes were commonplace and popular with audiences, whether in horror films, crime films and even comedies. As “talkie” movies came to the screen, some also featured face coverings with great success. The 1929 movie The iron mask, starring Douglas Fairbanks, featured a masked hero wearing a swashbuckler. Another version based on the same story of a French prisoner by author Alexandre Dumas was released in theaters in 1939.

Read more: Drive-in cinemas are booming in Germany amid COVID-19 restrictions

A means of deception

Masks can be used as camouflage or to deceive others, even good guys. The hero is often depicted as someone who, out of modesty or because he has a blemish on his face, takes on a mask before committing heroic acts.

Perhaps one of the genre’s most successful early uses was in the 1920 film The Mark of Zorrowhen the sword-wielding vigilante protected the people of California in ancient times.

In the era of the success of Marvel and DC Comics films, many superheroes have one thing in common: they wear masks while saving the world. Interestingly, few female characters, aside from Catwoman, are shown wearing masks.

Anthony Hopkins starred as Zorro in the 1998 film The Mask of Zorro

Then there’s the dastardly villain who uses a mask to protect his identity. After all, a bank robbery without a mask is hardly conceivable.

The mask in horror movies

Horror movies are particularly known for their mask-wearing antagonist. One of the highest-grossing films of this genre is that of Wes Craven Scream, featuring a serial killer wearing a cheap ghost mask during his rampage. Few can forget the antagonist of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Leatherface, who wears a mask made of human skins – perhaps one of the most chilling masks in movie history.

In some cinematic scenarios, a mask prevents a villain from getting close to the good guys. Hannibal Lecter, the murderous cannibal, for example, wears a mask so as not to bite those around him.

photo from the film Halloween, character holding a knife, bluish light

Halloween is a classic horror movie

Masks are also sometimes used to hide anomalies, such as asin The Elephant Man by David Lynch, which tells the story of a seriously deformed man in London at the end of the 19th century, or in The Phantom of the Operawhere the disfigured Ghost also uses a mask to conceal his face.

Nowadays, the masks we wear serve as protection against the environment around us during the COVID-19 epidemic, or against air pollution. The same is true in some films, where masks are worn as a survival tool. In the 1931 Austrian film Camaraderie, masks protect people during a rescue mission in the event of a mining accident. Another movie hitting pretty close to home these days is Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion, which describes a fictional pandemic that took place nearly a decade ago. Naturally, the masks play an important role in the film, just as they do in the world around us now.