Saturday, May 13, 2017
“The Mediator Between the Head and Hands Must Be the Heart”
METROPOLIS is one of the most iconic films of the 20th Century, even if you have never seen it, nor heard of it, it has influenced films and other mediums right down to the present. It is a cinematic masterpiece from a film director who had several. Fritz Lang is not the household name that Hitchcock is, but that is the fickleness of fame.
In 1925 Fritz Lang was at the top of his game. The year before had seen his 2 part epic version of DIE NIBELUNGEN. Working at UFA, the most prestigious German film studio, afforded him the best production values cinema had to offer. His wife of 3 years, Thea von Harbou, had been a successful novelist, before turning her attentions to writing for film - she had written the screenplay for the 2 part mythic epic.
This silent film power couple set to work on what was to become the prototype for many science fiction films to come. There had been sci-fi films since early on in the pioneering of cinema (Georges Melies' 1902 film LE VOYAGE DANS LA LUNE is considered the first), but METROPOLIS upped the ante, setting into motion the images of a dystopian society, with it's disparity between the powerful and powerless; the city of the future, reportedly inspired by Lang's visit to New York City, including the engines that run it; the mad scientist - especially the wild hair, and obsessed eyes; his laboratory, which is filled with visually stunning, but meaningless gadgetry; his creation, the first movie robot; the bland uniforms of the workers.
Filming began on 22 May 1925, and finished on 30 October '26. von Harbou published a serialised form (somewhat different from the screenplay) in “Illustriertes Blatt”, in 1925, then as a novel the following year; and translated into English the year after that (which I read years ago).
It tells the story of a machine run city of 2026, with much religious and socialist iconography, in which there is a huge divide between the wealthy, whose children play unburdened in sports fields, pleasure gardens, night clubs, and such, and the workers, who work grueling 10 hour shifts in the underground machinery, and live below that, never seeing the Sun. When one pleasure garden is entered by Maria (Brigitte Helm, in her film debut), of the workers' city, with a crowd of the workers' children, introducing each to the other as "your brothers", her saintly demeanor catches the eye of Freder (Gustav Frohlich), son of the Master of Metropolis, Joh Fredersen (Alfred Abel).
Freder tries to follow Maria, ending up in the Machine Halls, where he is horrified by a massive explosion, causing a vision of the gigantic central machine as Moloch (an ancient Ammonite god, to whom children were reportedly sacrificed), where slaves are thrown into it's maw. His father takes this news with bland aplomb. Freder wonders where the hands that built the city, his brothers and sisters, fit in, and his father tells him where they belong; and what if they rebel? Fredersen is then brought more mysterious maps by Grot (Heinrich George), the head foreman of the Heart Machine, found on workers after the explosion; Frederson fires his secretary, Josephat (Theodor Loos), for not bringing all this news; but Freder enlists Josephat's aid. Fredersen calls upon the Thin Man (Fritz Rasp), to have his son followed.
Freder returns to the Machine, takes over the duties of an over-exhausted worker, but finding the work tortuous.
In an ancient house Fredersen discovers Rotwang (Klein-Rogge) the inventor's monument to Hel, whom they'd been rivals for, she having died giving birth to Freder. Rotwang informs Fredersen he has recreated Hel, losing a hand in the process; then takes him to his "Machine-Human" (Helm in a fabulous suit by Walter Schulze-Mittendorff), proclaiming the worker of the future ("robot" had been coined in Karel Capek’s 1920 play R.U.R., but not yet universal).
All the characters now in place, each follows their drive, for good or ill. Maria preaches patience to the workers, promising that the Mediator will come; Freder pursues his belief his destiny is that Mediator, and the love he shares with her; Fredersen has Rotwang make the Machine-Human look like Maria (rather than Hel) to sow rebellion, so he can use force against the workers; Rotwang plans to use Maria to destroy Fredersen's son and city, as revenge for Hel; the false Maria drives the "upper 1000" (men) to madness, and the workers to rebellion; Josephat remains loyal to Freder; the Thin Man skulks and menaces; and Grot tries to protect the Heart Machine.
