Metropolis (directed by Fritz Lang): trite plot and mawkish ending let down an impressive and stylish film

Fritz Lang, “Metropolis” (1927)

Picture source: www.tobatheinfilmicwaters.com

The version of “Metropolis” I saw recently is the restored and digitally remastered one done under the supervision of the Murnau Foundation in Germany with the addition of the original orchestral soundtrack composed by Gottfried Huppertz in 1927. This version was released on DVD in 2003 and is quite a long film at nearly 2 hours. Even then, there are still scenes missing from the restoration, scenes that were thought to be lost forever until a copy of the movie with nearly all the lost scenes turned up in the Museo del Cine in Buenos Aires, Argentina, in 2008 and in turn was complemented by uncensored scenes found on a copy of the movie in the National Film Archive of New Zealand by an Australian researcher in 2005.

The plot may be a familiar one for those raised on H G Wells, Aldous Huxley and George Orwell’s science fiction novels by high school teachers: Metropolis is a mighty futuristic city designed and built by the scientist-ruler Joh Fredersen (Alfred Abel) and its population is divided into an idle rich who enjoy the city’s bounty, and a majority oppressed poor who work at the machines that power the city and supply its wealth in shifts around the clock. The rich and the poor are kept strictly segregated, at least until Joh Fredersen’s son Freder (Gustav Frohlich) sees a beautiful young woman Maria (Brigitte Helm) barging into a pleasure garden with a bunch of dirty workers’ children. She and the littlies are hustled out by security guards but Freder is smitten and tries to follow her; he ends up stumbling into one of the colossal machine caverns and witnesses an accident that kills several people. Distressed, Freder reports the accident to his father and is horrified at Fredersen’s dismissal of a bureaucrat, Josaphat (Theodor Loos), for the accident. From this moment on, Freder determines to find Maria, help Josaphat get his job back and understand the work that the poor do and the conditions they work under, in order to relieve the workers’ oppression and poverty.

Fredersen sniffs something afoot with his son so he orders his spy, known as the Thin Man, to trail him and Josaphat. He also consults another scientist Rotwang (Rudolf Klein-Rogge) who has been working on a pet vanity project, the Machine Man, based on Fredersen’s dead wife Hel whom Rotwang also loved. Fredersen and Rotwang visit the catacombs beneath Metropolis and discover Maria addressing a mass rally of workers about a mediator who will come and reconcile the workers and their rulers. Fredersen fears a workers revolt so he instructs Rotwang to use the Machine Man to disrupt Maria’s rallies. Rotwang agrees to do so: he kidnaps Maria and uses his technology to give Maria’s likeness to the robot, then sends the robot into the streets to create havoc in Metropolis while holding Maria hostage. It soon turns out Rotwang has hated Fredersen for a long time and wants to destroy him and his life’s work: Metropolis.

From now on, the film drops into an action thriller in which Freder performs amazing non-stop feats of athleticism: helping Maria, freed by Fredersen, to rescue the workers’ children from floods that engulf the city as a result of the workers’ sabotage of the machines; fighting off the workers who want to lynch Maria when they discover they have been tricked by the robot lookalike into destroying the machines; and rescuing Maria from a crazed Rotwang who kidnaps her again. The plot turns and twists a lot and goes into some by-ways which, though interesting in themselves, add little to the story and drag out Freder’s quest.

The sets created for the movie are austerely beautiful, streamlined and impressive with a style influenced by the Art Deco and Modernist architectural styles popular at the time. The cityscape backgrounds with buildings that look like cousins of the Empire State Building and the Chrysler Building in New York City all bunched together and streams of cars and trains encased in tubes zooming from one structure to the next are still referred to by current science fiction movies like Alex Proyas’s 1998 film “Dark City” for influence. The design of the Machine Man does not look too dated – well,  a few bolts taken off here and there and the robot would be pretty up-to-date – and when the thing moves, it still sends chills up and down the spine.

