Friday, 10 September 2010

Fritz Lang Metropolis (1927) restored

Fritz Lang's 1927 masterpiece Metropolis has been restored with 25 minutes of new footage and extra intertitles, and original soundtrack (once played live by an orchestra in the cinema). This is big news because it reveals a tighter, tougher vision behind the film than the neutered version currently available.  Lang's Metropolis is not science fiction, it's a parable on modern society.How amazing those opening shots are! They're painted, sophisticated mega-cartoon, at a time when Disney was producing  primitive stuff. It's Futurist, high art like so much else at the time. Bauhaus in the movies.

The Metropolis exists as a multi dimensional, self contained world where vehicles travel in the space between art deco towers that rise endlessly upwards. The Tower of Babel, as the movie makes explicit. This glory comes at a cost. The workers who make the whole thing function are dehumanized, reduced to regimented automatons. Look for the amazing scene where naked bodies are thrown into a fiery abyss in the mouth of a gigantic Moloch. And the immortal scene where the worker has to keep turning the hands of a clock, so the whole edifice doesn't blow up.
One "new" scene shows the paradise the young men enjoy - quite deliberately Venusberg, where men paint black lipstick on pretty women. In this restoration, we get more of the male-female power politics that meant so much to Thea von Harbou. Now at last I understand why Peter Gay denounced the film in his seminal Weimar Culture (1968). Gay was disturbed about the feminization of the hero, who throws himself on the bosom of the Eternal Feminine, named Maria, (wehat else?), instead of being a "man".  It says more about him than was apparent to us 40 years ago. For that was von Harbou's whole point. Fredersen's son rejects his father's ways because they aren't right.  The dialectic of this film contrasts "male" power which has created militaristic, mechanized systems with "Female" power which replaced the machine with something more nurturing and positive. The theme "Between the Hand and Brain there must be the Heart" recurs throughout the film.

It's clear: uncontrolled capitalism and industrialization is not good unless it's tempered by something softer and more humane. Much has been made of Maria's depiction as a prophet in the catacombs, preaching goodness to the workers. She's not a Virgin Mary, rather a throwback to the holy mystics of the ancient European past. Lang reinforces this with images of medieval sculpture, Death surrounded by the Seven Deadly Sins.  This isn't a Christian parable by any means, it's much more complex. It's international, too. The red light district in the Metropolis is called Yoshiwara. In the mindset of the time, oriental meant dangerous and exotic. Similarly there are references to Eygptian slaves building pyramids. Metropolis is all places at all times.

One of the new scenes shows the paradise garden where the Sons (of the rich) cavort. It's Venusberg or should I say, Venusburg, another kind of factory where the women are dehumanized like the workers below, though they're more decorative.  Later the Robot Woman cavorts in the nightclub, taunting the Elegant Gentlemen.  Venusberg again, the men automatons though they wear monocles and tuxedos.  Wonderful new shots of the Robot Woman, and her disintegration.

The actresss who plays Maria is Brigitte Helm, a girl who was approached in a street in Berlin, who didn't set out bto be a starlet. In fact, after Metropolis she became typecast as a dangerous, unemotional temptress, which was far dfrom herv reeal personality. At the height of her career she suddenly quit and became a Hausfrau in Switzerland and refused ever to speak of the movies again. In her life, Helm was re-enacting an image of Womanhood from Metropolis. Spooky.

The mad scientist, Rotwang, lives in a primitive hut surrounded by Fredersen's Metropolis, another connect to a medieval past. The hut has no windows but opens onto the ancient catacombs beneath the city.  Rotwang is a strange interface between Head, Hands and Heart, an amazing character to interpret. Luckily this restoration gives us more to go on. The actor, Rudolf Klein-Rogge, was immortalized  as The Gambler and the Testament of Dr Mabuse, one of my top movies of all time. Dr Mabuse uses mind control, shaping others to his will.  The film  was made in 1933. Go figure.

Metropolis explores ideas of mass manipulation,  unquestioning obedience and mob behaviour  Though Fredersen controls the Metropolis, the workers are complicit because they mindlessly follow. Individual workers are depicted, like G11811 but they're like cogs in a machine.  Maria is a charismatic leader with pseudo-religious powers to hypnotise the workers. Thus Fredersen and Rotwang try to harness her image to control the masses. Metropolis shows how appearances can be twisted, and people easily fooled.

Freudians might find something in the fact that Fredersen's son is called Freder, a rather effeminate wimp, whose Goth makeup is extreme. The other male actors didn't need it and  by 1927 film techniques had improved so it wasn't strictly necessary any more. These hints of bi-sexuality may have bothered Peter Gay. Nowadays that's no longer an issue, so Metropolis is propheetic on one issue at least.

The deeper you go into Metropolis the weirder it gets.  Thea von Harbou was married to Klein Rogge but divorced him for Fritz Lang yet they happily worked together. Von Harbou was a feminist and ultra modernist, yet became a Nazi as soon as Hitler came to power. The film represented everything the Nazis hated, because it was so avant garde. Yet some of its themes fitted their values.The Brown Shirts were "national socialist" after all, resentful of anyone more cultivated and upper class than themselves. The triumph of the will, the power of the mob. Totalitarianism, both Left and Right. Order versus disorder. Oddly, the film with its Tower of Babel imagery, was made in Babelsburg studios  The vision isn't coherent but still powerfully evocative, asking questions, noit giving answers.  Metropolis could be interpreted in many different ways, both as commentary on its time and on ours. That's what makes it so intriguing. We still haven't sorted the dilemmas of modern society.
PLEASE see my piece on Fritz Lang and von Harbou's Die Nibelungen There is a LOT on this site about Fritz Lang, Weimar, early movies, social issues, etc and many FULL DOWNLOADS
This is also one of the few sites about early Chinese film in English. Full downloads, too.

1 comment:

Dodorock said...

I like your impassioned comments.
About the "message" of Metropolis: should we find a way to "control" progress and development? What says the heart? Go on? In the film, the "system" collapses ? Are we not condemned if we chose to "temperate" mindless productivism or justify development ? It is as if Christ came on earth to save a Church, not a soul. Maybe the earth needs more than man's idées to come to an end too. But man may become his own destructor. This may be my responsibility too.
I like very much the music — I think Lang described himself his work as a Symphony, and the score seems constructed like Wagner. The music may be not as effective as the whole film and the metaphor should probably apply to a Symphony of images and sound. But this questions me also about how intense and sound we can response to music and to the challenges of life it can underline.
I will look for the film again.