Saturday, November 13, 2010
Metropolis (Newly Restored) (1927)
You never forget your firsts in this life. Metropolis was my first silent film. This was the white, black and steel-grey set of alien images that transfixed me nearly twenty years ago, beginning a love affair with a wonderful medium. If not for this film, Silent Volume might not exist. So I take Metropolis very personally.
I remember the night I saw it. I remember the cheap yellow carpeting in my parents’ livingroom. It had no give; it dug into my knees as I leaned in to peer at the TV screen. The picture was clear enough, that wasn’t the problem; I just had to keep the volume really low, because everyone else was asleep. It was 1 am.
Those late-night hours were my time. For a mid-teen in a small town they were a private space; a dark tunnel lit at one end by that television, the tiny portal to a more adult world. It was in those hours that a channel would show ‘real’ movies—the stuff that wasn’t cut, due to content or theme, for impressionable eyes. Some of it was junk, of course; the type of thing a mid-teen boy wants to see for other reasons—but I was curious. Impressionable. I wanted very much to be impressed upon. To be impressed by something. To feel exhilarated.
I was a kid with longing, and there, on one of those late nights, on the French-language channel no less, (because it hardly mattered), was a film destined to be one of my very favourites; the most famous silent film in the world, by far; the most thoroughly restored, the most lovingly stolen from, the most often screened, too, I bet—and what I saw has never left me. But then, in another sense, it has. That film, that night, was not the Metropolis I saw this week.
One of the trials and joys of silent film is restoration. Neglect, combustible film stock and bad luck have left us with only a fraction of all the silent films ever produced, and among them, many are incomplete. Metropolis, a nearly three-hour film in its original form, has been carved up, mixed up and rebuilt as much as any of them. By now you’ve heard the story of the rediscovered Argentine footage, which, knitted into the pristine footage we already had, has returned Metropolis to almost its full glory. In brief: this ‘new’ footage—cropped, badly lined, but entirely watchable—recovers most of the exchanges between various heroic characters and the ominous Thin Man (Fritz Rasp); giving Metropolis a noir quality. It also shows us more of the city’s venal surface, and returns to us the heroes’ extended, harrowing escape from the city’s flooded underground. It lets the characters breathe a bit, too, especially Freder Fredersen (Gustav Fröhlich), the young son of Joh Fredersen, Master of Metropolis. Gone, somewhat, is the spastic, naïve, impulsive boy; in his place, a cagier version. The restoration matures him.
I’ve matured too, in the more traditional way. And as I’ve aged, watching the film every couple of years since my teens, I’ve grown to appreciate how resonant its message is. Not the simple one: “the mediator between the head and the hands must be the heart.” That’s a fridge magnet. I mean the deeper one: what this city implies, merely by existing, about human nature.
Metropolis is ruled by an ‘Upper Ten Thousand,’ led by Joh Fredersen, a king in a suit. Theirs is a world of impossibly tall skyscrapers touching one another with roadway fingers and buzzed about by aeroplanes and blimps. For us it’s a world of fantasy, right down to the obvious matte paintings that render Joh’s home, the New Tower of Bablyon. But it’s the same for the rich, whether they know it or not. For the place relies on the continuing function of the machines below it, and on the men and women who run those machines, who live even deeper down. The city is a great, inequitable parfait; its thicker layers supporting pure whipped cream. Yet director Fritz Lang and his writer-collaborator-wife, Thea Von Harbou, give no indication that Metropolis is totalitarian. The workers aren’t trapped in their pitiful underground city and the machine rooms, nor are the Upper Ten Thousand barred from visiting them there. It’s just that… they don’t. No one leaves their sphere. No one thinks about how the other half lives. No one is curious.
No one has time to be. The above-grounders squander their time with aristocratic pursuits like gaming and whoring; the workers, meanwhile, are broken on labour’s wheel; overloaded and exhausted; they trudge silently to and from their brutal shifts, heads down, clothes drab, hours spent. Like many of us, they have too many duties. Too many obligations, all marked urgent, immediate. The workers’ city is a gigantic cave in which great panels illuminate rows of apartment complexes. In the central square is an alarm bell. Not a monument, not anything inspirational. Not art of any kind. Something purely functional. These people must have a culture—even a prison camp does—but we never see it. And if there really is no joy, no life outside of work, what is keeping them down there, besides resignation?
How they must envy Freder Fredersen. Born rich. Raised idle. Without a mother from birth, but possessed of every privilege his birthright can provide him. Handsome, athletic, carefree; until one day, when his Edenic frolic is interrupted by a plain-dressed woman with a penetrating stare, flanked by dozens of workers’ children. This is Maria (Brigitte Helm); daughter of a worker. Freder cannot take his eyes off her, and never will be able to again.
