Metropolis (1927)

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Review of the classic silent film about a worker’s revolt in a society divided between the have’s and have not’s, starring Brigitte Helm and directed by Fritz Lang.

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Director: Fritz Lang. UFA. (U)

SILENT

 

Cast & credits

Producer: Erich Pommer.
Writer: Thea von Harbou.
Camera: Karl Freund, Gunther Rittau, Walter Ruttmann.
Music: Abel Korzeniowski (2004); Benjamin Speed (2005).
Sets: Otto Hunte, Erich Kettelhut,  Karl Vollbrecht.

Brigitte Helm, Gustav Frohlich, Alfred Abel, Rudolf Klein-Rogge, Fritz Rasp, Theodor Loos, Erwin Biswanger, Heinrich George.

Synopsis

In a futuristic city of towering skyscrapers sharply divided between a working class who toil beneath the surface and the city planners who live in splendid relaxation and hedonism above in towering buildings. The son (Frohlich) of the city’s mastermind (Abel) falls in love with a working class prophet (Helm) who predicts the coming of a savior to mediate their differences.

ReviewMetropolis poster

I was lucky to catch a reissue of this film about eight years ago, shortly after I first moved to London. The New Babelsburg Film Orchestra were flown in from Germany especially to play a new score at the Royal Festival Hall to brand spanking new print of Metropolis, as close an approximation as possible to director Lang’s original completed edit of the film.

I tingled all over – the hairs on my arms literally stood on end, which more than made up for the tiny screen this monumental movie was screened on.

This is a dizzyingly inventive and spectacular silent movie sci-fi epic (when sci-fi hardly existed, as either a genre or even a concept), a clear example of what cinematic genius can achieve with a then astronomical budget.

This, new version is reconstructed with an elusive lost half hour of footage found, as is usually the case with lost films, by accident in a Argentinian museum’s basement, Metropolis twinkles with hyper-stylised flourishes throughout. Despite the rather simplistic socio-religious plotting, this actually works in the film’s favour as Lang’s images, props, camera work and set-pieces tingle the viewers eyes to almost bewildering degree.

The use of the maschinenmench (literally translated as ‘machine human’) is an enduring icon of not only silent film, but science fiction itself. It is not for nothing that Metropolis has often been referred to as the daddy of science fiction film. The creation scene, in a cathedral of light as the real Maria is grafted by electrical jiggery-pokery onto the robot shell, has likewise been referenced throughout the years, most notably by James Whale in The Bride of Frankenstein (1935).

Unlike that Bride, who tottered, jerked and hissed into existence, the robot Maria is something else entirely, a nightclub queen for whom a discussion about workers’ rights is a subject best left for long after the party comedown. Helm’s dance in the Son’s Club in which she wends and sways her comely and practically nude body with lascivious abandon, shows that while she may have imbibed a few too many ‘disco biscuits’  she can still whip an adoring audience into a sexual frenzy. At these moments, Metropolis is fast-paced piece, as if Lang himself was on an acid-trip in the Yoshiwara district. (Incidentally, Helm was originally considered for The Bride part, but turned down the role that would immortalise actress Elsa Lanchester).

It was an inspired approach to utilise the physical presence of the crowd to form shapes and en masse action; they are literally a body politic in this class-based socio-fantasy. Aside from the spellbound clubbers hands reaching up toward the twirling robot, he uses the children in the flooded basement of the worker’s city to form a pyramid as they escape the rising water. This basic skyscraper shape punctuates the film, from the building of the Tower of Babel to the title cards explaining the action between scenes.  The workers, heads bowed and dressed uniformly in black, march in glum singularity toward the punishing work that would fell any normal human.

It helps that three of the most innovative cameraman working in German cinema in at this time worked behind the scenes and lavished attention on the visuals. Some of the most beautiful, throbbing photography captures these moments, including some cute trick effects of bi-planes spluttering about the skies. This was before ‘special effects’ as modern audiences would recognise them existed, so their impact, though amateur in comparison, are still a refreshing addition to the overall film.

Helm, who was only 18 when the film was released, has a crackling, neon allure in both of her roles; all spasmodic, jerky movements, saucy wink and raised eyebrows as the maschinenmencsh and alternately calm with placating gestures as the gentle, Marxist Maria.

Rasp, as the ‘thin man’, is a delightful, chilling comic book villain who trails Friedrich around the city. These arresting, expressionist performances make up for the dull and barren facial movements of Abel as the creator of the city and Klein-Rogge who is far too OTT as Rottwang, the original mad movie scientist who creates Maria to bring his former friend and love rival Abel down.

There are oddities with the film that have been picked up by other critics. That lope-eyed look of the maschinenmensch and her habit of grabbing and rubbing her breasts; Friedrich’s oversized pantaloons; the grandly constructed factory machines that have no readily explainable function (the clock that Friedrich takes over for a shift being a notable, baffling example). The workers too are fickle and capricious in their love for their saviour Maria, listening enraptured at her feet during her political sermonising then as quick as flash tying her to a stake and burning her alive.

Despite these minor criticisms, this should be on anyone’s ‘Movies To See Before You Die’ list – a ravishing, startling cinematic journey.

(Thanks to The London Screenstudy and Stratford East Picturehouse for letting the world see how momentous and enjoyable this film remains).

See the official trailer on Youtube.

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