Some sequences are worth mentioning: Freder’s “Moloch!” impression of the machine in meltdown, swallowing up workers, and the machine itself transforming into a demonic devourer of human sacrifices; Rotwang’s complicated transformation of the Machine Man into the false Maria with circular rays moving up and down its body while lightning flows between it and the real Maria, bolted down in a giant test-tube contraption; the tale of Babel as interpreted by Maria with shots, looking towards the style of Leni Riefenstahl’s propaganda documentaries for Nazi Germany, of the Babel tower and the hundreds of slaves required to build it; the robot Maria in the Yoshiwara entertainment district, dancing frenziedly and seductively before the slavering, lustful male elite who are shown as all eyes; and a frightening dream sequence in “Intermezzo” in which statues of the Grim Reaper and skeletons swathed in toga-like garments come alive and play instruments. In these scenes, the special effects can be something to behold and the montage of images leave a very strong impression of suffering and oppression in the Babel tower scenes, and of the sensual banality of the lives of the rich elite in the false Maria’s dancing scenes.

For all the film’s stylistic achievements, the plot itself is treated superficially with a trite conclusion: the workers’ conditions are so harsh and their revolt is so intense and Fredersen himself is so steeled against the workers’ interests that when he and the workers’ leader Grot (Heinrich George) meet as equals, the resolution of their meeting is a mawkish cop-out. You know any reconciliation between the rich and the poor, even though engineered by Maria and Freder, is likely to be short-lived and once Metropolis is up and running again, the old problems of rich-versus-poor will be too great for Freder, Josaphat and Maria to mitigate and resolve. For one thing, the poor are depicted in the movie as ignorant, easily led by populist leaders, propaganda and religious mumbo-jumbo, and prone to violence; and the rich are equally dumb and obsessed only with immediate sensual gratification. How two social classes concerned only with immediate security and unfamiliar with political, social and economic co-operation can be persuaded to give up some or most of their own interests in order to live and work peacefully together in a new social and economic system where all are equals is a project requiring much education, negotiation, compromise and in particular open democracy, a condition no-one seems to know about in Metropolis.

Incidentally “Metropolis” script-writer Thea von Harbou, married to Lang at the time, mustn’t have known or understood much about democracy herself – to be fair, few people in Germany in the 1920’s did, seeing the Weimar Republic and democracy as something imposed by foreign enemies after the country’s defeat in the Great War of 1914-1918 – as years later, divorced from Lang, she wrote the script for the movie “Der Herrscher” (1937) which advocates absolute and unquestioning submission to the Nazi German state and to the Fuhrer in particular.

The musical soundtrack also lets the film down: one surely would have thought that a futuristic film would require a futuristic-sounding music score using the latest advances in music technology and composition at the time. The theremin, the world’s first electronic musical instrument, had been invented in the Soviet Union in 1920 and had been toured throughout Europe for several years already so it’s a puzzle as to why Lang elected to go with a conventional orchestral music soundtrack using traditional forms of composition.

The acting can be very over-the-top – witness Maria recoiling from and trying to escape Rotwang in the catacombs, she appears to be having one spasm after another – but acting histrionics are pretty much par for the course in silent films: how else can actors get across extreme emotion if audiences can’t hear them scream or sob?

There is a running motif of religion in “Metropolis”: Maria is a forerunner of Metropolis’s supposed saviour; and she and the robot doppelganger might be seen as a Christ / Anti-Christ pair as well as the traditional Madonna / whore couple beloved of traditional forms of Christianity. Monks and images of death appear in Freder’s dream in the “Intermezzo” sequence. Apparently Lang wanted to include even more religious imagery and allusions to religion in “Metropolis” but von Harbou balked at including any more religion in the film. I’d have to agree as the film at 120 minutes is already very long and has more than its fair share of cultural references and plot sidelines.

Still with a number of powerful sequences such as those mentioned earlier, the incredible images of the city and the Machine Man, and the theme of how different social classes and their interests and concerns might be reconciled, the film deserves its iconic status as trend-setter for future science fiction dystopian visions to follow: one such film incidentally is a remake to be produced by German producer Thomas Schuehly.

