Still from Balance (1989) by Christoph Lauenstein and Wolfgang Lauenstein

In the eight-minute stop-motion film Balance (1989), brothers Wolfgang and Christoph Lauenstein manage to create a powerful message about greed using a minimum of visuals and sound. The visual design includes several of the same nondescript puppets dressed in drab clothing that is almost identical. These characters stand on the sides of a small platform suspended in space, fishing off the edges. The film’s audio consists of sparse sound effects: primarily the creaking of the platform, ambiguous muffled noise, footsteps, and fishing poles in use. A mysterious box reeled in by one character plays music, an intrusive noise that becomes louder and softer as the object slides across the platform, between foreground and background, literally changing the balance of the characters’ ordered existence.

The problem is that each man apparently wants the box to himself—and that requires a total rebalancing of their sparse habitat. When one of them slides the box to a side of the platform, the other men scurry away so that the platform stays level and they don’t all slide off. Sound plays an important role in creating anxiety here. As the pace of the sliding box and of the men’s steps becomes faster, we sense an increase in dramatic tension. Creative cinematography joins with audio in structuring this experience.

Eventually, one man goes so far as to push the others off the platform, one by one. Like many independently produced short films, Balance lacks dialogue, so when the men begin to fall and reach out for help, they do so in silence—increasing our empathy for these pathetic, helpless figures who are about to fall into deep space. When their fellow man pushes them off anyway, it is also in silence. Rather than the intense sound of cries for help, the directors have chosen no sound at all; in the place of emotion, the film creates an intellectual response, and we understand it to be an allegory about human nature.