Monday, January 12, 2009

The Great Movies: "Metropolis"

Fritz Lang, 1925

Metropolis is a movie about a dystopian future in which the rich live in fabulous modern high-rise luxury and the downtrodden working class lives in a squalid underground warren. It’s often hailed as the first serious science fiction movie, or as the first film to advance a social critique by portraying a nightmare city of the future.

Let’s start with the bad news: as a story, Metropolis is an absolute hash. The action just wanders around randomly from event to event, with no real rhyme or reason behind it. Much of the original footage has been lost over time, moreover, which means that whole missing plot points have to be explained with screens of text. As usual in silent movies, the acting is unnatural and often laughably overwrought by modern standards.

Nor is there much weight in its social critique. The film thinks it has an important message about the importance of a “mediator” between workers and management, but its politics are as muddle-headed as its plot. We are clearly expected to pity the downtrodden workers and decry the mechanization of labor, but Lang is more interested in firing us up with striking images than with doing any actual thinking on the topic. His workers are a listless drone army, alternatively shuffling around like zombies, performing tasks with robotic stoicism, or swarming together in mindless mob violence, which tells us a lot more about Lang’s own social prejudices than it does about the conditions of the industrial workplace. And as for this “mediator” -- this “heart” that will join the “head” of management to the “hand” of labor – what that’s supposed to look like, I have no idea. And neither, by all appearances, did Lang. Politically, he was just blowing smoke.

And yet, this has to rank (with The General, q.v.) as one of the most compelling silent movies I’ve seen so far. Its strength is solely in its artistic design. Sets, staging, special effects, and cinematography are all extraordinary, yielding images that still pack a punch 81 years later. And while these images might not be as novel for us watching today as they were for the original audience, they have some special appeal for modern viewers too. Metropolis has been such an influential movie that to watch it today is like seeing a catalog of source material for later directors. In the same way that Hamlet can seem like it’s just a collection of figures of speech, Metropolis feels like a collection of classic film images.

Plot: The son of Metropolis’ industrialist overlord falls improbably in love (why? so there can be a plot, of course!) with a young woman who preaches to the workers about the coming of the “mediator” who will improve their lot. After witnessing an industrial accident, he becomes an advocate of workers’ rights. His father suppresses the workers’ movement with the help of a robot, except unbeknownst to him, the robot’s creator has other ideas and…. well, like I said, it’s a bit of a hash. Eventually, there’s a chase through the catacombs, a flood, erotic dancing, a burning at the stake, and a fistfight on the cathedral roof. Zowie!

Visuals: Really something.

Dialog: Nope. No dialogue either. It’s a silent movie.

Prognosis: A must-see for anyone interested in the history of film, or in the dystopian genre.


Anonymous said...

What an interesting coincidence--I'm teaching this very film this very week. I accept most of your comments about this film, for the most part (note the qualifiers), but I think it can't really be fully discussed without mentnioning its position as a work of the German Expressionist movement in film. So what seems like laughably overwrought acting, for example, is quite deliberately unrealistic, or hyperrealistic (along with those great costumes--go Freder); the robotic workers, etc., function more like a symbol of themselves (or--more accurately--of the machinery) than as real people. What always disappoints me about the film is that it recognizes the social inequities but ultimately suggests that what's really needed is a kind-hearted upper-class guy to make sure the underlings aren't forgotten.

Love the film though--and thank your lucky stars that there's a good reproduction of it now. When I first started teaching this film, we had to use the version with the Giorgio Moroder soundtrack, which cobbled together contemporary stuff--I mean like Pat Benatar contemporary--into an absolutely execrable soundtrack.

Here's a chunk on German Expressionism from Art & Society, if anyone's interested--(I'd post a link to the class film notes, but you'd have to pay tuition, and they are absolutely not worth that.)

"Expressionism in cinema, as in the other arts, attempts to “reappropriate an alienated universe by transforming it into a private, personal vision.” With that in mind, Expressionist cinema tried to deepen the audience’s interaction with the film, combining technology and imaginative filming techniques in order to intensify the illusion of reality. The Expressionists practically reinvented the look of film with innovative and unusual editing rhythms, perspectivally distorted sets, exaggerated gestures, and the famous “camera unchained” -- a new technique that allowed the camera to move within the scene, vastly increasing the accessibility of the character’s subjective point of view. The Expressionists developed new habits of seeing, new ways to interpret the way people relate to social living and self-identification. The Expressionists supplanted reality with myth and fantasy in order to liberate visual perception from the other senses. Their goal: to liberate the mind of the individual from the oppression that rationalism imposed on an industrial society -- an oppression that became more and more powerful as the National Socialists grew in power."

