Just lately, it was my birthday! And to add to all the real life goals and challenges that that brings, I’ve created at least one as it relates to movies and this blog–watch a film I’ve never seen before which came out in each year of the fifty years before I was born, and then write a bit about it. This is Post #7.
Directed by Fritz Lang
Release Year: 1927 (43 years before I was born)
What it is about: In a futuristic dystopian city beset by sharp class differences, Freder Fredersen, the son city planner Joh Fredersen, wakes up to his life of privilege thanks to Maria, a woman who preaches to the working class about the coming of a mediator who will heal the societal fractures.
His father orders Rotwang, an inventor (and former rival for the affections of Freder’s mother), to use a robot he has created to drive a wedge between Freder and Maria. However, Rostang turns his robot into a duplicate of Maria, and uses it to stir the working classes into an open revolt in order to destroy his rival’s city. The working classes riot and destroy the machines which run the city, flooding the subterranean world where the workers live. When the workers realize they’ve been duped, they burn the false Maria on a pyre. Rostang kidnaps the real Maria, but Freder is able to save her and Rostang falls to his death. Freder becomes the prophesied mediator who will help to bring the workers and the planners of Metropolis together.
Starring Gustav Fröhlich as Freder Fredersen, Brigitte Helm as Maria / the Machine, Alfred Abel as Joh Fredersen, Rudolf Klein-Rogge as Rotwang, Theodor Loos as Josaphat (Freder’s friend and his father’s former employee), Erwin Biswanger as Georgy (a worker whom Freder changes place with), Fritz Rasp as the Thin Man (Joh Fredersen’s spy) and Heinrich George as Grot (chief worker in charge of the Heart Machine).
My impressions of this movie before I watched it: I knew that Metropolis was a silent science fiction film directed by Fritz Lang (who I was familiar with through M), and I’d seen pictures that told me it included some sort of feminine robot, but that’s it.
Reality: A little bit ago I watched and wrote about Safety Last, the first silent film I watched in this series. I mentioned how I didn’t really have much understanding of the historical and artistic background for the film. Well, watching Metropolis and I feel the same, only much more intensely. It’s immediately apparent this is a film not just from another time period, but a whole other cultural context than what I’m most familiar with.
What is apparent though is how impressive a production this movie is. There is nothing small going on–Metropolis is a big film, with giant set pieces and hundreds of extras moving in rhythm to stylized choreography, or being flooded by mountains of water, or being trampled in a riot–all of which highlights the movie’s themes and ideas.
And those themes are manifold, including things like the dehumanizing effect of automation, the struggle between classes, the sacrificial results of capitalism, the madness of worshiping death, and most plainly of all, the idea that “The mediator between head and hands must be the heart!” (something that is written right on the screen). To convey these ideas the film utilizes imagery that is biblical, Marxist, expressionistic, mythological, art deco and gothic, all thrown on the screen in a way that could be described as bold, or operatic, or passionate, but never subtle.
Consider for example the film’s presentation of the lives of its world’s workers–forever drudging through a tedious existence, pouring their sweat and blood into keeping machines working by basically acting like machines themselves, relentlessly repeating their task through the hours of their shift until they can finally find respite at the end of the day. The film’s main character even hallucinates at one point that the workers are offering themselves to Moloch–a Canaanite deity who is mentioned in the Bible, in connection to the detestable practice of child sacrifice.
Or later, there is the scene where Maria tells the a version of the story of the Tower of Babel to her listeners. As she speaks, the story itself is presented on-screen with theatrical spectacle, but specifically applied to the events of the movie. In particular the story ends up being about the dynamic tensions that exists between the city’s planners (“the mind”) and the city’s workers (“the hands”).
These scenes are audacious–full of enormous visuals, expensive effects and bold metaphors. Indeed, the whole movie is like this, and not just in terms of size or expense. The acting itself is strongly expressionistic, even by silent film standards. Emotions are often not just clear, but demanding–at times they walk right up the audience, take off their glove and slap you in the face. At times, this took some getting used to, especially in the early parts of the film. But by the time that we got the Machine Man imbued with Maria’s face, it was easier to accept. Brigitte Helm is unbelievably creepy as the transformed android, with her extreme facial expressions and contorted body language really conveying something inhuman and monstrous.
I say I haven’t seen Metropolis before, but after watching it I felt like I had. There are so many elements which have been borrowed or homaged in other works–I just didn’t know where they’d come from. So if you’ve seen the city in the Fleischer Superman cartoons of the 40’s, or C-3PO in Star Wars, or the opening of Joe vs. the Volcano, or the ending of Batman (1989), or even the mad scientist scenes of Frankenstein…then you’ve seen the hand of Metropolis, reaching through the ages and exerting its influence.
Incidentally, my journey to watch Metropolis was quite tricky. Thinking it was in the public domain, I found it on Youtube. Unfortunately, this version lacked English subtitles, so I found a document online that had a translation which I referred to whenever I needed to. Later, though, I found an English subtitled-version on Youtube. Still later, I realized this movie is not in the public domain (it used to be, but changes in laws have retroactively put it back there). Since I try to pay for things that are supposed to be paid for, I rented it on iTunes. But that version didn’t have a a musical soundtrack. So…having put my money into the till, I went back to the Youtube version and finished it off there!
That’s all pretty complicated but compared to the story of us even having this movie to watch, it’s simplicity itself. For years, it was largely missing, with only snippets available. Different scenes were found at different times and edited together in different ways. More recently, more footage was discovered, as well as original documentation that allowed for the film to be put back together pretty closely to how it was originally presented. Even so, there are still apparently two sequences that are missing and are replaced with inter-titles summarizing the events. All that to say for a long time this pretty significant piece of film history was unavailable, and it’s only because a lot of people worked really hard at it that one can just go stream it nowadays.
So…when you get down to it, what did I think? Metropolis was a hard movie for me to get into–the imagery was fascinating from the get-go, but the story took some time to become engaging. The idea of young Freder Fredersen’s awakening to the plight of those below him in the social order is interesting theoretically, but the presentation left me a bit bored. But as the movie continued, it grew on me, and by the time we get to the last hour it became a gripping and suspenseful action drama with layers of social commentary still running through. The whole thing is quite the amazing achievement and is well worth a look.
See here for the Master List.