Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Guest Review: Metropolis (1927)

By Philip Schweier

This is it, kids. The grandfather of all science fiction films. It may not have been the very first, but its influence is so overwhelming it can’t be avoided. Upon its release, it is reported to have cost 5 million marks, which translates to approximately $200 million in today’s dollars. The film’s run time is 153 minutes, lengthy for even modern movies. But as a silent, it was beyond epic. Most feature films of the day were an hour at the most.

It is the story of a futuristic city, split between the haves, who enjoy a life of leisure, and the have-nots, who toil away in the depths for hours on end and keep the city functioning. One day, a young woman, Maria (Brigitte Helm), brings a group of children to one of the pleasure gardens. “These are your brothers,” she tells them. The group is chased away by the authorities, but one young man, Freder (Gustav Fröhlich), is intrigued.

Freder is the son of Joh Fredersen (Alfred Abel), the architect of Metropolis, by whose design the privileged enjoy a life of luxury at the expense of those less fortunate. Freder follows Maria don into the depths of the under-city, where he witnesses first-hand the hardship and suffering of the people who make his pampered life possible. Idealistically, he approaches his father in an effort to win them some reprieve.

Fredersen is indifferent to his son’s pleas, and Freder goes so far as to return to the workers and take the place of one who collapses at his station. He sends Worker #11811 (Erwin Biswanger) to his apartment, but Slim, Joh Fredersen’s lackey, has been keeping an eye on Freder, and quickly learns of the young man’s interference. Freder later follows his fellow workers to the underground cathedral, where Maria preaches of the day when a mediator will bring the two social factions together in harmony.

Fredersen, meanwhile, pays a visit to the home of Rotwang (Rudolf Klein-Rogge), a crazed inventor. The two were once rivals for the same woman. She chose Fredersen but died in childbirth. Rotwang shows Fredersen his automaton, and the master of Metropolis schemes to have the mechanical creature take the place of the revolutionary Maria.

Rotwang follows through on Fredersen’s plan, kidnapping Maria and turning his robot into her duplicate. But the mechanical version owes more to the whore of Babylon than her altruistic namesake. Men fight duels, commit suicide, and generally go off their collective rockers in an effort to win her for themselves. The robot Maria is also tasked with stoking the fires of evolution. She encourages the workers to rebel, and effectively starve the machines, and by extension, the upper world.

Eventually, the two factions clash, but in so doing the deception is revealed. Freder challenges Rotwang in a fight atop the cathedral, and becomes the Mediator – i.e., messiah – the workers have been waiting for.

To say the film has overtones of Biblical proportions is putting it mildly. Director Fritz Lang was Jewish, though Hitler was so enamored of the film he chose to overlook the filmmaker’s Semitism. Legend has it Lang left for Paris immediately.

The film immediately began to influence those that followed, and its impact continues to ripple down through the decades. The story has become old hat by modern standards, and its age makes it easy to judge the movie as being overly long and boring. A silent film more than two and a half hours in length is a lot to foist on a modern audience. I had to watch the movie in fragments in order to maintain interest.

This particular version (on Netflix) was cobbled together from various sources, as long lost prints and negatives had been discovered in various locations over the past decade or so. Previously, audiences could only see about 60 percent of the original footage, though I can’t say very much was missing from the overall narrative.

It’s an important piece of movie history, one I recommend all film enthusiasts see, but personally I found it challenging to sit through. Though not as much as the horrible Giorgio Moroder cut of the 1980s.

1 comment:

grouchomarxist said...

The best way to see the restored Metropolis is in a theater, with a good sound system. (Which isn't to say I'm not extremely grateful to Netflix for carrying this and other German silent classics like Murnau's Faust from the Kino Video catalog.)

I couldn't count the number of times I'd seen Metropolis on TV, but the one and only time I got to see it on a really big screen it was an amazing experience. This was the first restoration done by Kino Video, prior to the discovery of that big chunk of missing footage, the one which for the first time featured the original symphonic score.

I will admit I'm rather prejudiced about this film. It's fascinated me ever since I saw an article about it many years ago in Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine. Especially that iconic image of the robot, which clearly inspired Star Wars' C3PO. I've even read the English translation of Thea von Harbou's novelization of her script. If you think the film was heavy going, you ought to try that sometime. It's very, very ... Germanic.

I was lucky enough to see the truncated version the first time in a fairly good 8mm print, on a pretty good-sized screen, back in the late 70s. And it was pretty impressive, even then. Ever since it became available on tape, then DVD, I've seen it many, many times, mostly in horrible, faded prints in the public domain. (That partial restoration done in the 80s was somewhat better -- so long as you turn that gawdawful Giorgio Moroder soundtrack off.)

It was Kino Video's meticulous restoration of the 35mm footage which made me appreciate just how stunningly beautiful Karl Freund's cinematography was. "Luminous" is not a word you often hear associated with B & W films, but here it's fully deserved.

I know silent films are very much an acquired taste for the modern viewer -- heck, it took me long enough. But remarkable job of editing though it was, there's just no comparison between the less-than-90-minutes version and the original, if you're at all familiar with the former. The restoration flows better, and the characters' motivations make much more sense. Particularly Rotwang's intense hatred of Joh Fredersen and his son, Freder.

BTW, if H. G. Wells had been as obnoxiously litigious as Harlan Ellison, he could have sued the pants off Lang and Harbou. The image of Metropolis may have been inspired by Lang's first sight of New York, but Harbou's script clearly borrows heavily from Wells' novel When the Sleeper Wakes. For that matter, you can look at Freder's role of Mediator between Hands and Brain as a way of avoiding the evolutionary trap which produced the Eloi and Morlocks, in The Time Machine.

Sorry to ramble on, but as you can see, this is a subject dear to my heart. I enjoyed your review, though I hope you won't mind if I point out that you have your chronology wrong wrt Hitler and Lang.

I don't know how big a fan of the film Der Fuhrer was, but it was his Minister of Propaganda, Joseph Goebbels, who offered to make Lang head of the German Cinema Institute, and that was in 1933, not 1927, the year Metropolis debuted in Berlin. (Lang, btw, was only Jewish on his mother's side, and she converted to Catholicism when he was 12. Not that that would have made much difference to the Nazis, if they wanted to come after him.)

In that same year of 1933, Lang was divorced from Thea von Harbou, at least partly because of her favorable attitude toward the Nazis. After turning down Dr. Goebbels' offer, he wisely figured he shouldn't linger in Germany. That was when he fled to Paris, and then, a year later, moved to the U.S.