“These are your brothers,” Maria tells him before being shooed out the door by a servant. In that moment the gauze is lifted from Freder’s face. Had he wished, he could have discovered Maria and her ilk years ago, simply by climbing down a ladder, but, Buddha-like, he was kept from seeing the suffering of the world, and did not think to ask why it was so. Freder belongs to an indifferent society whose members do not communicate with those unlike themselves; they take for granted their differences and make strong a boundary that is non-physical, merely by acting as though it was real. The people of Metropolis have every means of gaining information and far too little interest in using it.
Freder, then, is a man of unusual vision. Or is he? Amid our own media cacophony of political ideologies and sympathetic appeals, all dismissible with cynicism or sheer volume, what one thing always seems to pierce through? Sex. It motivates us on a base, and deep, level; it defeats arguments and energizes us when our energy’s lacking. Maria must be this for Freder. Whatever else she is, or says she is, she is beautiful. She is a fantasy for him: a stunning zealot who brings meaning to his aimless life, stroking his ego with her conviction that he—flighty, trite, entitled Freder—is the Mediator that Metropolis needs to survive.
Metropolis is an awful place—maybe it shouldn’t survive. But never mind that. We all long for meaning, don’t we? Just like Freder? We want validation too—we can become gluttons for it. We want love, and we crave respect. And it must all be sincere. What a high price to demand, and how terrible the consequences if it’s unmet. What a miracle when one woman can provide all that, and probably sex, too. Who wouldn’t risk everything for that?
Freder descends to the machine floor, his brain a swirling mix of the sacred and profane. There he finds the castle-sized ‘M-Machine’, workers scurrying across its multiple levels, trying to keep it from overloading. There are no safety valves in Metropolis—only men and women on the ball… or not. The machine explodes. In a famous, hallucinatory moment, Freder sees the M-Machine transform into ‘Moloch,’ a Phoenician god. The machine becomes a pagan idol, and the workers are marched into its maw as sacrifices.
Freder is overcome. Perhaps he needs religious imagery to describe this scene, and what it means? You get the sense the citizens of Metropolis need something religious, even ecstatic in their lives; not because religion has disappeared (there is a great cathedral in the city); but because it no longer has teeth (the cathedral’s walls are crumbling). Freder sees oppression and thinks of gods; farther down, in the catacombs, Maria preaches Bible stories to the workers, exhorting them to fight for their rights but resist revolution. These people need something to inpire them. Even Joh Fredersen, in his own way, is looking for something more.
Joh (Alfred Abel) is an unhappy man. In his official capacity, he’s unhappy because his spies keep finding plans on the bodies of dead workers—scraps of paper outlining meeting spots and vandal’s plots. But on a more personal level, he misses his wife, Hel, who died giving birth to Freder. He never remarried, despite being the city’s most eligible widower. His life is a to-do list, giving him no obvious pleasure. He never smiles. And when he looks for help from the city’s resident mad scientist, Rotwang, he knowingly makes a pilgrimage into his own past.
Rotwang and Joh have a professional relationship. “As usual, when my experts fail me, I come to you for advice…” says the CEO to the thinker, visiting his strange little house. But there is a deep mutual antipathy between the two, strongest on Rotwang’s side. In his house is a gigantic bust of Hel, whom Rotwang lost to Joh. Each perpetuates her memory—Joh through his son; Rotwang through effigies: first the bust, and now, a mechanical woman he believes can take her place.
Rudolf Klein-Rogge’s Rotwang gestures wildly, triggering laughs from the audience. He’s classically bonkers. But consider how many ticks and affectations you might collect, living mostly alone for years, consumed with your work and the memory of a woman you loved? A woman you lost to a more powerful man, in whose city you now live and work? And whose sex killed the woman? A man who understands that city less well than you do? You, too, would be bitter. You would be strange.
His robot is strange. They call it a ‘machine-man’, though it is clearly feminine. It stands, walks, extends its silver hand to Joh, who recoils. But in its blank eyes he sees potential—a being who can sow dissention among the workers, and justify a crackdown. Joh and Rotwang descend to the catacombs and spy upon Maria delivering one of her sermons. She recounts the story of the Tower of Babel—and the two schemers fail to see the point of that story, or Maria’s obvious value in preventing revolt. Instead, they plot to discredit Maria by replacing her with the robot, in her likeness. The robot will use Maria’s authority to preach a new message of chaos. Joh departs. Rotwang considers taking things further.
He captures Maria. He straps her nude to a table in his lab. Chemicals bubble and rise through twisting tubes; circuits connect; electric bolts arch between wire-ends. Maria’s… something, certainly not her soul, is transferred to the machine. Hoops of light engulf the robot; its dispassionate face becomes Maria’s, with a sneer.
Can this machine successfully impersonate a woman? Rotwang and Joh decide to test its ‘humanity’ by having it perform a burlesque show in an upscale nightclub. De Mille would have been proud of the pagan excess that ensues. Really, it’s the drooling male club-members whose humanity is being tested, and they pass, in the sense they prove themselves only human. Robot Maria incites the wealthy to riot from sheer sexual excitement. Its verisimilitude thus established, it then takes Maria’s place in the underground pulpit and preaches a sermon of anarchic rage, inciting desperate men to destroy, destroy, destroy the machines that enslave them.