The rebellion causes the machinery to malfunction, throwing the upper city into darkness and chaos, and the lower city becomes flooded. Maria, Freder, and Josephat save the children who were left there as their parents stormed the machines. Meanwhile, Grot finally gets through to the workers that their city is flooded, their children (assumed) drowned, then leads them against the "witch", i.e., the false Maria, whom they chase, capture, and put to the stake.
Terrified by the mob the real Maria runs and hides among the statues of the church. Rotwang comes along, sees her, and chases her up inside. Freder shows up to the auto-de-fe, thinks his beloved Maria is being fried, tries to stop it, but the mob recognizes him, and assaults him. More mayhem ensues as Fredersen and the Thin Man show up; Freder sees Rotwang carrying Maria up to the roofs of the church, and goes in hot pursuit. There is a final, desperate fight between hero and villain, till the latter falls from the parapet.
On the steps of the church, everyone now relieved (the mob informed their children were saved), Fredersen (the Head) and Grot (the Hands) hesitantly look at each other, not sure what to do, so Maria encourages Freder to Mediate, and he takes his father's hand, leads him to Grot, takes his hand, and brings them together for a happy, socialist ending.
The film premiered in Berlin on 10 January 1927; it was then cut shorter for all markets including Germany; U.S. distributor Paramount even altered the story. It was the most expensive German film to date, having gone way over budget and over schedule. UFA never made their money back on it.
But it was also immediately iconic. In Fox’s 1930 production JUST IMAGINE, the first talkie sci-fi, also a musical, the futuristic design of the city of 1980 is obviously influenced by METROPOLIS; that design continues to influence “future cities” – a shot of one building is copied in BLADE RUNNER; “Superman” creators named their fictional city Metropolis. The robot has influenced descendents, such as C3PO from the STAR WARS films; and in her human form numerous androids to come, right up to EX MACHINA (’15) (actress Brigitte Helm played another science project, twice, in the 1928 silent and 1930 sound versions of ALRAUNE – she was Whale’s first choice for the BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN). Rotwang can be seen in such divergent characters as Dr. Pretorius (Ernest Thesiger) in BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN (’35), DR. STRANGELOVE (Peter Sellers ‘64), ‘80’s icon Doc Brown (Christopher Lloyd) in the BACK TO THE FUTURE films, among others. Osamu Tezuka was inspired by just the poster for his manga METOROPORISU (’49), which was animated in 2001.
Attempts had been made to reconstruct the original film starting in the 1970’s. In 1984 composer Giorgio Moroder put together a version using stills from missing scenes, some added effects, subtitles instead of intertitles, and a pop soundtrack with a variety of well-known singers (personally dislike). Film historian Enno Patalas made an exhaustive attempt at restoration in 1986. Over the next decade & a half other segments were discovered in various museums and archives, leading to an authorized restoration in 2002 by Kino International, in conjunction with the F.W. Murnau Foundation, which used title cards to describe missing scenes.
Then in 2008 news of an amazing find in The Museo del Cine in Buenos Aires, Argentina. New curator Paula Felix-Didier invited her ex-husband, Fernando Martin Pena, director of the film department of the MALBA, to come look at some film canisters in her archive, as he suspected they might contain a 16mm version of METROPOLIS, which had been passed through several hands before ending up in the museum in 1992, the value unrealised. They discovered that this was the complete film, brought to Argentina in 1928 by Terra film distribution head Adolfo Z. Wilson; and later reduced to 16mm for easier storage. Felix-Didier headed to Germany, where she first talked with Karen Naundorf of “Die Zeit” magazine, who in turn called in three experts to examine the find. It was determined that this was indeed the full film, and restoration began. Earlier, in 2005, historian and politician Michael Organ had discovered a full print in the National Film Archive of New Zealand, and when he heard of the restoration going on, notified the restorers of his find. Another was found in Australia, and these three prints were brought together to make THE COMPLETE METROPOLIS, released in 2010 by Kino. Though there are still several minutes missing, due to print degradation, and some shots could only be restored so much, it is probably as complete as it ever will be.
And what a masterpiece it is.
Have been reading about this film since the ‘70’s, so can’t remember all the sources, but here are some:
DIE REISE NACH METROPOLIS/VOYAGE TO METROPOLIS (’10 documentary by Artem Demenok)
Published in "Multitude of Movies" #3 (Fall 2015)