Monday, 25 June 2012

Metropolis (1927)

Continuing the classic Sci-Fi season at our local excellent cinema The Belmont, there was a showing of the full (so far) version of Fritz Lang’s critically acclaimed Metropolis. When a full print of the film was found in Argentina in 2008, a rescue operation was duly mounted to restore the whole film. The final version, though for the most part perfectly clear, does contain some scenes that were very grainy and one short scene which has been lost forever and so is explained by intertitles. Other than reminding the viewer that the film itself has a turbulent history, it does not detract from the spectacle at all.

What a spectacle! I was not expecting to see a film with such a grand scale, so many extras, such design and such great music. Clearly a lot of the larger backgrounds were matte paintings, but, as with A Matter of Life and Death 20 years later, they are shot in such a clever way that it works seamlessly and gives a real sense of scale to the city. There were also so many little touches that made the film so unique, memorable and elevate the film to a higher level. From the Art Deco design of the film (well it was made in the 20s), and the dance-like quality of the workers’ movements, to the idea of decimalising time! (Actually I’ve always thought that we should decimalise weeks. Longer weekends!). Actually, several of the actors’ movements are also very stylish, not just the proletariat moving synchronously as one entity.

The story revolves around Joh Fredersen (Alfred Abel), who runs the futuristic city of the film; and his son Freder (Gustav Fröhlich), who, when he learns of the miserable life of the workers, wants to experience that life first hand and help them. While “down below” with the workers, Freder meets and falls in love with Maria (Brigitte Helm), a revered speaker who is campaigning for a peaceful end to the workers’ misery. However, Joh Fredersen hears of this and plots to incite a riot among the workers. His friend Rotwang the inventor (Rudolf Klein-Rogge), has recently created a robot; and by transposing the likeness of Maria onto it, the “Maschinenmensch” takes Maria’s place and incites the workers to revolt. However, Joh Fredersen does not know that his son is involved.

The acting is all very good. Gustav Fröhlich is perhaps a bit over-the-top as Freder (and seems to be wearing as much make-up as Maria!), but the performances of Alfred Abel and Brigitte Helm in particular are very believable; and thinking about it now, I forget that this is a silent film. Their expressions communicate so much without over-acting, as Gustav often does. Rudolf Klein-Rogge is also very good as the crazy inventor, certainly a predecessor of Doc Emmett Brown!

Speaking of which, there were a few other moments that I thought may be inspiration for later films. The proletariat moving as one, almost dancing, reminded me of the beginning of Shaun of the Dead when people are shown going about their normal lives as zombies, moving automatically. I have mentioned how the music was great, but I felt that Joh Fredersen’s theme was very evocative of the Imperial March in Star Wars: a rousing and imposing score for the main “bad guy”. Huh, and Joh Fredersen is the father of the “hero” too! I don’t think that this score was particularly influential to John Williams as he wrote the score to Star Wars, it just reminded me of it. Of course the robot in Metropolis was the inspiration for C3PO.

I’m sure that many other more worthwhile reviewers have said all this and far more about such a classic film; I haven’t even touched on the significance of the Tower of Babel, or the main theme that “There can be no understanding between the hand and the brain unless the heart acts as mediator”. For me though I was totally engrossed; good acting, marvellous sets, brilliant music and some cool special effects. I can see why the word masterpiece is bandied around so much when talking about Metropolis.