Sunday, December 29, 2013
(March 1927, U.S.)
In the history of German expressionism, no film, perhaps other than THE CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI (1920) has embedded itself as a stunning crown achievement than Fritz Lang's epic science fiction film of METROPOLIS. It's also possible that no other film in history has been so painstakingly restored over the decades. The particular version that I'm discussing now is the 2002 restored version released by Kino International. To its credit, the 2010 version restores a great deal of extra footage that was lost since its original release, but in my opinion, is practically unwatchable due to its poor picture quality. In other words, I'd rather be without parts of a film than have to sit through them in any sub-standard quality.
One need not exactly be a true sci-fi geek to genuinely understand and appreciate the influence METROPOLIS has had on many other science fiction classics over the course of time. One only need to study some of the film's stunning, iconic black and white images to understand its visual influences on the years of motion picture history that would inevitably follow. Here's a few photo examples...
Can you possibly imagine that the city of Los Angeles of 2019 in BLADE RUNNER (1982) would have looked the way it does without the influence of METROPOLIS? Would Gotham City in Tim Burton's original BATMAN (1989) look the way it does without the influence of METROPOLIS? Would the future of the city and society in THE MATRIX (1999) look the way it does without the influence of METROPOLIS? Hell, can you picture George Lucas designing See-Threepio to look the way he does without the influence of METROPOLIS (just look at the movie poster above to see what I'm talking about)? Sometimes I can't help but wonder if the Pink Floyd song, "Welcome to the Machine" would exist without the influence of METROPOLIS? Yes, it's safe to say that this film is nothing short of a pioneer work in science fiction and in visual storytelling; a true work of cinematic art at its best!
The time is the future (no specific year is given) and wealthy industrialists rule the vast city of Metropolis from high-rise tower complexes, while a much lower class of underground-dwelling workers toil painfully and constantly to operate the machines that provide the city's power. The Master of Metropolis is the ruthless Joh Fredersen (played by Alfred Abel), whose son Freder (played by Gustav Fröhlich) idles away his time in a pleasure garden with the other children of the equally rich. Freder is unexpectedly interrupted by the arrival of a young woman named Maria (played by Brigitte Helm), who has brought a group of workers' children to see the privileged lifestyle being led by the rich. Maria and the children are quickly ushered away, but Freder is fascinated by her, nonetheless, and descends to the workers' city in an attempt to find her. Finding himself in the machine rooms, he watches in horror as one of the machines explodes, causing injury and death to many. Appalled by this, Freder informs his father of the tragedy, who shows no signs of concern or remorse. As the wealthy ruler of the lower class, Fredersen believes in his own place at the top of the world while the lowly workers belong only at the bottom, their tragic plights not a concern of his. In an attempt to "find his place" among the common people, Freder trades clothes and lives with one of the workers. Like the workers, he also falls under the social spell of Maria, who preaches only for peace among all of society's people.
Now, like many other science fiction stories, enter the bad guy...the evil scientist! The inventor know as Rotwang (played by Rudolf Klein-Rogge) is also a man who'd been madly in love with a woman named Hel, who left him to marry Fredersen. She also died giving birth to Freder. As a result, he's since built a grand robot in order to attempt to "resurrect" her image and her memory. By kidnapping Maria and scientifically transferring her physical image and her mind into the robot, Maria is now re-created in the body of that robot with a message of hate and destruction rather than love and peace. It's here that we truly learn of humankind's basic need to be led. The workers of the city's underworld seem more than willing to be led by messages of social disorder by the "fake" robot-like Maria as much as they were willing to be led by messages of social harmony by the true Maria. Only Freder, who loves the real Maria, knows of the phony switch that's taken place at the hands of Rotwang.
(excuse me while I take a breath for a moment. This is a whole lot to take in and interpret!)
The themes of social order, disorder and revolution are more than clear in METROPOLIS in the message that those who control the machines of the functioning city have the power to destroy such machines, and as a result, destroy themselves, as well. Society's ignorance and deception by the machine (the fake robot Maria) leads to inevitable chaos and destruction of Metropolis, putting the lives of the children at risk along the way. It's only through patience and listening that the enraged mob of society can finally learn the truth of their situation and save the lives of their children, as well as their precious city. And like many other films where the plot yearns to teach valuable lessons, the man of power who controls the lives of those who have none inevitably comes to terms with the harmful consequences of his actions and rises above his own power to be at one with the people. The film itself preaches its own words, "The mediator between head and hands must be the heart!" The film's hero, Freder, serves as such a heart to join hands between the head of power and the hands of its workers.
Fritz Lang's influence for the film was born apparently from his first sight of the skyscrapers of New York City in 1924. Describing his first impressions of the city, Lang felt that its buildings seemed to be a "vertical sail, scintillating and very light, a luxurious backdrop, suspended in the dark sky to dazzle, distract and hypnotize". The appearance of the city in the film is strongly informed by the Art Deco movement; however it also incorporates elements from other architectural traditions that are equally eclectic. Its locales, such as Rotwang's archaic little house with its high-powered laboratory, the underground catacombs and the great Gothic cathedral represent a sense of "functionalist modernism". There are heavy Biblical sources at work here, as well. During her first sermon to the workers, Maria uses the story of the Tower of Babel to highlight the discord between the high intellectuals and the workers. Additionally, a delusional Freder imagines the fake , robot Maria as the Whore of Babylon, riding on the back of a many-headed dragon. Were I a religious man, I might have a better understanding of these Biblical references. However, as an atheist, I've only the teachings of cinema to inform me.
With enough research, one will discover many stories behind the making of METROPOLIS. One story in particular that's always fascinated me is that of Adolph Hitler's strong admiration and regard for this film. So strong it was that he desired Fritz Lang as his first choice to become the lead producer and studio head of films of Germany in 1933. Hitler felt that Lang's films, especially METROPOLIS, embodied the ideas that he (Hitler) wished to use within his propaganda campaign in order to promote himself and the rising Nazi party. Lang, fearing his life since his mother was Jewish, fled to America, loathing every ideal that Hitler and Nazi Germany represented. Lucky for him and lucky for Hollywood in the years to come.
Favorite line or dialogue:
Grot: "Who told you to attack the machines, you idiots?! Without them you'll all die!!"