Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Thoughts on "Metropolis" (1927)




With the exception of my brief look at From Here to Eternity, it's been quite awhile since my last film essay. In my quest to get caught up on some of the silent classics, I recently screened Fritz Lang's 1927 landmark Metropolis. I've long counted his phenomenal film M among my favorite films of all-time, and the beauty of going into a screening of Metropolis was that I knew that I couldn't expect these respective films to be anything but drastically different. M is one of the great crime thrillers ever, whereas Metropolis cleared the path for dystopian science fiction films.

In a review of the Errol Flynn film The Adventures of Robin Hood, Don Druker of "The Chicago Reader" wrote a wonderful closing sentence that can easily apply to any new look at a long-studied classic film. He writes: "Movies like this are beyond criticism." Depending on a given film's depth and layers, this can either be an apt summary or a challenge to find new ways to view said film's messages. I hesitate to use one of my own essays as an example, but last year I studied D. W. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation alongside Stanley Fish's opinions on the nature of principles. While I was awed and impressed by Metropolis, I'm hard-pressed, at least at the time of this writing, to find a new way to analyze it.

The film tells the story of the outer and inner workings of a modern Metropolis, with the wealthy (known as "the head") enjoying splendor and excess in the city, while the workers ("the hands") toil in the depths below the streets, out of sight. The leader, Joh Fredersen, rules from his high-tech office, and, aside from his stern demeanor and unquestioned control, does not function as the stereotypical evil leader. His stoic attitude towards problems works to a much stronger degree than flagrant outbursts and yelling. Despite his rule, his character is given enough room for his inevitable redemption. His son, Freder, sees the beautiful Maria giving a tour of the city to some of the children of the workers. He falls for her instantly and does the unthinkable: he sneaks his way below Metropolis to find her, and therefore becomes (in all likelihood) the first "head" in a long time to see the inner workings below the city. He swaps places with a worker and finds that Maria also functions as a deity of sorts, imploring the workers to have faith that a mediator will communicate between them and the elites. Joh consults with C. A. Rotwang, an inventor, who has built a Machine-Man (curiously, in the form of a woman, with his secret goal to give it the likeness of his former lover). Once Joh realizes that his son is among the workers, he insists that the robot be given the same form as Maria, to spread messages of riots, in order to create chaos among the workers.

This is only a snapshot of the plot, to which I'll return with some theories. The film is easily one of the best early examples of special effects and atmospheric cinematography, courtesy of Lang, Karl Freund, Gunther Rittau, and Walter Ruttman. The influence that Metropolis has on virtually every major science fiction film is easy to detect, and one can imagine the novelty that early audiences would have found, not to mention the possibilities of special effects on film. Nosferatu might be more famous for its use of shadows, fog, and light effects five years earlier, and King Kong's special effects six years later may have been the early culmination, yet Metropolis bridges a gap between those two films, showing that visual powers lie not only in effects, but the basics of storytelling and cinematography. Its striking visuals are a combination of the old and the new. I also could not help but notice the amazing similarities between Rotwang and Max Schrek's portrayal of Nosferatu. If Count Orlock had simply been more animated and kinetic, the two characters would have been even more alike.

I'm not entirely familiar with pre-Nazi Germany, so I'm not attempting to mix up two different films, two different countries, and two different ideologies. However, I also happened to notice parallels between Metropolis and Sergei Eisentein's The Battleship Potemkin. The major difference comes with Metropolis's plea for mediation between the leaders and the workers, instead of the all-out anarchy of Potemkin. Could Metropolis be viewed as The Battleship Potemkin with a 'happier' ending? Both films argue for workers' rights, showing both a chaotic outcome and a better, albeit sanitized ending. I found it amusing that the theme of Metropolis, the notion that "the mediator between the head and the hands must be the heart," is really an insult to both sides. The implication is that the hands don't appreciate the intelligence of the head, and that the head assumes that the hands are content with thankless, backbreaking labor.

The characters of Maria, both the human and the robotic substitute, are curious depictions of women in society. Perhaps it's a nod towards women's rights (in the 1920s) that a woman assumes the role of the peacemaker and positive influence on the working class. On the flip side, the robotic version works as an early precursor to the 'femme fatale,' as her erotic dance late in the film incites the wealthy men into a lustful, rape-intended frenzy. Then again, this can be flipped yet again as a criticism of the men, simply viewing a woman as a tempting sex object. This dance sequence is both unsettling and revolutionary, as the quick jumps between the dance and the aroused men grows faster, along with a terrific shot composed of nothing but eyeballs, a pulsating blob undoubtedly sending the images of her dancing directly to the groin. I haven't seen any documentaries or read any texts regarding sexual depictions in the history of cinema, but the dance sequence is an essential example.

Some of the scenes from Metropolis are lost, yet it's amazing that enough of the film remains to tell a cohesive story (aided with recreated plot subtitles). The influence on future science fiction films is easy to recognize, and overall, this is one of the best films ever, silent or otherwise. However, I feel that my appreciation will be even greater once I familiarize myself with the context of 1920s German society. The social and psychological questions and depictions are quite clear, but as is the case with The Birth of a Nation and The Battleship Potemkin, I'm positive that even more can be gathered when framed alongside the sociology and day-to-day history of the era.

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