Monday, September 07, 2009
I rarely watch cinema, especially those films released in recent years. Too often, the attempt at spectacle fails to be spectacular, or there is something a bit off about the performances. Perhaps it is because I don't like sitting still for 90-120 minutes at a time. Regardless of what it is, I rarely enjoy watching films and am usually unmoved by what I watch.
But after seeing Austrian director/producer Fritz Lang's 1927 silent film, Metropolis, being promoted recently on a few sites, I decided to investigate and what I discovered intrigued me enough that I placed an order last week for the 2002 DVD that contained an 118 minute cut of the original 153 minute movie (the originals have been lost and from what I understand, this is the longest and best restored of the versions currently available). It was a wise decision, since this movie contains so many elements that I enjoy in a creative work.
Metropolis is an impressive setting, even 82 years after its original release. The set design contains elements of Art Deco and Expressionist architecture and Lang's vision of an upstairs/downstairs division between the grand bourgeoisie and the proletariat is striking. The most expensive silent film ever produced and which was released just before the first talking pictures were shown in cinemas, Metropolis depends heavily upon its visual imagery to tell its story of repression, hope, violence, and mediation. Take for instance this scene near the beginning of the movie, where the workers are going on/off their work shift:
Notice the expressions. The way the workers move, the tilt of the heads, and how the music creates a sense of drudgery. So much is being said here about the plight of the workers, now imagined to be in a future in which the elites live above ground and through their control of the machines, manage to live in a sort of Elysium, while the workers suffer and toil:
The Head (the owners, represented by Joh Fredersen) and the Hands (the workers) are not speaking the same language. There is no mediator for the two, as Lang notes in the opening title screen. But one day, Joh's son, Freder, encounters a striking young woman, Maria, who shows him the workers' children and tells him to behold his "brothers." Instantly enamored, Freder goes down into the centers of the Metropolis, the M-Machine and Heart Machine, where he encounters this horrific scene, itself the inspiration for countless films and even Rob Zombie:
From here, Metropolis hits its stride, weaving parallels between Moloch, the Tower of Babel, Christ, the Virgin, and the Harlot of Revelations into its story. The images are amazing, and Lang expertly alternates between the conflicts between father and son, between the owners and the workers, between Joh and the bereaving inventor Rotwang, and between Man and Machine. Each scene flows into the other, creating a tapestry that is moving, especially since there is this sense, looking back across the last two-thirds of the 20th century, that Metropolis contains a hope and honesty about it that was, while already injured due to the devastating Great War, shattered by World War II and the atrocities of the Holocaust. This sense of loss adds a layer of poignancy to the viewing, especially when one learns that Lang's then-wife and co-writer of the script, Thea von Harbou, was enamored with the National Socialists and later became a prominent supporter.
In some ways, there are elements that could be viewed through the lens of National Socialist thought. The argument for the liberation of the workers in the film does resonate to a degree with the Nazis' emphasis on combining elements of socialism with nationalism. But while it is fair to note there are some connections between von Harbou and National Socialism, the movie was released before the Nazis rose to prominence in Germany and that Lang certainly was not a supporter of the NSDAP due to his maternal heritage. But it is worth noting that the atmosphere and the imagery do connect with certain Modernist thought and that for this alone, Metropolis would be worth viewing as a cultural historical piece. Add to that a well-written script and excellent acting (for its medium; today it probably would be labeled as being overwrought and too melodramatic) and Metropolis ends up being a stunning vision of the future that can be unsettling to us over 80 years later. Outstanding bit of cinema.