Saturday, 13 November 2010

Metropolis (1926)

This was a familiar image before I'd even heard of Fritz Lang: not from Metropolis as you will notice, but Ralph McQuarrie's concept design for the humanoid robot in Star Wars - though with an eerie sense of deja vu. The name Metropolis itself (from the Greek for "Mother-City") is also associated with being the main earthbound city of Superman, and is synonymous with futurism and the whole notion of modern 21st century city life. Imitation, they say, is the sincerest form of flattery.

Such is the influence of this epic, the godfather of science fiction cinema, which is in itself a good deal more thoughtful and philosophical about the society in which we live than most of its successors, with all the naive, uneven stretches and great visuals that any modern sci-fi classic has. Yet it was made 84 years ago, and still seems just as prevalent.

Fritz Lang was highly influenced in the city look of Metropolis after his first visit to New York.

Its original time (of making) was the crest of the Expressionist wave of German cinema, of which Fritz Lang was one of its greatest exponents, and there could be fewer greater expressions than this one - which perhaps goes some way towards explaining the contrasting acting styles on offer. From Alfred Abel's stiff and sombre Joh Fredersen - the uncrowned king of Metropolis - and his idealistic and almost ceaselessly energetic son Freder (Gustav Frohlich), to the mostly demented but also brooding inventor Rotwang, played by Rudolf (Dr. Mabuse) Klein-Rogge, and at the centre of all this, an impressively balletic and agile performance (in a restricting skirt and sweater) from Brigitte Helm as Maria, an impossibly virtuous prophet for the needy on the one hand, but on the other a voluptuously cloned robot who intends to destroy not only the real Maria's good work, but also the city of Metropolis itself. But then the acting always took second place to the dazzling overall visual style.

The early 20th century - not long into the Industrial Age - seems now the perfect time to have seen the direction in which modern society was going: this remember, was before computers were even mentioned as a possible future technology. Whoever it was, either Fritz Lang or author Thea Von Harbou who first thought the idea that machines would not serve man, but the other way round, they were on to something. It's probably the first film to portray the future as something to be feared, a blueprint by which so many futuristic films have since copied, that it's somehow impossible not to think of it any other way (the film is set in the year 2000, which was not quite so sleek or as foreboding as foretold - although we're catching up, if Blade Runner's depiction of an ethnic run-down Los Angeles is anything to go by.)

The creation of the robot Maria was a strong influence for Bride of Frankenstein

Paradoxically, it is at one of the oldest houses in the ancient city where the most modernistic invention is created. The metal robot - which is only seen for a few short minutes in the film but is nonetheless an iconic image - is fashioned by Rotwang as a Svengali-like creation intended to replace Fredersen's lost love Hel (who is eulogised in a huge memorial bust), and whom for some reason the mad Rotwang had some sort of emotional attachment. The comparatively saner Fredersen however is freaked out at the thought of a replica of his wife walking around, and instructs Rotwang instead to model the robot's human exterior on the saintly Maria, intending to incite the workers to revolt, so that they can be knocked back down to size.

There's a certain amount of symbiosis with the success of Frankenstein here: in both cases the story involves the creation of an artificial being, and also in both cases the phenomenon of the idea became greater than the original story itself; various newer, re-styled versions of Metropolis have shown up in the subsequent decades, each one of them a reflection of the modern times in which they were re-presented.

In 1984 most notably (the Orwellian significance of the year was appropriate), a severely shortened and tinted version was presented with background music by Giorgio Moroder, and seemed to speak more to the 1980's than future times or the time in which it was made. Various other truncated versions of the film have knocked around, with varying degrees of musical accompaniment. I even put together one myself, combining elements of Schubert's Ave Maria (obvious but effective) and Trevor Jones's score for the Metropolis-influenced sci-fi thriller Dark City(qv), which matches up very well with the images. Anyone who has an interest in background music in films should try doing a score for Metropolis, as the images are so easy and dramatic to set to music.

The actual original score (by Gottfreid Huppertz and Bernd Schultheis) is by way of contrast, much more a score of its time, in the grand silent movie orchestral tradition - and as such reminds one that Metropolis is really a contemporary statement on the class struggle, with the rich and affluent not exactly slave merchants to the machine workers, but certainly unaware of their toil. Lang's later fellow masterwork M covered the social problem in more complex fashion - again, on another still topical subject: child killers and our attitudes towards them.

The finale of Metropolis, for all its fantastic futurism, is little to do with special effects and everything to do with human melodrama, as Maria is abducted by Rotwang, and Freder pursues them to the top of the cathedral tower (a finale later used in Tim Burton's Batman) to the horror of his repentant father Joh. The eventual (supposed) reconciliation between workers and bosses, "the mediator between the head and the hands must be the heart" - a message rammed home incessantly from the beginning - has a very Communist feel to it. Curiously, one of Metropolis's biggest admirers at the time was the ultimate fascist, Adolf Hitler.

Metropolis is not only a great sci-fi film, but in its longer original 152 minute form, now mostly restored, one can also see the philosophical and political ideas that were at work. In either form, either as period piece or as heavily reworked futuristic fantasy, it is still a work that adapts to both times brilliantly. Perhaps not Lang's best film (and that's saying something), but certainly his most famous, and most lavish.

See also this excellent account on the new restored version.

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100 Favourite Films

100 Favourite Films