Monday, 10 February 2014

Metropolis (1926)

Country: Germany
Director: Fritz Lang
Starring: Brigitte Helm, Gustav Frohlich, Alfred Abel, Rudolf Klein-Rogge
Written by: Fritz Lang & Thea von Harbou (wife)
Length: 148 minutes (2010 restored version) / 153 minutes (original, lost)

Freder, son of industrialist tycoon Joh Fredersen, is disturbed by the rich-poor divide in the futuristic city of Metropolis and with the help of the beautiful Maria, searches for a way to unite the classes before a revolt takes the city down.

Considered the first great science fiction film with clear thematic and stylistic influences on films like Blade Runner, Star Wars, and The Dark Knight Rises, novels from George Orwell’s 1984 to Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, and filmmakers such as Terry Gilliam, James Cameron, and Chris Nolan. Filmed on a budget of 5 million Reichsmark with an initial box office take of 75,000 Reichsmark.

A novel written by Lang’s wife, Thea von Harbou, preceded the film and was serialized in the German paper Illustriertes Blatt in the months leading up to the premiere. On set, actors famously dealt with gruelling physical and emotional challenges, including countless takes, dangerous exposure to fire and immersion in cold water, and a robot suit for 18 year-old actress Brigitte Helm that left her battered and bruised. Studios and subsequent investors cut some scenes to shorten the film, based in part on the perception that the film endorsed political and religious views deemed inappropriate.

The original score was composed by Gottfried Huppertz but techno legend Giorgio Moroder's 1984 restored version brought in music by Freddie Mercury, Adam Ant, Pat Benatar and others. 25 lost minutes were restored in the 2010 restoration.

It's impossible to ignore that Metropolis hit theatres a mere 25 years after the hitherto-groundbreaking Voyage dans la lune by French director Georges Méliès: mind-blowing proof of the light-years leap in evolution film had taken in a very short time. By just about any measure you can mention - theme, tone, narrative, acting, set design, cinematography, special effects, editing - Metropolis set a benchmark not only transcending the films that went before, but that filmmakers are still trying to emulate today.  

I loved this movie. Just sit back and let the first ten minutes run and you'll be hooked. Workers end their exhausting ten-hour shift in the "machine" and shuffle to their homes in unison, dour, long-faced, purposeless. Pull back for a view of Metropolis' eye-popping gothic and Art Deco cityscapes (rumoured to have been influenced by a trip the director took to New York in 1924), and behold a future utterly brimming with hope for some while cruelly withholding it from most.

Poignant biblical references comparing the business world to the Tower of Babel and the exploitation of workers to the ancient human sacrifices offered to the god Moloch resonate today in the ongoing battle between the 1% and 99%. Perhaps, as some critics have suggested over the years, the film's resolution is a bit childish and simplistic, but the socio-economic issues it addresses were never truer, as evidenced in similarly-themed films like Brazil, Land of the Dead, Avatar, and The Hunger Games.
Meanwhile, the film is a beauty to behold, German expressionism in full bloom: massive, surreal sets that effectively suck you in and make you feel small, worker shifts that are more choreographed stage dance than labour, and a handful of composite shots that feel like nightmares on acid.

Geek bonus: Metropolis anticipates the eventual arrival of TV, video chat, advanced robotics, artificial intelligence, cloning, and C-3P0.

 Great, I thought as we pressed play, another silent film. But from the very first scene I was impressed! At its core, the story is solid with themes still relevant today. This was clearly the beginning of sci-fi as we know it, with obvious influences on films like The Island and Demolition Man

I loved the idea that the uniting of society's feuding elements - the "mind" of management and the "hand" of labour - requires the "heart" of common sense, compassion, and skillful negotiation.

Lady bonus: While Freder is the story's protagonist, it is Maria and her evil doppelganger who steal the show by presenting a charismatic and sexually powerful woman in control of pretty much everything going on. Fritz Lang, your wife's a genius!

1 comment:

  1. Good idea kids! And you're both more photogenic than the average film scribe.