Once again, it’s time to hit the DVR and burn through an old Cinema 1544 feature in the dreaded Live Review! This time around, I’ve got Metropolis queued up, the 1927 Fritz Lang silent classic that is considered to be the first feature length sci-fi film ever. the film was presented by our only true “guest presenter” ever – Aaron Rathbun (Daniel’s brother). Before the film, Aaron screened an in-progress short called Shadow Box, directed by himself, which was to be completed in fulfillment of his MFA. I don’t remember it very well, but as I mentioned it was incomplete so, you know. It doesn’t look as if he’s put the by-now-certainly-complete version up on YouTube so I can’t say more.
As for Metropolis, it’s got something in common with Shadow Box in that it’s another film that has undergone some updating since it was shown at Cinema 1544 a bit over 5 years ago. What I’ve got on my DVR is the 2010 restoration of Metropolis which is taken from a cut found in the archives of the Museo del Cine in Buenos Aires. Metropolis had over a quarter of its length cut by the studio shortly after release – now the near-complete film can be seen. Apparently there were two short scenes from the Argentinian print that were too damaged to restore, but aside from that, for the first time in my three viewings, I will be watching the film as intended by Lang. Let’s hit “play”!
It is a future of pistons and rotors and 10-hour clocks where nameless proles march in lockstep to their jobs of mechanical drudgery through locked gates, heads hung low, the cattle not of Helios but of Hades toiling in their great underground factories. All the while, the upper classes make merry in the sunlight above, supported by the efforts of their underground slave.
One day Freder Frederson (his father’s name is “Joh”) is minding his own business, frolicking about in the elysian fields of the bourgeois world when a beautiful lady leads a group of some thirty dirty elementary-aged prole children into the light to show them how “their brothers” live. It’s a bold move, but they are quickly ushered out of the paradise that does not belong to them. Freder, however, is enchanted and seeks to find the woman in the underground where he instead encounters a horrifying scene of mechanistic labor.
An industrial accident takes place, and its wanton destruction is envisioned by Freder as the wholesale leading of slaves into the mouth of Moloch. He immediately goes to speak to his father, a major Metropolitan honcho, about the explosion. Joh is basically the ruthless slave-sucking overlord that would normally be in this sort of position in an undisguised political allegory. Seriously, he actually believes that the slaves who have built his city belong in the depths. He’s par for the course, and he fires a possibly-inept underling Josaphat, condemning him to a life of working the slave machines just to prove his point.
Freder, aghast, runs out after Josaphat and prevents him from blowing his brains out against the wall (which would admittedly have been a mess in the nice, clean Metropolis) and offers him a place to stay. Meanwhile, Joh orders surveillance on his own son. Dickweed. Freder, for his part, goes into the underworld and swaps clothes (and lives!) with a laborer, number 11811.
We now visit the house of Rotwang the Inventor. Rotwang lost his girlfriend (Hel) to Joh, and she then died giving birth to Freder. He has spent his years creating a fembot intended to replace Hel, and he unveils her (sitting underneath a pentagram) to Joh. Right now she looks like C-3PO, but Rotwang says to give him 24 more hours and she’ll be indistinguishable from a human being. Punctuated equilibrium, right?
Joh, however, is more concerned about some inscrutable plans that are being found in the pockets of some of the slaves – the exact same plan that Freder has discovered in his new pockets which leads him to a secret meeting of revolutionaries in the catacombs. Actually, it’s kind of more of a church meeting, and the woman leading it tells the story of the Tower of Babel, which is like all symbolic and stuff. Moreover, the woman is serial autogroper Maria, the very one who led the grimy children to the light so long ago (OK, it was probably yesterday). She welcomes Freder as some sort of messianic Mediator. Unfortunately, Rotwang and Joh were secretly watching the meeting, and Joh orders the inventor to make the fembot take on the guise of Maria. If you can’t beat ’em, doppelgang ’em! Rotwang has to kidnap Maria to do this, and an hour and ten minutes into the movie is the end of the “Prelude”. Yikes.
In the Intermezzo, Rotwang gets to work on his robot, ordering it to destroy not only Freder, but also Joh and his entire terrible city (he’s note vengeful or anything). The doppleganger process involves bubbling liquids, of course. Freder is guided by Rotwang to find Mariabot in cahoots with his father, which pretty much shatters his frail constitution. He was the Chosen One! He was the Mediator! He must be sick for ten days for things to start going wrong so he can rescue everybody!
Lang’s use of multiple exposures is pervasive and beautiful, and is put to no better use than during the Mariabot’s dance of the seven deadly sins, which unleashes Death and his scythe upon the city, with the ever present accompanying dies irae. End Intermezzo.
Begin Furioso, where the men of Metropolis become savages, killing each other over the hopes of gaining the love of the Mariabot. Meanwhile, Mariabot has gone to the depths to preach her robot lies in an attempt to destroy the slaves’ faith in the promise of a mediator and incite them instead to an uprising, destroying the machines that will allow Joh to take his vengeance upon them. I’m smelling An Orison Of Sonmi-451 here! Freder shows up and recognizes that the Mariabot is an imposter because of her thick identifying eyeliner. Oh, and her radical change in social policies. But the mob wins the day, and 11811 takes a knife to save Freder as the workers’ revolution begins. As a side note, I love how the videophone is this super-high-tech videoscreen combined with a handheld phone receiver. Video technology has taken a 100-year advance, audio technology has not moved forward a day.
In scenes that have been lost, an eavesdropping Joh learns of Rotwang’s treachery and overcomes him, (unintentionally?) allowing Maria to get free.
The workers sabotage the Heart Machine, causing all sorts of end-of-the-world hysterics, including collapsing elevators and ground-up flooding. The destruction of the Heart Machine even causes all of the lights to go out in Metropolis, which was a consequence Joh apparently failed to foresee when he deliberately let them storm it, and only now does Joh express concern over the fate of his son.
Maria, newly arrived from above, sounds the alarm and the children of the proles gather round it to frolic in the new fountains, though their parents ignore it in favor of dancing around the remains of the destroyed machine. Maria (the eyelinerless, autogroping version) is met by Freder and Josaphat, who help to wrangle the children through the air shafts and out safety just in time. It feels like something out of Les Miserables even though nothing like that ever happened in Les Mis.
Up at the surface, Mariabot has emerged to lead a troupe of dancing Millennial idiots to watch the apocalypse. Down below, the Heart machine operator has told the celebrating proles about the presumed drowning of their children, and they set out to the surface to destroy Mariabot and her ill advice. Naturally they find Maria instead and are in the midst of chasing her only to run smack dab into the Millennial revelers and stumble upon Mariabot, whom they capture and burn at the stake. Freder is terribly upset about this until the fire morphs her back into the fembot to remove the confusion. He then rushes to overpower a similarly-confused Rotwang trying to claim Maria as his Robo-Hel atop the A-framiest cathedral you’ve ever seen. The salvation of the children is revealed and Joh is reconciled with the proles by virtue of his son. The end. There’s still that little problem of the whole infrastructure of the city being destroyed, though.
All in all, I have to say that Metropolis really deserves the reputation it has earned. For a silent film it does a great job at exposition, it has a solid story, the cinematography and effects are fantastic…what’s not to like?
It is notable that the Argentinian print is quite inferior to the pre-2010 restorations. In this version, the restoration is so aggressive as to often cut to the Argentinian print for even one second of missing footage – sometimes not even for a jump cut, but merely for an extra second of watching people stand there. It’s a bit disconcerting.