Lone Wolf Sullivan is a writer, songwriter, and studio musician.

Sunday, May 31, 2009

Metropolis (1927) * * *

Set in 2000, this futuristic tale shows society separated into two distinct segments: the planners or thinkers, who make plans but don't know how anything works, and the workers who achieve goals but don't have the vision. Completely separate, neither group is complete, but together they make a whole. The upper class thinkers live in the high towers of Metropolis and reap the benefits of modern technology. Lower class workers reside in the underground regions working to make the machinery operate. The main thrust of the film centers on a man from the upper class falling in love with a woman from the lower class and his revelation as to what the world is like outside of his towers.

Metropolis is a corporate city-state with extraordinary Art Deco skyscrapers where machines rule over Man and inequality is entrenched in society. The city is run by Johann "Joh" Fredersen (Alfred Abel), leader of a powerful elite living on the surface, who control and subjugate the subterranean masses. The sole purpose of these slaves is to tend enormous power stations and endless conveyor belts, providing a life of luxury for men such as Freder (Gustav Fröhlich). As the son of Joh he is free to frolic in the beautiful gardens. The sanctuary of these parks is invaded one day when young woman Maria (Brigitte Helm) brings a group of waifs into the open air. Blinking and gasping in awe at the magnificence, they are soon hurried away. Freder becomes infatuated with the beautiful worker and attempts to follow her into the darkness below.

Descending to the machine rooms in pursuit of her, he is shocked to see the workers' constant toil and exhaustion. Freder is fascinated by the robotic movements of the workers, but one of the workers collapses from exhaustion, leading to an industrial accident. An explosion at the enormous "M-Machine" shows him the callous treatment of the workers by the above-ground elite. Before the dead and wounded can be taken away, fresh men must be brought in to replace them. He visualizes the M-Machine as Moloch, who consumes a never-ending sacrifice of bodies and lives. This senseless waste of life appalls sensitive Freder and he rushes upstairs to confront his busy father. Unfortunately, not only is Joh engrossed in running the city, he has become too callous to worry about the death of a few workers. Freder should simply ignore the suffering of the teeming hordes, especially as they seem to be plotting against their masters.

Freder: It was their hands that built this city of ours, Father. But where do the hands belong in your scheme?
Joh Frederson: In their proper place, the depths.

Freder is greatly disappointed by this attitude, leaving him with no option but to join with the downtrodden workers on their backbreaking shifts. Venturing into the steam and smoke, he takes over on some demonic electricity routing device, forced to work for the first time in his life. He takes pity on a worker and trades places with him, then finds a map to an underground meeting room in the man's clothes. Here he finds Maria (Brigitte Helm), the woman he saw earlier above ground. Maria urges the gathered workers not to revolt, but to wait for the arrival of a "Mediator" who can bridge the gap between the thinkers and workers. Freder is persuaded to join the cause, and Maria begins to believe that he may be the Mediator.

Maria: There can be no understanding between the hand and the brain unless the heart acts as mediator.

Scrawled plans of a worker concern Joh deeply, leading him to consult with mad scientist C.A. Rotwang (Rudolf Klein-Rogge), an old colleague and romantic rival. Rotwang has built a Maschinenmensch, or Machine-Man--a robot on which he plans to bestow the appearance of Hel, a lover who left him for Fredersen and died giving birth to Freder. Joh sees that this is the way forward, a tireless replacement for the unsettled masses. If only he realized that his son is one of the despised and feared hordes. Fredersen shows Rotwang some more maps taken from the workers killed in the explosion. Rotwang leads him underground and the two eavesdrop on the workers' meeting. Seeing Maria, Fredersen persuades Rotwang to give the robot her face instead so that it can be used to sow discord among the men. Rotwang captures her and does as Fredersen asks, but with an ulterior motive: he will use the robot to deprive Fredersen of his son.

