Saturday, October 24, 2015

CANON OF FILM: "METROPOLIS"

METROPOLIS (1927)

Director: Fritz Lang
Screenplay: Fritz Lang and Thea von Harbou based on the novel by Thea von Harbou



I’ve written about “Metropolis” several times over the years now. When I first wrote on Fritz Lang’s masterpiece, “Metropolis,” I made note of the films missing footage, calling it “probably lost forever,” that was when I originally wrote this Canon of Film article, long before I had a blog to post it on. Well, an amazing film find occurred in Buenos Aires, Argentina, when a 16mm print of “Metropolis,” was found, not in the best condition, but included several of the missing scenes, including the reveal of Rotwang’s (Rudolf Klein-Rogge) statue to Hel, the worker’s (Erwin Biswanger) night out on the town while disguised as Joh (Alfred Abel), and maybe most amazingly, the scenes of the flooding of the underground workers’ city and the saving of the town’s children. When I reviewed that version of the film in one of my earliest of earliest review blogs, I called it  “The greatest historical find in the history of cinema.” Eh, I might have been pushing it there a bit, but it’s definitely one of the most important. Some of the movie remains missing, but what we discovered is that the footage, while not perfect, in fact at 16mm, it’s not even in the right format (It should be in 35mm), it makes the movie only that much more mysterious than it once was. 

Widely considered the first great science-fiction film, the influence upon the genre that “Metropolis,” has contributed can be seen in everything from “Frankenstein” to “Blade Runner” to, well just about every other sci-fi film ever made, and that’s only where you begin to analyze it’s influence. The villain with some sort of paralysis alone… in fact, Peter Sellers’s black glove he wore for “Dr. Strangelove…” was influenced by Rotwang’s missing hand in this film. The movie itself was remade as a Japanese anime a few years ago. It is also about five times more hallucinogenic than LSD, and if you think I’m kidding, I’d cautiously tell you the only way you’ll know if I am, is to watch it yourself. Just don’t do the stupid thing I did and watch it at one o’clock in the morning. 

The film is about the two worlds of the upper class who live above the above the ground in a glorious future city, which is made from special effects using models and mirrors which are especially amazing considering when the film was made, and the slaves that live/work under the city and work day and night keeping the city above ground working. The clocks underground show only 10 hours, so as to cram in an extra work day. Johhan, the son of the dictator (Gustav Frohlich) of the city who lives in the New Tower of Babel suddenly becomes intrigued by the underground world of the workers after he sees Maria (Brigitte Helm) while relaxing at the pleasure palace. Following her down to the underground where she is considered a saintly religious creature by the workers underground. Seeing not only the machines of the workers, as well as the symmetrical unconscious movements of workers as they’re actions are as patterned as the machines they’re working with is astonishing to watch. When Johhan sees them, his mind starts seeing one machine as a vast lion mouth with all of the workers walking into it blindly. The actual story of how this movie ends up is a little too ridiculous to explain in any logical terms, with the entire upper city being flooded while the workers are led to a revolt by a robot Maria, who then is burned at the stake, (And those are real flames b.t.w.!) but the movie isn’t about logic as much as the perils of technology, and much sci-fi is about, and in this case, the entire movie is about the hypnotic, machine-like movements of the workers of se machine, and the hypnotic, sleepwalking lives of them. With the entire film being hallucinogenic in this sort of way, the events of the film will make sense. 

The film was always constantly growing, in influence, and in its mysteriousness. Now, with the additional scenes put back in, in addition to a new score, we now have a clearer sense of Lang’s original vision, and the movie grows ever more the more we learn about. On this viewing, the symbolic parts of the film become far more elaborate, and play a bigger role throughout the film. I also more fully realize that Brigette Helm’s performance has to be ranked as one of the best of the silent era, playing the double role of Maria, the saintly guidance of the workers and the robot Maria where she plays a wonderfully overacting deviant, sexually-charged devilish vamp that leads the town close to Armageddon. Maybe the most extraordinary is the use of extras, which play as big a role in this movie as the main actors. There were 27,000 of them, and they get used. How did they even find all those kids that they then nearly flooded with water? Much less the adults of the workers and the upper city. During the climatic scenes at the end, these large groups of extras running throughout the city, every which way, this must’ve been a nightmare to shoot, but boy was it worth it. Especially when those same places where the extras passed are then passed by one or two of the protagonists, the many and the few counteracting each other. Today, they’d used the same extras over and over again, and then use special effects and cutting tricks to make it seem like more people were there. In a movie filled with top of the line special effects (for that era), it’s where Lang didn’t use them that amazes us most. The movie just grows more mysterious with each new version. Miracle upon miracles, hopefully, whatever’s left missing will one day be found, but I was happy we had the version that existed, and now, it’s just gravy.  

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