As little-‘D’ democrats, we audience-folk sympathize more with the enraged workers than the lust-crazed socialites, but Metropolis doesn’t really take a side. Grot, the burly foreman who might have made a good mediator himself, calls the rioters fools for destroying the machine he maintains—the ‘Heart Machine’—because doing so will swamp their own workers’ city, and their children with it. No one hears him. Soon the machine is destroyed; the waters begin to rise around the workers’ drab apartment blocks, and lights of the spectacular world above wink out. Atop the very tallest tower, in the dark, it finally dawns on Joh Fredersen that his plan has gone awry, and his son’s life is threatened. “Tomorrow thousands will ask in fury and desperation: Joh Fredersen, where is my son—!” declares the Thin Man. And below, the workers, now dancing hand-locked circles around the ruins of Moloch, finally hear Grot’s message. They wail in grief, then congeal into a vengeful mob. Suddenly everyone, everywhere, gets it.
Maria, meanwhile, has escaped Rotwang’s house, and the confusion grows. The new footage gives us a much better sense of what this all means to Freder, his compatriot and former Joh Fredersen right-hand, Josaphat (Theodor Loos), and the Thin Man. Amidst the enormity of events in Metropolis; the volume of peoples, planes and cars; the gigantic buildings, there’s these three, in a cloak-and-dagger struggle that humanizes all of them. For Freder and Josaphat, the Robot is a harbinger of the Apocalypse; the Thin Man, perhaps unintentionally, evokes an end-times preacher, mindful of same.
Freder, Josaphat, and Maria join forces underground to save the children of the workers—all of them, it seems—from the deluge. Again the new footage adds tension and depth, as we now see the trio frustrated by an immobile wrought-iron gate, which blocks the way for them and the 100+ kids clogging the stairwell behind. Greater, now, is our sense of urgency as the waters rise. More’s the victory when the gate is dislodged and children pour through.
And yet… I’ve never found the ending of Metropolis to be fulfilling. Do you? Grot, the chastened representative of a misbehaving underclass, is brought face-to-face with Joh Fredersen, his dictator. Neither has the capacity to see the other’s side of things—given the chance to abuse and destroy, both did so. Given the opportunity, now, to reconcile for the greater good, both hesitate. Were Metropolis a Marxist movie, or a Neo-Conservative one, this scene would not exist. But Metropolis is a fable. And so the sides are brought together in handshake by the ethereal Maria and her chosen one, the messianic Freder. Only Freder is one with both man (the workers) and God (his father).
I wonder if the workers see it that way. Lang doesn’t suggest that the mediator-role is a temporary one. There’s nothing, in fact, to suggest that the workers will ever share equally in the pleasures of the city they so ably shoulder on their backs. At best, Freder will make Joh a better steward. Which is fine and all, but not quite enough after 2 and ¾ hours of epic, legendary, awesome cinema.
What does move me, however, is Rotwang’s plight. Not because he’s a good man, but because he’s a dreamer and a knowledge-seeker in a world filled with bored people. Grot, Joh, Freder—they’ll all have a chance to grow in the wake of this chaos. But how much of that is because their preconceptions simply collapsed around them? Rotwang, he searched for things. He built things, including a brilliant robot that could be like a woman. It walked slowly and gracefully. Its only gesture was a friendly one. It had no malevolence. Had Joh not shown up at Rotwang’s door with a plan, this robot would have had Hel’s face and been Rotwang’s companion. Would his Hel have been so destructive? We’ll never know, because the robot, Rotwang’s greatest creation, is burned on a pyre by the ignorant mob, and he is pushed through the crumbling stone of the cathedral’s roof, and falls to his death. Were Rotwang not a citizen of Metropolis, Joh Fredersen’s ego writ-large, he might have been great.
Where to find Metropolis:
Oh, lots of places. But what was old is new again. I’ve probably seen Metropolis ten times, but the film has expanded over the years, until we have this: an (almost) complete print, screened at Toronto’s Bell Lightbox, accompanied by Gabriel Thibaudeau and a number of talented (and fit) musicians. Here’s the official description:
To mark the premiere of the new restoration of Metropolis and its 25 minutes of previously lost material, Gabriel Thibaudeau, celebrated pianist and composer for the Cinémathèque québécoise—who premiered his original score for Robert Flaherty’s Nanook of the North at TIFF 2005—was commissioned to create a new score for Fritz Lang’s science-fiction masterpiece. Debuted this past summer at Montreal’s Fantasia International Film Festival, this new score brings two chamber orchestras to the stage to express the class struggle at the heart of the film: a soaring string quintet and keyboard represent the elitist spirit of the city, a booming brass quintet with organ embodies the surging power of the subterranean workers, with the two worlds linked through percussion.
And there is still a little bit of footage left to find. I dare not ask for more, yet you wonder, don’t you… what other bits of flammable treasure might be sealed away in rusted cans in other lands?