Maria: We shall build a tower that will reach to the stars! Having conceived Babel, yet unable to build it themselves, they had thousands to build it for them. But those who toiled knew nothing of the dreams of those who planned. And the minds that planned the Tower of Babel cared nothing for the workers who built it. The hymns of praise of the few became the curses of the many--Babel! Babel! Babel! Between the mind that plans and the hands that build there must be a Mediator, and this must be the heart.

Seeing the robot-Maria with Fredersen, Freder collapses in a sudden delirium and must be taken home. As he lies in bed and the real Maria remains imprisoned in Rotwang's house, the robot performs as an exotic dancer in the decadent Yoshiwara nightclub, sparking widespread fights among the young men in attendance. Freder snaps out of his fever and realizes that the entire city is in danger, while the robot goads the workers into a full-scale rebellion and Maria breaks loose. Still intent on allowing the workers to destroy themselves, Fredersen calls Grot (Heinrich George), the foreman of the "Heart Machine", which is the main power station of Metropolis. After Grot opens its gates on Fredersen's orders, the workers and their wives destroy the Heart Machine, causing the reservoirs to burst and flood the workers' city farther below. After Freder and Grot are unable to stop them, Freder and Maria race down to the city and rescue all the children who have been left behind there.

Man at Nightclub: For her, all seven deadly sins.

Realizing the damage they have done and believing their children to be dead, the mob turns against Maria and chases her through the surface city streets. In the confusion, the real Maria slips away to the cathedral, while the mob captures the robot and burns her at the stake. Freder is horrified by this, but he and the workers soon learn that the burned woman was actually the duplicate. Rotwang chases Maria to the roof of the cathedral, with Freder in pursuit and Fredersen watching from the ground as the two men struggle. Eventually Rotwang falls to his death and Freder and Maria return to the street. Freder then fulfills his role as Mediator, bringing Fredersen and Grot together at last.

Fritz Lang's METROPOLIS belongs to legend as much as to cinema. It is a milestone of science fiction and German expressionism. From its opening montage of meshing gears and pounding machinery it is a visual masterpiece, a riot of expressionistic imagery, with geometric patterns formed by buildings and workers showing how the two are meshed together in this future hell. Yet the story makes minimal sense, and the "theme" belongs in a fortune cookie. To experience the film's power, you have to see the movie. But for decades we couldn't with so many versions, all incomplete, often in public-domain prints like smudged and faded photocopies.

Most silent films no longer exist. For example, Theda Bara's CLEOPATRA (1917) is gone forever, with only a few fragments remaining of this famous classic. That's because the "talkies" destroyed the market for silent films, which almost nobody wants to see. Probably Charlie Chaplin is the most famous image from the silent film era, but METROPOLIS is a close second. We all have the unforgettable futuristic images indelibly imprinted in our minds.

METROPOLIS was produced in the Babelsberg Studios by Universum Film A.G. (UFA) and was the most expensive film of its time. Fritz Lang directed and co-ordinated the masterpiece, involving thousands of extras, astounding futuristic sets, and an enormous budget that nearly bankrupted the studio. Technically groundbreaking at the time, with its mixing of models and live-action, it is still impressive today. It's a world of arching expressways, fantastic skyscrapers and many airplanes. But because the architecture is designed on such a towering scale and this is a silent film, the acting is often melodramatic and extreme--the only way to project sufficient emotion. This doesn't mean that the performances are bad, only that the film is a mixture of vision, lewdness and unintended humor. It's an epic poem of urban dystopia and class warfare by a misanthropic director who had a taste for spectacular imagery that has not been aesthetically surpassed after decades of technical cinematic progress.

