Wednesday, October 6, 2010

19 things to know when approaching 'The Complete Metropolis'

Posted By on Wed, Oct 6, 2010 at 8:22 AM

BEAT THE CLOCK: Gustav Frohlich on the job in Metropolis
  • BEAT THE CLOCK: Gustav Frohlich on the job in 'Metropolis'
1. Fritz Lang's Metropolis, reportedly the most expensive silent film ever made, and undoubtedly one of the most visually influential films of all time, opens at Landmark Midtown Art Cinema on Fri., Oct. 8. You should see it.

2. One of the masterpieces of German director Fritz Lang, Metropolis was significantly shortened following its 1927 release, and much of the excised footage was presumed lost for decades. In 2008, a print with much of the missing material was discovered in Buenos Aires. The current release, billed as The Complete Metropolis, restores the film to nearly two and a half hours. You can tell the restored sequences by their scratchy appearance, but it's not a big deal.

3. Overall, the black-and-white cinematography looks terrific, with lighting and designs that reflect the influence of German Expressionism. The futuristic film includes plenty of dream-like scenes that involve chases through caves or across rooftops.

4. The supercity that gives Metropolis its name primarily reflects the Art Deco and Modernist movements, from the sleek skyscrapers to the massive, monstrous underground machines that keep the city running. (Among the many, many places pop culture pays homage to Metropolis is David Fincher's video for Madonna's "Express Yourself.")

5. The plot follows Freder (Gustav Fröhlich), a young aristocrat politicized upon discovering the brutal conditions under which the workers toil. The characters, including Freder's plutocratic father (Alfred Abel) and the workers' idealistic stand-bearer Maria (Brigitte Helm), are so one-dimensional that it helps to approach Metropolis as comparable to an allegorical opera than a conventional narrative.

6. Along the same lines, be aware that Metropolis very much comes from the school of histrionic silent-movie acting. (The Jazz Singer, the first talkie, came out in October of 1927.) So don't be surprised that the characters are so hyperbolic, they could be mental patients.

7. One of Lang's achievements with Metropolis is simple crowd control: when the workers enter huge elevators to begin their shift, they march in tight, huddled masses that exemplify "oppression." Group scenes move in close rectangular or triangular formations, and seem to flow up staircases and through streets in subsequent chase scenes.

8. Freder first sees Maria when she barges into the aristocrats' private gardens with a crowd of bedraggled orphans. Buzzkill!

9. Following Maria into the "worker's city," Freder goggles at the huge, baroque factory equipment, and has a vision of one particularly sinister machine as "Moloch!" a pagan temple into which innocents are sacrificed.

10. Metropolis is rife with Biblical imagery, including Maria's recitation of the Tower of Babel story, complete with stunning, Brueghel-inspired models. (The city's major building is called the New Tower of Babel, which seems like asking for trouble. Did no one test-market it?) There are also extensive quotes from the Book of Revelation and a literal presentation of the "whore" of Babylon.

11. In a prince-and-the-pauper subplot, Freder changes places with an actual worker. You might have a lousy job, but at least you don't have to move the hands of a giant dial for a 10 hour shift.

12. Freder's father conspires with crazy-haired, maniacal scientist Rotwang (yes, that's his name), who has a gloved, mechanical hand: "Isn't it worth the loss of a hand to have created the man of the future? The Machine-Man!" It unmistakably inspired Dr. Strangelove's uncontrollable hand in Stanley Kubrick's film of the same name.

I BUILT YOU, AND YOU STILL WONT GO OUT WITH ME? The Machine-Man and Rudolf Klein-Rogge
  • I BUILT YOU, AND YOU STILL WON'T GO OUT WITH ME? "The Machine-Man" and Rudolf Klein-Rogge

13. Rotwang (Rudolf Klein-Rogge) turns his highly womany Machine-Man into a doppleganger of Maria to foment revolution among the workers. Brigitte Helm is inside the steampunky robotsuit. The transformation scene was clearly a massive inspiration for the Boris Karloff Frankenstein.

14. Metropolis has been released with many cuts and many different musical scores, including Giorgio Moroder's 1984 re-release, which had a pop soundtrack written by Moroder and performed by the likes of Pat Benatar, Bonnie Tyler, Adam Ant, Loverboy, Billy Squier and Freddie Mercury. The Complete Metropolis has old-school orchestrations reminiscent of Wagner and Strauss, but there's incongruously idyllic music for the robochick transformation scene.

15. When Freder finds fake-Maria cavorting with his father, he suffers one of cinema's greatest freakouts, which include swaying on his feet, seeing visions of flashing lights and explosions, and hallucinated falling.

16. Fake-Maria turns into an evil showgirl whose awkward, jerky moves are by no means sexy (appropriate for a robot), but drive rich swells to suicide, homicide and madness with lust.

17. When fake-Maria incites the workers to trash the place, the music riffs on "La Marseilles," evoking the revolting workers of the French Revolution. Overall, the film's last 45 minutes or so deliver non-stop action: riots, explosions, floods, rescues chases, fights to the death and a burning at the stake.

18. The angry mob turns on Freder, and someone declares, "Kill him, the dog, in his white silken fur!" I need a ruling: can you have silken fur, or is that an oxymoron? (At any rate, Freder's not wearing fur at the time.)

19. While clearly sympathetic to the workers, Metropolis at best condescends to them (and at worst, treats them like morons). They destroy machinery that leads not only to blackouts but massive floods, unwittingly placing their children at risk. Plus, the film insists that only a messianic "mediator" can unite workers and owners (i.e., a "heart" to unite "head" and "hand"), because the workers lead themselves, apparently.

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