Sunday, May 16, 2010

The First Sci Fi Epic Returns

Michael and I went to see the newly restored Metropolis today. More than a quarter of the movie was considered lost forever until a 16mm copy of a very dusty and poorly maintained 35mm complete original surfaced in a film archive in Buenos Aires (of all places) about 2 years ago. The movie is now about 95% of Fritz Lang's original release at its premiere in Berlin in 1927.

We loved it. Michael and I share few things in matters of culture and entertainment, but Metropolis, to my surprise, is one of them (the other is Annie Lenox).
I show part of this movie to my students when I teach modern art. I use it to introduce architecture and design between the World Wars. It's an old black and white silent movie, and I assume that they will hate it or sleep through it. To my surprise, they love it and are riveted to the 20 minutes or so I show from the movie. They always beg to see the whole thing. Eighty three years after this movie premiered, it has lost none of its power and fascination. It is very dated. The acting can be histrionic (although in some cases such as Alfred Abel and Heinrich George, it's excellent). The technology is 1920s high tech (which only adds to its fascination over time). And the Christian symbolism can be very heavy handed.
It is fun to see what it does and does not predict. It predicts television, which was invented in 1927. It does not anticipate computers or jet engines.
The recently restored scenes can be very grainy, but they are wonderful and a revelation. The movie is now so different, and so much more dramatic and complex than the one I've known for decades. Its story line is also a lot more coherent and comprehensible now.

I find it remarkable that its class-struggle plot seems to be finding a new resonance with some people. Michael exclaimed about how little has really changed in 83 years. Modern capitalist society is still very widely split along lines of class. We don't put our workers underground. We put them in undeveloped countries, or in poultry processing plants working for $5 an hour.

Metropolis was history's first great sci fi epic movie, and the brilliant grandpa of every sci fi epic movie made since. Fritz Lang and Ufa studios spared no expense on this production. Huge complex sets were built. Hundreds of extras were hired (at German inflation era wages). Lang was a tyrant as a director, filming multiple takes of the scene of the flood of the workers' city with hundreds of extras and the film's stars slogging through spouting water in a very cold studio. The scenes that you see in the clip below of the great city of Metropolis are all filmed in stop-action animation, long before the days of special effects computer animation.

The movie was a commercial flop. The original movie was 3 hours long. The release copies were sometimes edited down to 90 minutes. The movie was considered too politically controversial for American audiences, and edited even further for its US release. Metropolis bankrupted Ufa Productions.

Fritz Lang and his wife, Thea Von Harbou, according to some accounts, came up with the idea for the movie after a trip to New York in 1922. It began as a serialized novel by Harbou. The movie was very controversial on its release and for a long time afterward. Among the movie's detractors was HG Wells who hated it. Among its admirers were the architect Walter Gropius (who sympathized with its very ambivalent attitude toward technology) and, unfortunately, Joseph Goebbels. Lang himself hated this movie in later years dismissing it as so much commercial twaddle. Indeed, a movie like "M" is probably more representative of his work, and anticipates the work he would do in Hollywood. And yet, I'm not sure I believe him. There's just too much conviction and clear labor of love in this unusually long movie for its day. The idea and initiative for the movie was his, and not Ufa's or any other studio executive. It is a vision of a world reshaped by technology that resonated with audiences still feeling the trauma of World War I and reeling from the social and technological transformations that followed. Eighty three years later, we are still reeling from those very same transformations. We still have yet to find our footing in a world that seems to be completely remade every 5 years. Our world, just like the one in Metropolis, is so vastly out of scale and impersonal. Perhaps that is why this movie still speaks to us despite the now very quaint technology of telephones, biplanes, and ticker-tape. Metropolis is the best kind of science fiction that uses fantasy and spectacle to reflect our world back to us, and to embody our hopes and anxieties about it.

In 1933, Thea Von Harbou became an enthusiastic member of the Nazi party. Lang refused to work for Hitler. He and Harbou divorced in 1933. Lang joined the exodus of the once huge German film industry to Hollywood. He had a brilliant second career in the USA making some very original and innovative movies, now largely forgotten by everyone except film mavens.

I absolutely love this movie, and have for many years. I'm delighted that we have most of Lang's original once again by a miracle of good luck. I've seen some great sci fi movies in my time, but this one remains my favorite.

Working on the stop action animation on the miniature models for the great city.

Actress Brigitte Helm, who played Maria (good and evil), also played the robot and Death. Here she is being dressed and made up to play the part of the robot.

Here is one of the most famous and spectacular sequences in Metropolis with the original orchestral score by Gottfried Huppertz:


Another one of my favorite parts is the "Tower of Babel" sequence. The film score here is, once again, the original one for the movie by Gottfried Huppertz.

My friend David Kaplan points out that this interpretation is much closer to the Jewish understanding than to traditional Christian teaching about this story. In Jewish commentary, the Tower of Babel is not just about pride and vanity, but about oppression. He says that there is a story in the Midrash that tells how the bodies of dead workers were thrown on trash heaps to feed the vultures, while funerals were held for broken bricks.


Here's the famous lab scene. I love this cross between a laboratory and an alchemist's shop.

Even Further ADDENDUM:

One of my favorite essays on Metropolis was written in 2002 by J. Hoberman when he worked at the Village Voice.
He discusses the political controversies that surrounded the movie at its premiere in 1927. It was heavily edited for American audiences because of its socializing theme. He points out that there are some definite Marxist influences in the movie. And yet, the German Left hated this movie and attacked it. The Nazis, however, loved it. They were drawn by its idea of a charismatic messianic leader bridging the gap between labor and capital. Thea Von Harbou apparently agreed and Fritz Lang certainly did not.
To me, this movie, by the standards of its day, is very centrist in its politics, going out of its way to avoid identifying with either of the 2 extremes that would soon be fighting it out on the streets of Berlin again (they did so before with guns and artillery in 1919). Even in its heavy-handed religiosity, this movie is pure Obama Administration in its reconciling view that labor and capital need each other. Ideological left critics of this movie still complain about how labor comes off as dangerously resentful and volatile. However, capital, in the person of Joh Federson Master of Metropolis, comes off as cold and menacingly predatory. This is especially true in the newly rediscovered scenes of Federson's agent, The Thin Man. He comes across as a reptile who enjoys his job too much.
As far as I'm concerned, in that final scene where Grot and Federson shake hands, they might as well be saying "Yes we can!"


Rick said...

Metropolis still defines the pop culture image of the City of the Future, complete with elevated highways at 50th floor level. (Though Trek's version of future San Francisco unaccountably left out the elevated roads.)

Counterlight said...

You are right. This movie always comes up in the back of my mind when I see "Bladerunner."
It's also there in the Star Wars movies.