This is probably the timeliest entry into my blog (which, when you’re talking about 1927, it’s pretty tough to find something timely). Metropolis is an epic story of the tension between rich and poor. A privileged young man, Freder (played by Gustav Frohlich) begins to see how the other half lives through his obsession with a noble and innocent schoolteacher, Maria (played wonderfully by Brigitte Helm). There is also an important subplot involving a scientist named Rotwang (Rudolph Klein-Rogge). He has created a mechanical woman to replace his lost love, who had chosen Freder’s father over him. The visual image of the robot is probably the most well known of the movie.
I’m always interested in Sci-Fi movies from a historical standpoint. I love the idea of trying to figure out what people in past think the future will like (Metropolis takes place 100 years from when it was made, so about 15 years from now). It is sometimes easy to understand what occupies the minds of people by looking into the ways they think the future will suck. However, Metropolis is more than a cultural study, it is a cultural touchstone. It is beautiful and grand and in many ways is the prototype for the science fiction film. Pristine towers inhabited by the wealthy loom over the underground city of the poor and the people of the two classes only interact superficially with one another. It is an indictment of both power relationships and class struggle. Freder learns that he must become the link between his rich father and the working class and teach both sides that they can work together. Rather than engage in violent class struggle, Metropolis suggests that the two groups in conflict can and should compromise.
It is the timeliest entry because we can now see the full film for the first time in decades. I read once that only about 20% of movies from the silent era survived. There are a number of reasons for this. Movies were edited differently for different censorship boards around the country and around the word, leaving whole chunks missing from existing prints. They were also considered fairly disposable and would often be discarded by theater owners when new movies arrived. Lastly, silent movies were filmed on nitrate-based film stock. Nitrate shrinks over time (this is why images in silent movies are often shaky or seem to “jump” while you’re watching them. It is also highly flammable and for years after the silent era stores of archived movies in studio lots would catch file, destroying the negatives of the movies (also see my post on Nosferatu for a discussion of this). Metropolis was a victim of these factors. A dramatic failure upon its release, the movie was edited down by the studio and changed dramatically. Much of the original release was thought lost forever.
In 2008 a complete version of the movie was discovered in a South American film archive and after two years of restoration is now showing in theaters all over the country. I’m going to see it at the Brattle Theater in Cambridge this weekend and I haven’t been this excited to see a movie in a long time (Return of the Jedi springs to mind). I encourage you to check out www.kino.com and look to see if the movie is playing anywhere near you. You’ll be seeing a classic film that no one has viewed (in its original form) in over 80 years.
Metropolis is grand and beautiful. The ending is a little hokey but the performances are strong (particularly Helm) and you are seeing a director at the height of his considerable creative powers with complete control over his art. I’m REALLY excited to finally see the complete version of the movie this weekend.
After seeing the reconstructed, full version of Metropolis I felt it necessary to add an addendum to my previous post.
Because I knew there had been some damage done to the recovered scenes I was initially concerned that there would be a jarring inconsistency. My fears that the relative sharpness would detract from the experience proved misplaced. It was actually an interesting experience to know exactly which scenes were taken out and how their inclusion added to the film.
I had forgotten how amazing Karl Freund’s cinematography is in many of the great German and American movies of the late silent/early sound era (yes, I do have a favorite cinematographer). His camera work on Metropolis is amazing. Some of the lost shots really add dimension to the characters that didn’t exist before. For instance, in one particular scene, Joh Fredersen receives disturbing news and a lost shot shows his pained expression, with his back to the rest of the characters. He collected himself and revealed none of this emotion when he turned around. This is the only shot that was kept, keeping the audience from knowing that he was not, in fact, completely heartless.
The most gripping lost section of the film is easily the mob of children trying to escape from drowning in the underground city. The scenes are terrifying and overwhelming, with children crawling all over one another and an almost crushing Maria. The scenes felt so dangerous that one of the people I saw the movie with commented that there must have been zero child labor laws because the mass of little children would have led to many of them getting hurt. Brigitte Helm looked genuinely frightened during the scenes.
The movie takes on an interesting dimension knowing the political persuasion of its writer. As I mentioned earlier, writer Thea Von Harbou was married to the director Fritz Lang (and divorced from co-star Rudolph Klein-Rogge). She and Lang would split a few years later because she embraced Nazi-ism and the Third Reich and Lang did not, fleeing to the United States. In our culture it is normal for us to conceive of class struggle as confrontational and/or violent. I think this might be a product of class being viewed through a Marxist lens (whether one is a Marxist or not, the modern concepts of class distinctions owes a lot to Marxist theorists). This film postulates that the classes should work together and completely disregards or denies class struggle. The working class in this film is infantile, easily led, and prone to outbursts of mob mentality. I wondered as I was watching it whether it was a fundamentally conservative movie, especially knowing just how far to the right Von Harbou would go in the next few years. I don’t know if that is the correct interpretation (and I’m sure that there are actually many interpretations) but knowing that she came from such an anti-Marxist background added another layer to my thought process.
I loved the re-release. My wife, Kelley, commented (and I agree) that even though she knew how the movie ended, she still felt tense while watching parts of it. If you have the chance to see one of the re-releases in the theater, I highly recommend it. It is a wonderful movie.
Why this was a hard decision (other movies from 1927 worth seeing):
The Cat and the Canary is a wonderful dark comedy directed by German expressionist Paul Leni. It is the story of a group of people who must spend the night in a haunted house inherited from a rich uncle and, although this seems overdone now, it was rather new at the time. The General is considered by many to be Buster Keaton’s best movie (although I prefer Steamboat Bill, Jr.). It’s the story of a Southerner during the American Civil War who must defend his train, “The General,” from Northern invaders. I will say that I have gotten a little sick of the Grand Army of the Republic always being the bad guys in movies. It isn’t true to say that Al Jolson’s The Jazz Singer was the first “sound movie.” Other movies had used synchronized soundtracks and other short movies had used recorded dialogue, but it did open the door for the sound era (there’s also surprisingly little dialogue in the movie, it is mostly a silent film with some musical numbers). Clara Bow is the personification of the flapper in It. She’s got “it,” even if we’re not exactly sure what “it” is. I almost forgot to mention The Unknown, starring Lon Chaney and Joan Crawford. Directed by Tod Browning (who is ALWAYS wonderful) it is the story of an armless knife thrower and his beautiful assistant, who can’t stand to be touched by a man. Unfortunately, he has a dark secret.
Did you know? (1927 Trivial knowledge)
“Wait a minute, wait a minute, you ain’t heard nothin’ yet.” Al Jolson in The Jazz Singer, ushering in the sound era (I never said it had to be a quote from the movie I picked.)
Which Version did I watch?
The Kino version from the Fritz Lang box set.