d. Fritz Lang / Germany / 123 mins.
Determining what is the most famous silent film of all time is surely an incalculable task; yet it seems fairly anodyne to nominate Fritz Lang's Metropolis. I doubt I am alone in that belief. Although the films of Griffith perhaps taught us more about making and reading movies; and although the visage of Chaplin in his bowler perhaps will be recognizable centuries from now; and although there are dozens of silent films that better synthesize production and substance; few, if any, have left such an indelible mark in triplicate — style, entertainment, and legacy — and few represent the best and worst of the auteur. For Lang, who would continue to direct great films (some greater) long after Metropolis and into the sound era, nothing else he would do topped the mania. He was at once the apprentice — an inventor, wide-eyed and audacious; and the sorcerer — a cinematic sophist, a perfectionist, pugnacious to his core.
Considered as a self-contained object, Metropolis is a film of staggering scope and execution, the first great science fiction tale in the history of cinema. It has been difficult for any film that has followed to attempt a projection the future — whether dystopian or not — and not channel Lang in some way. And through a unique and perfect storm of happenstance, Metropolis has grown in stature in most off-screen cinematic circles. For the purists, Metropolis has always represented the apogee of tension between the visionary director and yearning coffers of the distributor. After its production practically bankrupted Germany's Ufa Studios (which was then rescued by U.S. studios Paramount and MGM), Metropolis was butchered from Lang's conception. Its original 153-minute running length was trimmed to closer to 90 minutes, after whole subplots and scenes were cut and the frames-per-second were upped from 20 to 24. The theory was: the shorter the film, the more times it could be shown during the day, thus earning more money for the studio that gave it literally almost everything it had. No hyperbole about it, it was a crime against art, particularly when the cut footage remained missing for more than eighty years. (A complete print, albeit in horrible condition, was discovered in Argentina in 2008.)
But there's always been enough of the film for Metropolis work — or at least work in the way a fever dream works. The film fell out of U.S. copyright protection comparatively early, in the 1950s, and in the ensuing years it circulated widely and easily. Like Murnau's Nosferatu, public domain has been both kind and cruel to Metropolis. In the 1980s, coinciding with MTV and the rise of home video, Giorgio Moroder married a pop/techno score to the film, which gave it second life among audiences averse to silent films, and brought it closer to mainstream U.S. culture (there was even a slight uptick in homages to the film, in both science fiction movies and music videos). Getting your hands on a copy has perhaps never been easier; it streams free and legally across the Internet, and numerous DVD copies have flooded the market. But until the missing pieces found in 2008 are cleaned and restored and reinserted into the film, there is one and only one version any serious movie lover should consider, and that's the 2001 restoration from the F.W. Murnau Foundation released by Kino. (That version, it should be noted, is protected under copyright now. You must seek it out and view it appropriately.)
It would be trite to say the difference is like night and day, so I'll say the difference is like air and cheesecloth. The world of film is a better place with the 2001 restoration available on DVD, not only because it is as clear as I've ever seen the film but because it has assembled all of the known pieces of film into one single print, in its original crisp black-and-white and with its original score. Elegantly designed black title cards summarize action and dialogue in the missing sections, using information in the notes taken by the German Censorship Board. The only problem — if you can call it that — is Kino's decision to play it at 24 frames-per-second, the speed at which it was originally shown. Twenty-four f.p.s. is historically accurate (again, one of the many decisions made by the distributor for the purposes of keeping the film as short as possible), but it is believed that Lang intended it to be shown at 20 f.p.s. From scene to scene it's barely noticeable, although it does tend to the exacerbate the already overwrought expressionistic acting. (And, if you're an auteurist, it can break your heart a little.)
