BFI Days Of Fear & Wonder Sci-Fi Season – Metropolis (1927)
Back in the deep midst’s of ancient time when I undertook my Film Studies A level we studied two specific and deeply influential areas of film history – Italian Neo-Realism and German Expressionism. Given the gothic and ghoulish framing of the latter I naturally gravitated more to those pre War Teutonic terrors rather than the sparse social realism of Vittoria De Sica or Roberto Rossellini, as much as the likes of Scorsese has championed their emotional achievements. I remember being rather perturbed that as part of the coursework of the examination we had to complete no less than six 1,500 word essays – two on each movement, two on films of our choice – an insurmountable Everest of word arranging over the nine month study period. Ah, the sweet follies of youth eh as such consternation makes me chuckle, if I set my mind to it I can throw together a 1,500 review in a couple of hours and have managed to churn out at least one article a week for the past few years. Why am I sharing this fascinating historical insight with you? Well, as you may have guessed one of the key films of the period that we covered was Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, the 1927 harbinger of things to come, a piece which intersects like a perfectly automated shaft piece between my continuing BFI Days Of Fear & Wonder coverage and my neglected Lang season, a piece which it amuses me to reconsider in the light of my initial academic instincts – hey, I did get a straight A on this essay if my turgid memory isn’t malfunctioning like a defective droid.
Metropolis is an immensely influential picture in terms of the sheer bewildering scale and fathomless resources lavished on the production. There were thousands of extras (36,000 to be exact) toiling under the whiplash of Lang’s monocled gaze, all garbed in ornate and elaborate costumes (over 200,000 to be less exact) and millions of sq. feet of shooting stages. If the most precious resource in filmmaking is time then Lang was similarly blessed with an unprecedented full year of shooting which is just astounding for the period, although D.W. Griffith and Cecil B DeMille may have set the spectacle quotient high with their California lensed epics the Germans were nipping at their heels, with the full resources and professionalism on the magnificent UFA studios being wielded by Lang to craft one of the key films of the decade. Let the record show that this was a digital screening of the restored 150 minute cut of the interpositive 35mm print was discovered in Argentina a few years ago – now there’s a sentence that will get cinephiles gasping in anticipation – restoring the film to almost the full glory of Lang’s original 1927 premiere version of the film. It goes without saying that subsequent versions screened over the decades have been Frankenstein hybrids stitched together from numerous sources of varying quality, perhaps most famously the Giorgio Moroder’s 1984 rescored version introducing the film to a new generation of fans. The opening angular, art deco designed roaring engines and pounding pistons establish the films futurist industrial bend, the workers leaving the angular confines of the factory in a symmetrical slavery of the early 20th century.
The Soviet revolution was still fresh in the imagination of world and Marxist allegories infected the literature and art movements of the era, in this parable the scheming master of Metropolis is Joh Fredersen (Alfred Abel) whose engineered social divisions separate the gilded elite from the oppressed workers who toil away in the industrial hellscapes of the lower city levels. Fredersen’s son Freder (Gustav Fröhlich) tires of idling away his tedious life in the heavenly plateaus of the pleasure gardens, so the arrival of a young woman named Maria (Brigitte Helm) with a soot soaked group of workers’ children piques his curiosity beyond his sheltered privilege. Although Maria and the tykes are quickly ushered away Freder descends to the proletariat levels in a lusty attempt to find her, setting in industrious motion a chain of events which may lead to an intellectual and political revolution…..Although Maria and the tykes are quickly ushered away Freder descends to the proletariat levels in a lusty attempt to find her.
Mad scientists, emotionless automatons and severe social strife, what more does a SF classic need? In a rather convoluted manner Brigitte Helm is transformed in the film into one of the first iconic screen robots, with a design that spray tanned gold and afflicted with an estrogenic empathy chip might just have inspired a certain Lucasfilm legend. That SF trope of the trampled workers arising against their gilded, obscenely wealthy corporate overlords is not just a film trope but a common plot generator across a myriad of media, a buried proletariat fantasy which remains urgent to this day in the likes of Bong Jong-ho’s Snowpiercer – the more things change the more they stay the same. What has changed is the sophistication of the delivery system, as class consciousness and political pandering tends to be buried in a films DNA rather than trumpeted from a monologing maiden, in Metropolis the films rather juvenile plea of urging the mediation between the head (the industrialists) and the hand (the proletariat) must be the heart (the bourgeois) – that’s not exactly a Nietzichian insight now is it?
The film was clearly a influence on Chaplin and his rather literal lecture Modern Times with the human circuits trapped in the steam bellowing Gehenna of the industrial monster, not to mention the mad scientist Rotwang’s bubbling beaker filled surgery reminds one not just of Whale’s Frankenstein, but also Nolan’s The Prestige, with Bowie’s electricity wielding Nicoli Tesla heralding a new age of progress and danger. With those souls sacrificed to the relentless march of energy and so called civilization progress you can maybe read the film as some ancient, hieroglyphic sustainability screed, but given the proximity of the Nazi machine many have read those image of dark garbed masses marching into bellowing industrial ovens in an altogether more potent and powerful reappraisal. Although historians and scholars have recently begun to question Lang’s claim that Goebbels summoned him to the Reich Chancellery a decade later and offered him the full resources of the empire to continue his work for the Fuhrer (and his reaction which you can see here) his then wife and co-writer of the film Thea Von Harbeau was a committed Nazi, and they parted ways on that clandestine evening.
This being Lang’s early masterpiece that intersection of the strong, powerful architectural angles erects the ambient visual techniques of his entire career, as it ambled off the production line in the same year as Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin this was quite a inspirational year for the art form – no doubt wiser souls than me have given the whole compare and contrast examination. I always find it fascinating to turn what modest critical credentials I’ve sharpened over the years to silent film as the grammar and pacing is just so modulated and alien to contemporary eyes. The wide eyed expressive performances, the signaling soundtracks, the tempo of the editing can all be quite difficult to accept, but once you settle into the ocean of the film it swamps you in pure wonder and sensation. Because there is no dialogue other than the odd interlacing title the emphasis is all on the image, the imagination and will of marshalling enormous resources to capture that succession of paintings that Lang transmitted from his curious brain. It is written in the stars that Lang is the godfather of SF cinema alongside Melies and his iconic classic La Voyage Dans Le Lune, without Metropolis there would be no Blade Runner, no 2001: A Space Odyssey, no Avatar and no Star Wars, it set the mould and tensed the tone and shape of things to come, a monumental, eternal marvel;