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Saturday, March 29, 2008

100 Days, 100 Movies: Metropolis (1927)

Director: Fritz Lang
Starring: Brigitte Helm, Gustav Frohlich

It’s hard to imagine the cinematic landscape without Metropolis. The influence of Fritz Lang’s science fiction classic can be seen in such films as Frankenstein, Star Wars, and Blade Runner, amongst many others. It isn’t a perfect film, but it is nonetheless a masterpiece of the genre, a groundbreaking moment in cinema, and a visually stunning work of art.

The world is divided in two: below ground are the workers (the Hands) who toil at senseless tasks, and above ground are the thinkers (the Head). It’s uncertain what, exactly, the thinkers are thinking of, but it seems to involve a lot of running around with half-dressed women (the more things change, the more they stay the same), which is how we first encounter the protagonist, Freder (Gustav Frohlich). His revelry is interrupted by Maria (Brigitte Helm), who appears with a group of children from the world below. Freder is smitten with Maria and becomes curious about life below ground. What he sees in the depths are men compelled to accomplish tasks which are pointless (what, exactly, does the machine that Freder briefly takes over, the one with the two clock hands, do?), and an industrial complex that is sucking the life out of the people who literally built and maintain the city with their own hands. At one point Freder imagines a machine coming to life, looking like a demonic head which consumes the workers.

The divide between worker and thinker, rich and poor, between those who labour and those who benefit from that labour, is the primary focus of the film. Maria, in a speech to rouse the workers, uses the Tower of Babel as a metaphor: “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.” What is missing in this world composed solely of Head and Hands is “the Heart” which will mediate between the two and make life better for all. It’s a simplistic message, and Freder (if not necessarily Maria) is exactly the kind of wide-eyed innocent who would believe that that’s all it takes.

While Freder is learning how the other half lives and Maria is trying to incite revolution, Freder’s father (Alfred Abel) has teamed up with the mad scientist Rotwang (Rudolf Klein-Rogge), who has developed the technology to build a robot which will look like a human. The birth of the robot is probably the most famous sequence of the film, with beams of electricity running along the robot’s frame, bringing it to life. The robot is made to look like Maria and displaces the real Maria in order to subvert her work. The robot distracts the workers from any revolutionary ideas and almost leads to their destruction in one of the film’s best sequences, as the depths of the city flood and the people underneath rush to safety. These scenes are nothing short of massive and in and of themselves make the film worth watching.

Although Metropolis was visually ahead of its time (in certain respects, perhaps even ahead of our own: has a city ever looked so sinisterly futuristic as this one?), there’s something about the film that I find difficult to reconcile with its technical innovations. The characters are conveyed in a way that seems very stilted and pantomimic. I know people who consider this simply an attribute of silent film in general, that the lack of sound makes exaggeration necessary, but I don’t think that could be further from the truth. Metropolis came out in the same year as Sunrise, a film that is much more subtle and fluid in the way that it conveys emotion. The overwrought style of the acting may have been a deliberate choice on the part of Fritz Lang, but it results in a film that is decades ahead in one sense, and about a decade behind in another. That being said, however, it should be noted that Brigitte Helm delivers an excellent set of performances here, creating distinct “personalities” for both Maria and her robotic doppelganger.

As I stated before, the message of this film is incredibly simplistic which is perhaps why, if it was deliberate, Lang directed his actors towards an overly stylized, exaggerated form of acting. If the characters were more complex, the film wouldn’t work because the message would seem to be delivered with sneering irony instead of hopeful sincerity. But regardless of what you take from it’s message, this is ultimately a film of images, many of them startling, many of which you recognize from countless other films that this one influenced. This is a must-see film because it represents the roots of science fiction filmmaking as we know it today.

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