DrSchnell said...

Glad I'm not the only one who scratched his head at the plot here. Visually remarkable, though!

Michael5000 said...

@Sis: I wondered whether to get into the whole Expressionism thing, both with this one and with next week's "Night of the Hunter." I decided against for three reasons.

First, I'm trying to keep these puppies short.

Second, importantly, I don't know what the hell I'm talking about, and:

Third, I haven't decided how important the movements and theories of film history are to how a movie will be received by a viewer of today. Does knowing that the stylized acting was a deliberate aspect of a philosophy of film production make it seem any less hammy? It arguably should, but it generally doesn't to me.

It also occurs to me as I write that the tenets of German Expressionism could be seen as much as a coping mechanism for the limitations of silent theater as an intentional artistic movement. But remember, too, that I don't know what the hell I'm talking about.

@DrSchnell: Yeah, the plot lost me right around the evil robot's erotic dance. Whatever.

Anonymous said...

This is a film so important to some of my architecture cronies that I was always embarrassed about not having seen it. It is quite stunning! I confess that the rioting crowds at the end made me a little sleepy. Nevertheless, deliriously recommended for artists, urban planners, workplace efficiency experts, surrealists, techno-geeks, manifesto writers, and anyone interested in the future as imagined by the past. Dancing robots!

Michael5000 said...

Mrs.5000 loves her some dancing robots....

Anonymous said...

Mrs.5000 (Do you really spell that without a space?) I love your line "the future as imagined by the past." With your permission, I'll use it in class this week.

Mr.5000: But would knowing about a film style or movement affect current viewers any less than it affected viewers of the time? This film would have looked "unnatural" when it was released.

I like the eye imagery in the thing. The Expressionists were into that business of "the look" in cinema. My students tend to be more interested in the pentagrams (snore).

Beth Handley said...

Hey, I just love me a discussion by family critics!

Aven and I watched this just a few months ago. I agree wtih the critique, fell in love with the imagery. It was especially arresting when you consider what was in store for us in the upcoming decades after the film was made.

Here is some really fun news, you may already know this, but after we saw it I was poking around online and learned they have recently unearthed another print of this film in pretty good condition in Brazil. Some of those missing scenes will be restored with the original material and I, for one, will have to watch it again.

Aven was intrigued because there is a an Anime version of Metropolis. I watched it a long time ago (and was distracted when I was watching it) and it focuses more on the love of the machine-girl (who is a little girl and not a woman in this one). Anime is not my usual cup of tea but it's an arresting counterpoint to the original. Haunting for me is at the end when the robotic girl is disintegrating in the name of love, the repeated playing of the song "I can't stop loving you." Again and again. I need to reach for a Kleenex even at this moment.

Beth Handley said...

I actualy own Night of the Hunter. I'll review before class!

Michael5000 said...

@Beth: I like that a new print would be found in Brazil, since "Metropolis" is such an obvious influence on the cult Terry Gilliam classic "Brazil." But then I'm like that.

Michael5000 said...

@Beth: Did I know you read this thing?

Beth Handley said...

Attendance is sporadic. Moving up a little bit on the FB learning curve helps.

I had not thought of the symmetry about Brazil. Good one.

Nichim said...

I think I'll actually try to see this. I like robots. Especially old timey ones. Thanks for the tip!

Anonymous said...

This is one I keep forgetting to see. I have heard over and over of its importance but always forget about it when choosing vids.

Glad to have this review though. I do like to get my hopes up for something and then be overcome with distraction when a bit doesn't strike me right. This will help me look at it and be a bit more forgiving than I would normally be.

A softening of the blow for a movie that has been hyped for a long time to me by so many. Kind of excited to get to the library now.

ryc re: snow: I WISH it were last month. Looking at negatives sans windchill later this week.

Anonymous said...

@sister jen: sure, no problem. If you want real retro-futuristic cred, tell them your architect, mrs.5000, said so. Oh, maybe not. (yeah, officially no space after mrs.--it's a 5000 thing.)

blythe said...

certainly required viewing.

MJ said...

sorry to disappoint everybody about the Brazil Connection, but the uncensured copy of Metropolis was found in Buenos Aires.