Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Film review | Metropolis (1927)

Twilight of the Gods: Metropolis Redux

by Thomas Delapa

Of all the great silent films, few approach the curiously hip appeal of Metropolis, director Fritz Lang’s 1927 futuristic German classic. It was the Cleopatra or Heaven’s Gate of its day, nearly bankrupting the studio—Ufa—that produced it. Yet its influence, principally in Lang’s extraordinary visual design, has been monumental. More than 80 years after its release, Metropolis remains the Citizen Kane of the science-fiction film.

Despite its influence on such movies as disparate as Blade Runner, Dr. Strangelove and Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times, some present-day audiences may yet agree with the famed British author H.G. Wells, who called it a “most foolish film.” Its campy, ponderous absurdities are no less apparent in a historic new edition, which adds 25 minutes to the extant two-hour version first released in 2002.

Like too many cinematic milestones, Metropolis has suffered a long and torturous post-production history. Originally 2 1/2 hours at its Berlin premiere, it was almost immediately hacked down by its American studio backers (principally Paramount) to 90 minutes for international release. But like any good Hollywood monster, the film refused to die. It’s been resurrected several times, most notoriously in a 1984 pop version by music producer Giorgio Moroder. The latest reincarnation comes amazingly by way of Buenos Aires, where archivists in 2008 unearthed a scratchy 16mm print that’s as close to Lang’s original as exists. That print, digitally cleaned up and married to an existing 35mm master by Germany’s Murnau Foundation, has produced a 147-minute Metropolis, which premiered at the Berlin Film Festival in February and is now touring U.S. theaters.

Achtung, cinephiles: Before you jump on the autobahn, take note that this is exclusively a digital—not 35mm film—release. In Denver, for example, Lang’s masterwork screened in a tiny matchbox theater and the digital projection was a mere shadow of Lang’s (and cinematographer Karl Freund’s) richly hued black-and-whites. If this is the dystopian future of the world’s cinematic legacy, we were far better off in the reel analog past.

What’s still fascinating about Metropolis isn’t the kitschy pseudo-mythology of screenwriter Thea von Harbou (Lang’s then-wife), but its trend-setting technical innovations and deliriously Expressionist architectural pastiche. Set in the year 2000, the story itself is a rickety synthesis of Christianity, Marxism and Freud. In a stunning skyscraper city crisscrossed by elevated highways (said to be inspired by Lang’s trip to New York), a class of downtrodden workers toil away in underground factories for the moneyed elites, who lead lives of luxury and decadence in the world above. The feared “Master of Metropolis” is tycoon Joh Fredersen (Alfred Abel), a merger between John D. Rockefeller and Goldfinger.

In von Harbou’s heavy-handed allegory, relations between the owners (the “brain”) and workers (the “hands”) need a mediator (the “heart”), and her chosen one is Fredersen’s epicene son, Freder (Gustav Frolich). He sees the light on first glimpse of the saintly Maria (17-year-old Brigitte Helm) preaching a message of brotherly love amid a horde of orphans. Down to the underworld Freder goes, exchanging places with a worker while nearly crucifying himself (“Father, will ten hours never end?”) on a giant, clock-faced machine that literally demands “hands on” attention. Clocks are central to Lang’s compositional mise-en-scene, brilliantly representing how modern man has been made a slave to time.

For feminists, the alarming part of von Harbou’s script may lie with the creation of the beatific Maria’s robot doppelganger, madly brought to life by the scientist/sorcerer Rotwang (Rudolf Klein-Rogge) on Fredersen’s orders. Tapping into the dark side of the archetypal female duality, the false Maria is a sexy, leering vamp who drives men wild with lust and unleashes a Pandora’s Box of chaos onto the city. Though Fredersen’s scheme to sabotage the workers’ secret gatherings seems diabolically illogical, Lang’s visual bravura is electrifying. Along with the metallic art-deco robot, Rotwang’s laboratory—crammed with boiling beakers and flashing electrodes—virtually invented the look of the Hollywood horror and sci-fi genre, beginning with Universal’s Frankenstein in 1931. The closed-circuit surveillance cameras that Fredersen uses to spy on his minions are frightfully prophetic.

Explicitly designed to rival the 1920s Hollywood blockbusters (complete with an astounding 36,000 extras), Metropolis was engineered by a German cinema second only to America’s in status and influence. But with the film’s disastrous failure, the Ufa studio and Weimar filmmaking were toppled from their airy perch, the crowning blow arriving in 1933 with the demonic whirlwind of the Third Reich.

Classic zeitgeist-minded critics like Siegfried Kracauer have argued that movies such as Metropolis covertly portended the rise of Nazism, and keen eyes will notice just how cynically anti-democratic (as well as anti-Marxist) the film is. Lang’s downcast, machine-like masses are easily duped by the phony Maria; transformed by her hysterical, Hitlerian harangues into a mindless mob. Only the heroically individualistic efforts of Freder and the good Maria can save the city—and another horde of kids—from apocalyptic destruction.

Not uncommon in today’s “director’s cuts,” the extra scenes added to this classic are important historically, helping to unravel some gnawing plot tangles, but on the whole they subtract from the overall impact. Fringe subplots involving a spy and Fredersen’s secretary reminded me of the long, marginal “plantation scene” that director Francis Ford Coppola restored to Apocalypse Now Redux: chaff added to an already overgrown crop.

After the film’s box-office failure and re-editing debacles, Lang went on to make several more films through the crippled Ufa, triumphing in 1931 with M, his first sound film, but soon after made his getaway to the West. Legend has it, Lang’s escape from Nazi Germany (he was half-Jewish) came after a job overture from Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels. Lang eventually wound up directing in Hollywood, where he continued his career until the 1950s, though never again on the lofty, ubermensch scale of Metropolis.

Originally published in Conducive Chronicle 7/23/10

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