Miss Mend, Part One: silent film is a real blast from the Soviet past

Boris Barnet and Fyodor Otsep, “Miss Mend, Part One”, (1926)
 
I saw this film together with “The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari” at the Australia’s Silent Film Festival recently. I couldn’t have come across two films more unalike at a film festival: “The Cabinet …” drew on developments in the German artistic and cultural scene whereas “Miss Mend, Part One” is a Soviet film that self-consciously draws on American films popular with Soviet audiences in the mid-1920’s. The movie is the first of three roughly 90-minute films centred around a feisty young woman called Vivian Mend (Natalya Glan) and three newspaper reporters, one of whom is played by Boris Barnet who also co-wrote the script and co-directed the movie. The reporters discover a conspiracy surrounding the death of a prominent businessman Gordon Stern and spend much of their time trying to uncover the details and join them together. Vivian Mend becomes romantically linked to Stern’s son Arthur who conceals his identity from her as she’s also very much involved in defending the workers at his father’s cork factory where she works as a secretary; in her spare time, she cares for a young nephew whose paternity is unknown.
 
It’s all go-go-go action from the outset with lots of twists in the plot, various chase scenes, poor old Stern senior being revived twice and put back to sleep, and at least two major fight scenes taking place on factory premises and in a pub. In one breath-taking scene a car is deliberately driven onto and stopped on train tracks and the train slams right into it. The good guys and the bad guys, led by the sinister agent Chiche (Sergei Komarov), are clearly delineated early on as stock characters with the villains oozing devilry from every pore and the reporters (who actually take up more screen time than Vivian) generally good-hearted and fun guys to be around though they’re not always very cluey and one of them is a stock klutz character, always getting into hilarious scrapes where the opportunity presents itself. Vivian is portrayed as a strong go-getter survivor, looking out for her cheeky nephew and willing to challenge her old boss’s will (which has been secretly changed by the villains), which action sets her up for Part One’s cliff-hanger end. Interesting that Glan appears in all her scenes looking completely natural with little or no make-up and not looking at all glammed up as might be expected in a movie imitating American-style movie-making.
 
At the time I saw this movie, the second and third parts of the trilogy had not yet been fully restored so it’s gonna be a lo-o-ong time before I discover how brave Vivian gets out of her cliff-hanger mess and if she gets justice for herself, her nephew and the sacked factory workers. From what I’ve been able to find out, Vivian’s nephew turns out to be Arthur’s little half-brother and the villains kidnap the little guy so Vivian and the reporters have their work cut out to rescue the boy and stop Chiche and the secret organisation he works for from using the Stern fortune to unleash a deadly bacteriological weapon on Russia to wipe out the population and destroy Communism. (A DVD of the full trilogy which lasts nearly four hours is available from Flicker Alley and can be bought online.)
 
Comedy, drama and serious political commentary are mixed in equal amounts and the movie makes some brief pointed comments about the treatment of minorities like blacks and Asians in early 20th century US society. I had expected to see considerable anti-capitalist propaganda in the movie but it’s much more subtle than I thought it would be and Arthur Stern seems a good-hearted guy, at least in the first part of the trilogy. The scenes in the movie are almost completely urban or semi-urban with cars a-plenty buzzing around in the streets and even in the countryside, and the film looks as if it could have been made in any country that had a film industry in the 1920s. The film concentrates on the supposed underbelly of US capitalism at the time and the villains and the wealthy people they represent are portrayed in a way that seems quaint, naive and very stereotyped to us.
 
Athleticism takes priority over acting skill as the actors spend a lot of time racing from one place to another, climbing fences and walls, and battling it out where necessary in tightly choreographed fight and chase scenes. I’m sure a lot of people think of old silent films as having quite simple story-lines and employing unsophisticated filming and acting techniques and methods but scenes like one where the train rams into the car would have called for careful planning and synchronisation of the action, not to mention a lot of editing (and maybe a number of spare junked cars!) and a team of medics and insurance people on the site to make sure no-one got hurt.
 
The whole movie’s fun to watch though I find myself rooting more for the reporters than for Vivian. In this part at least, Vivian doesn’t come over as anyone remarkable – all the characters tend to be one-dimensional but they are stock figures anyway – but maybe in subsequent parts where her nephew is kidnapped, we may get to see what she’s really made of.