The cast also includes: Fritz Rasp (The Thin Man), Theodor Loos (Josaphat), Erwin Biswanger (11811), Fritz Alberti (Creative human), Grete Berger (Working woman), Olly Boeheim (Working woman), Max Dietze (Working man), Ellen Frey (Working woman), Beatrice Garga (Woman of Eternal Gardens), Heinrich Gotho (Master of Ceremonies), Dolly Grey (Working woman), Anny Hintze (Woman of Eternal Gardens), Georg John (Working man who causes explosion of M-Machine), Walter Kuehle (Working man), Margarete Lanner (Lady in car / Woman of Eternal Gardens), Rose Lichtenstein (Working woman), Hanns Leo Reich (Marinus), Arthur Reinhardt (Working man), Curt Siodmak (Working Man), Henrietta Siodmak (Working Woman), Olaf Storm (Jan), Erwin Vater (Working man), Rolf von Goth (Son in Eternal Gardens), Helen von Münchofen (Woman of Eternal Gardens), Helene Weigel (Working woman), and Hilde Woitscheff (Woman of Eternal Gardens). Gottfried Huppertz and Abel Korzeniowski composed the original music score. Giorgio Moroder composed the 1984 score. Peter Osborned composed the 1998 score. Wetfish composed the 1999 score. Bernd Schultheis composed the 2001 score. Thea von Harbou and Fritz Lang wrote the screenplay from von Harbou's novel. Fritz Lang directed.

There are multiple versions of METROPOLIS, all of which comprise various portions of the original 153 minute 1927 cut. On January 10, 1927, the 153 minute version of the film premiered in Berlin with moderate success. The film was cut and re-edited to change many key elements before screening. American and foreign theatre managers were generally unwilling to allow more than 90 minutes to a feature in their program, during a period when film attendance figures were high. METROPOLIS suffered as the original version was thought to be too long. Few people outside of Berlin saw Metropolis as Fritz Lang originally intended. In the United States, the movie was shown in a considerably shortened edited version that almost completely obscured the original plot, considered too controversial by the American distributors.

As a result of the edited versions, the original premiere cut eventually disappeared and a quarter of the original film was long believed to be lost forever. In 2001, a new 75th anniversary restoration was screened at the Berlin International Film Festival. This version, with a running time of 124 minutes, restored the original story line using stills and intertitles to bridge missing footage. It also added a soundtrack using the orchestral score originally composed by Gottfried Huppertz to go with the film. The restoration received the National Society of Film Critics Heritage Award for Restoration 2002. In June 2008, twenty to twenty-five minutes of lost footage was discovered in an archive of the Museum of Cinema in Buenos Aires, Argentina. It was believed this was a copy made of a print owned by a private collector, who brought the original cut to the country in 1928.

The American copyright lapsed in 1953, which eventually led to a proliferation of versions being released on video. Even though the versions of METROPOLIS currently available are cut down from the original release, there are several stand-out moments left intact. One of these involves Freder, when he starts hallucinating after the shocking explosion. Before his very eyes, the machine dissolves into a divine, malignant shrine, gobbling up human sacrifices and demanding more. The workers are initially seen to march in unison, but after their revolt they move like ants in a haphazard, chaotic fashion. Apart from providing memorable visuals, this achieves closure by the end when the masses are again moving in step, but this time with greater awareness.

Despite the film's reputation, some contemporary critics panned it. The New York Times called it a "technical marvel with feet of clay". The Times went on the next month to publish a lengthy review by H. G. Wells who accused it of "foolishness, cliché, platitude, and muddlement about mechanical progress and progress in general." He faulted Metropolis for its premise that automation created drudgery rather than relieving it, wondered who was buying the machines' output if not the workers, and found parts of the story derivative of Shelley's "Frankenstein", Karel Čapek's robot stories, and his own "The Sleeper Awakes".

In 1984, a new restoration and edit of the film was compiled by music producer Giorgio Moroder. The images are crisp, vibrant, and three-dimensional instead of murky and flattened. Moroder's version of the film introduced a new modern rock soundtrack for the film. Although it restored a number of previously missing scenes and plot details from the original release, his version of the film runs to only 80 minutes in length, although this is mainly due to the original intertitles being replaced with subtitles, and being run at 24 frames per second instead of the standard silent film speed of 16 frames per second. The Moroder version of METROPOLIS sparked a debate among film buffs and fans, with critics and supporters of the film falling into equal camps. There have even been petitions to get the Moroder cut alongside the uncut version for future releases on DVD and Bluray.

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