The importance of Metropolis, and the source of its greatness, lies in its atmosphere. It doesn't merely establish such a thing; it creates it, the way a meteor creates a crater or the way dynamite blows away solid masses and leaves pebbles in its wake. Its class warfare story is represented by two diametrically opposed sets: a great city that juts skyward, with suspended expressways, deco skyscrapers, its own proxy Tower of Babel, and pleasure gardens where the bourgeois cavort; and a subterranean hell, where the proletariat toil amid heavy machinery and keep the city moving. The sets were reportedly inspired by Lang's observation of the Manhattan skyline, and they are strikingly beautiful in their blend of artificiality and potential realism. Those with different world views and political philosophies can read the world of Metropolis as whatever ratio suits yourself; within the film they are a projection of the future, but are extraordinarily haunting in their potential. The Expressionism and deco aspects of their design keep the edifice exteriors from ever being fully believable, but the lengths which Lang aspires to make them believable, or at least possible in the future, are unsettling. The mechanized devices — airplanes, trams, cars, etc. — move with impeccable timing and fluidity. Lang used mirrors to allow thousands and thousands of extras (more than 30,000, it's been reported) to appear in proportion to their surroundings in a single shot, a seamless and majestic creation from the special effects supervisor, Ernest Kunstmann, and camerawork from the great cinematographer Karl Freund. On a smaller scale, too, the sets are as detail-oriented and sedulously crafted, and have lent themselves as fully to iconography as the soaring city and the industrious underworld. Consider Lang's vision of a scientist's lab, decorated with wires and tubes and levers and dials, and you'll see in it practically every cinematic science lab since 1927. Or consider the famous ten-hour work clock in the depths of the city, where workers are in a constant fight to fix the hands to a proper position. (Something which, has been noted by numerous critics, makes no logical sense but nevertheless leaves its mark.)
Metropolis then is every bit of its name: large, burgeoning, functional, and daunting. On the set, Lang was reportedly a bit of a directorial tyrant who insisted on real things (real fire, real water that really flooded the studio) to bring the science fiction tale of a futuristic dystopia to life. Although such a managerial style seems to ironically undercut the anti-authoritarian message of the film, it's difficult to see how he could have accomplished his goal as successfully as he did without such tight control and such stringent demands. In the final product it's clear that such an approach worked well for Lang, a director whose films has always been about more about image than story and more about theme than plot. If one thing is for certain about Metropolis, it's that it needs a gigantic, complex, and dynamic story to live up to its gigantic, complex, and dynamic imagery; but it ultimately doesn't have one. Maybe more than any movie I've ever seen, Metropolis embodies every iota of the definition of a flawed masterpiece in that it's pure and perfect cinema that offers an absurd story. The protagonist, Freder (Gustav Froehlich), is the posh son of Metropolis' ruler, who veers away from his father and his social status when he becomes enraptured by Maria (Brigitte Helm), a woman of the workers. We see Metropolis through his eyes, both the exquisitely rich aspects and the poor aspects, as he ventures into the underworld and attempts to help Maria save the workers. But plans go awry when a mad scientist named Rotwang (Rudolf Klein-Rogge) creates a robotic version of Maria to lead the revolution in the wrong direction.
The pieces of the story, co-written by Lang and wife Thea von Harbou, move forward in a march toward inevitable collapse with typical Langian fatalism. The resistance toward the inevitable is stronger in Metropolis than in many Lang films, which appropriately reflects the grand setting at stake. But the details of the story are inconsequential for Lang; Metropolis is an analysis of class warfare performed with a meat cleaver. It is pedantic and a bit naive (it is ultimately a laborious search for "the heart" that will join "the head and the hand"), but interestingly vague enough to be read both as template for latter-day Marxism and on-the-rise Nazism. Lang's films through the 1920s and early 1930s always delved into the roiled emotions and crippled industriousness of Weimar Germany, and as such earned high praise from the likes of Adolf Hitler and his sympathizers, although they were lined with such pessimistic destiny that it's amusing today to think anyone could have read them objectively and believed any on-screen success, whether fleeting or not, would ultimately defy the natural order and avoid ending in complete breakdown. This theme works in Metropolis, as it does in many of Lang's other films, despite the lack of nuance to the story.
It is a testament to the film's strength in style that I'm willing to forgive it of its narrative missteps, an aspect of criticism that I do not allow lightly. But it is also a sign of consistency that this aspect has been derided since its release but forgiven as the viewer comes under its allure. I've seen both the pre-restoration and restoration versions of the film, and can say that it takes something very special to be revered and obsessed over despite its damaged and gnarled state, covered scratches and erosion, with entire sections and characters missing, and played at a false and occasionally cartoonish f.p.s. Still, it is an intoxicating experience and it is difficult not to be swept away in the torrent of Lang's imagination. Essential is a word like all laudatory adjectives that finds itself overused in the hand of the critic. But Metropolis, for all its inherent profligacy, is among the few films to be genuinely worthy of that word.
16 July 2009
d. Fritz Lang / Germany / 123 mins.