Inside the Cabinet of famous German Expressionist film

Robert Wiene, “The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari” (1920)
 
Seeing this German Expressionist silent film classic at the Australia’s Silent Film Festival showing in Sydney recently was an opportunity too good to pass up. I did expect that this film would be an “arty” film in the sense of having stylised acting by actors in distinctive make-up that emphasises their roles and moods and the general tenor of the movie’s theme, whatever that would be. I already knew the movie was famous for its sets and use of lighting which were unusual for its time. What I wasn’t prepared for was the clever plot which addresses mental illness and explores fear and horror through hallucinations, and how the technical aspects of the movie were not just ends in themselves as they sometimes can be in self-consciously experimental art films but were an integral part of the movie’s subject and intended to communicate something to the audience about the nature of the plot as it unfolded.
 
Two men – one of them a young man called Francis – are sitting in a garden: Francis begins to tell his story of the horrific murder of his friend Alan and of the attempted kidnapping of his fiancee Jane. Francis traces the murder and the foiled kidnap to a sinister elderly man, Dr Caligari, who has come into town to exhibit his remarkable psychic somnambulist called Cesare at the town fair. Francis does some further investigating and discovers that Dr Caligari poses as director of a mental hospital with a research sideline on how to mentally control sleepwalkers like Cesare and force them to commit abhorrent acts. Dr Caligari finds his cover blown so he attempts to escape justice … We later return to the garden scene where the action carries on from there into the twist ending which throws all the foregoing action into a completely different light.
 
The sets, props and backgrounds with their sharp angles, geometric and irregular shapes, and a bold painting style that might bring to mind Edvard Munch’s “The Scream” and “The Vampire” paintings, effectively externalise the fears, emotions and pain of a mentally ill person who has completely retreated from the real world for reasons unknown. The main actors, in particular Werner Krauss who plays Dr Caligari, wear make-up that emphasise their natures (well-meaning and earnest for Francis, pure-hearted and innocent for Jane, evil for Dr Caligari) and they act in a style that might be described as exaggerated pantomime to convey thoughts, feelings and intentions. I had never thought that silent films could be demanding to watch: the action is constant and the pace brisk, and the whole time my gaze must flit from the actors’ faces to their movements, to the backdrop and props, and back again. Minor actors usually move in a natural style and the contrast between the way they move and the main actors’ movements must be a deliberate ploy emphasising the whole suffocating world in which Francis, Jane and the villains move. There is such a lot of visual activity and richness going on all at once!
 
I can’t help but think that once films acquired sound, the world of cinema lost a lot of its early creativity and the opportunities for actors to showcase their dramatic skill and range of expression shrank very … well, dramatically. On occasions though, we still have movies being made where the action is demonstrated completely by action complemented by atmosphere, appropriate visual backgrounds and sets, and perhaps music, and dialogue is completely absent or at an absolute minimum, and such moments may be the most remarkable part of the film.
 
“The Cabinet …” is early proof that a genre film can be both commercial entertainment and experimental high art. I understand it is considered an important film in the development of German Expressionist films in the 1920s and it has had some influence on film noir and horror. Operas and radio plays based on the movie have been performed. The film has also been an influence on Dennis Lehane’s novel “Shutter Island” on which Martin Scorsese’s 2009 film of the same name is based. In particular the characters of Dr Caligari and Cesare respectively establish the stock figures of the mad scientist villain intent on controlling human nature and the dehumanised “robot” who must obey the master’s commands and carry out the most vile acts, in a context that provided (in 1920) a psychological buffer between the movie’s implications and its original audiences. It’s not a little ironic therefore that 20 years after the movie’s release, people in Germany found themselves in a similar somnambulist role to their government; and of the actors involved in the movie, Krauss supported Adolf Hitler’s government and was made an Actor of the State by Joseph Goebbels while Conrad Veidt who played the somnambulist left Germany in 1933 in protest at the Nazi government and went to live in the UK and later the US, in which countries he re-established his acting career.