Friday, January 8, 2010

Film #2: Metropolis (1927)

Release Year: 1927

Country: Germany

Times Previously Seen: 1 (about 3 years ago)

The Story: Metropolis tells the story of a dystopian future in which the elite live in radiant splendor high above the earth, while the laborers toil endlessly on massive machines underground. Freder, the highly privileged son of Joh Fredersen, the creator and operator of the city, meets Maria, a woman of the people who has a dream of bringing together the two disparate parts of society. He plans to help her peacefully dissolve his father's constant repression of the workers. Freder's father learns of this and enlists the aid of the mad scientist/warlock Rotwang, who builds an android doppelganger of Maria. Unbeknownst to Joh Fredersen, Rotwang wants to destroy the entire city as cold revenge for Fredersen's having stolen Rotwang's one true love years past. Rotwang's robot impersonator sows discord so strongly that the workers rise up in armed rebellion, wreak complete havoc, and nearly annihilate the city. Maria and Freder eventually emerge to uncover the lies, calm both sides, vanquish Rotwang and his mechanical minion, and bring the two halves of society together.

My Gut Reaction: (Done before doing any research on the making or history of the film)

"The mediator between the head and the hands must be the heart."

This is the opening and closing statement of the film, and there's nothing very subtle about how the film steers you right towards this preachy message. Still, this isn't what immediately stands out. What does is just how much more advanced and artistic this film looks when compared to it's contemporaries. Having just watched the 1924 Buster Keaton comedy Sherlock, Jr., the contrast was stunning. Going from a silly little guy running across the tops of trains to massive and angular expressionist sets, elaborate costumes, and a weighty orchestral music score told me not to expect too many chuckles.

Going back to the original epigram on "the head, hands and heart," it was appropriate to me as a viewer. While watching Metropolis, my heart couldn't get into a film with themes that have been used again and again in science fiction, despite my head telling me that it was all highly innovative and thought-provoking in 1927. In the end, my head won out and prevented my hands from ejecting the DVD from the player mid-movie. Metropolis was, quite obviously, a marvel in its day. The themes of class divisions, the struggle of the worker, and the attempts to find peaceful reconciliation were all still very much at the forefront of the developed world's consciousness in that period. I can appreciate this, but as a man born in 1975, they aren't as relevant in film to me any more.

Director: "Remember, you have to look really crazy!!"

In addition to the now-stale themes is the acting. Silent films, of course, require a very high degree of physical exaggeration in both facial expressions and overall body language. I'm sure viewers of the day barely noticed, if at all. Watching now, though, it just looks goofy in a drama. It's one thing when it's a silent era comedy, which is supposed to be over-the-top in terms of physical acting; it's another thing when I'm supposed to gain sympathy for or against the characters. Dramatic film acting has simply evolved far too much to take the silent-era style at all seriously. I know some modern aficionados of silent films can ignore this, or even like it, but not me.

While watching Metropolis, the other obvious area in which films have progressed is in overall sophistication. When watched with a half-discriminating eye, a ton of plot holes can be found. We never know exactly how the workers can so easily mob together and destroy their own machines. If Fredersen is such a cold, calculating mastermind, how does he not anticipate such uprisings? And, of course, the way that Rotwang is foiled is through his exposition of his own plan. Seen as a modern viewer, the story gaps are glaring, and what may have been fresh elements 80 years ago now seem very hackneyed.

Lest you think that I totally despised this film, allow me to mention several things that I really enjoyed. Firstly is the look of the film. Sure, it's way too easy to see which sets are simply paintings and models, but they are pretty spectacular. The choreographed movements of the masses of proletariat are truly impressive. Here's one scene (with a really cool, redone modern score):

In addition to this and several other hypnotically striking visuals is the use of some classic standard elements of adventure stories and fairy tales. The mad scientist/wizard, Rotwang, is easily the most intriguing character, being a psychotic, one-handed genius, complete with his own sanctum which houses a laboratory, secret underground chambers, and a massive statue head that serves as a memorial to his lost love. Plenty of food for psychoanalysis, just with him alone. There's also a pretty solid climactic, rooftop fight at the end between Rotwang and Freder.

One other solid merit is that, despite the few irrelevant or overplayed themes, a highly relevant one remains: technology and its place in reducing our faith in our senses. The android Maria represents how we can get hoodwinked by what we see, just as easily as ever. Her role in this movie serves as a cautionary tale to me. What leads to the destruction of large parts of the city in Metropolis is that the masses take her for authentic simply because she looks like the genuine Maria. In our culture of celebrity worship, where many of us somehow still are surprised when seemingly decent or admirable people (as told to us by Entertainment Weekly) prove to be far less than so, we may be playing out certain aspects presented in Metropolis more than we think.

So those are my knee-jerk feelings. Metropolis is a heady film that was way ahead of its time, and its no mystery as to why it has continued to garner recognition. That being said, I now demand far more from my speculative fiction. Through no fault of its own, Metropolis has become the shoulders upon which later, more advanced films have stood.

Upon Further Review; or, Why Film Geeks Love this Movie (a closer look at the movie after doing some research)

This DVD is loaded with extras: a full running audio commentary, a 45-minute documentary on the history of the film, and other bios and photos of the filmmakers. After pouring through all of it, several things come to light.

One is that this film was quite obviously meant as pure allegory and metaphor. This is probably the best explanation as to why the characters are very one- or two-dimensional and the interpersonal storylines overly simplistic. For allegory and metaphor to work, things need to be relatively simple.

In keeping with the idea of metaphor is that literally everything in the film was meant to be symbolic. The movements, gestures, props, costumes and, especially, the characters. This, as film historian Enno Patalas said, is part of the fun of watching this kind of film. I have to agree, since this is what kept me watching. Drawing from the Bible, the occult, Freudian theories, and plenty of other sources, Metropolis contains endless fodder for analysis, some very obvious and some very subtle or vague. Every scene has something to seek out and ponder. These, as much as anything, is why the film has remained in the consciousness of movie-watchers for over 80 years. Here's what the guys at TIME magazine had to say about it.

A Bit of History

The other interesting aspect of the film is its connection to historical context. It is considered the last of German expressionist art films, with The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919) being the first. Coming out during Germany's own post-World War I "Roaring 20s," it features a lot of the flashy, angular style seen in the paintings of the day. Director Fritz Lang was quite the artiste, being a poet, writer and painter, as well as film director. Metropolis made such an impression on Hitler that, in 1933, he requested that Lang become the chief film maker for the Nazi party. Lang wasted no time in refusing, then leaving Germany, post haste.

A final interesting note is the checkered history of the editing of the film. For the longest time, no one was really sure about exactly how long the original theatrical release was. This was because it was shown for a few weeks to great success. Then, however, it was pulled and had roughly a quarter of the footage removed. Over the succeeding decades, more and more prints were lost, and more and more hatchet jobs were done on the movie, leaving viewers in the 80s and 90s with a patchwork version of the original film. Interestingly, in 2008, a complete copy of the original film was discovered in Buenos Aires, Argentina. The nearly-complete version, said to clock in at a massive three-and-a-half hours (the current version is 2 hours) will be given special premiers starting in February of this year. Film nerds are no doubt foaming at the mouth for this one. Personally, I'll probably skip out on that mammoth.

That's a wrap. Two Films down. 103 to go. Next - Sunrise (1927):

Unlike the first two films, I know absolutely nothing about this one going in. The two lovebirds in the poster look happy enough, though. We'll see if the "Song of Two Humans" advertised at the bottom of the bill makes me want to sing along or just get drunk and find some earplugs.