Thursday 16 May 2013

Metropolis (1927)

The film looks better than this: I photographed my TV to get screen-caps
Still, what a wonderfully symmetrical city.
When I first told people about this hundred-films-from-a-hundred-years project, quite a lot of them told me I ought to watch this.  I almost didn't, so stubborn am I - but I remembered having liked it when I first saw it a few years ago, and didn't fancy my chances of finding a better or more interesting film to represent 1927 (though 'Napoleon' might have been exciting).  You probably all know about 'Metropolis', even if you haven't seen it, so I'm a mite concerned you will have heard it all before.  I'll try to be brief, though I may not succeed.

Freder sees somebody more beautiful
Freder, the wealthy, handsome and oblivious son of the master of Metropolis, accidentally discovers that his garden paradise is built over a vast dystopian undercity of oppressed, exhausted workers, whose whole grey lives are dedicated to their tedious labour.  The film is an allegory, by the way.  He falls in love with Maria, who offers a particularly Christian hope to the workers, persuading them not to despair or revolt, but to wait for the Mittler - the mediator, or Messiah.  As it happens, Freder is that Mittler, and pretty much gets to be Jesus and Moses at the same time, and defy the modern Tower of Babel.  It's a bit like 'The Matrix' (1999), if you can imagine the film without the computers.

Rudolf Klein-Rogge, who I'd so enjoyed as King Etzel (you know, Atilla the Hun) in 'Die Nibelungen' (1924) appears here as Rotwang, the archetypal mad scientist, whose science seems to made primarily of magic.  Rotwang has created a maschinenmensch, a mechanical version of Freder's dead mother, but chooses to model her face on Maria.  Thus, Brigitte Helm gives the film's most amazing performances, playing both the incarnation of charity and humility, and the sultry robotic succubus who makes the tuxedoed upper crust pant with uncontrollable lusts.

The Maschinenmensch and Rotwang.
His name, in German, denotes rosy cheeks, not a rotten wang, by the way.
So, it's an opulent sci-fi epic, of Biblical character, and it's set in a huge futurist city of extreme angles and stark lighting.  Fritz Lang pulls out all the stops to make the thing look magnificent, even filling the model-shots of the city with working cars, trains and aeroplanes.  Even the intertitles are bolder than usual, as they gleam with light, or drip with blood, or scroll up or down between shots of elevators.  The editing, too, is far more advanced than I've come to expect from the silent era.  Lang takes the montage technique we saw two years earlier in 'Battleship Potemkin' (1925) and does it faster, less literally and more psychedelically, if one can be psychedelic in monochrome.  Clue: one certainly can.

Silent films never looked better.  I don't think that's overstating matters: this film is the absolute peak of the silent era.  This is much more ambitious than anything made in the next decade, as the advent of sound, which began in earnest with the same year's 'The Jazz Singer', set back cinema's visuals significantly.  By the time studios and audiences had adjusted to the change, colour and widescreen had sent the movie in completely different directions. There could never again be anything like 'Metropolis', and it could never be challenged on its home ground.

The most exciting intertitle.

P.S. I seem to have failed to give you any screen-shots of the larger sets or more beautiful parts of the city, mainly because my photos all looked very terrible indeed.  Here's the trailer, then, which may knock your socks off.

P.P.S Since I've managed to post about a 1910s film followed by a 1920s film, I'll see if I can get through ten consecutive decades like this.  The next two films are from 1935 and 1944, and at least one of them is excellent.

Once more, the film looks nicer than my screen-caps suggest.  Screen-capping a blu-ray is a tricky thing, so I ended up photographing my CRT's screen with a cell-phone camera.  The real film looks beautiful - except the recently recovered scenes, of course, which can only be properly described using the Bristol Stool Scale.  Discover for yourself!

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