The Reeler


July 18, 2007


Poised between dated camp and engrossing melodrama, Metropolis still demands attention

How or even why to set about agitating for Fritz Lang's Metropolis? If you have even a passing interest in the development of film -- and have somehow missed it -- by all means hustle down to Film Forum this week for a new print of Kino’s (presumably definitive) 2002 restoration. But don’t waste time trying to figure out how many other films have been influenced by Metropolis’ primitive but gigantic production design and looming vision of the future -- as seen from 1927, but still influencing movies to this day. Brazil and Batman copped the scale of the buildings, and the general dystopian vibe has been passed down to pretty much every similar exercise this side of Children of Men. (In my favorite quote, Luc Besson copied a frame directly in The Fifth Element for the sole purpose of teasing us with Milla Jovavich's naked body.) The thing is basically inescapable.

Yet I'm reluctant to strain making a case for the obvious. Metropolis' influence speaks for itself; what's it like to actually watch the damn thing these days? Not too painful and even kind of fun, Metropolis is hardly a deathless triumph of visionary cinema. Muddled in its themes, what stands out in hindsight isn't the visuals but Lang's sturdy feel for melodrama; in many ways, it may be the most conventional film he ever made. The future may be remembered for towering buildings, but what really matter are outsized villainy and the travails of true love.

In the Teutonic future, rich blond men with too much makeup race around above-ground, dashing through track races in tights. Less fortunate are the proles below, working grueling shifts in front of machines that seemingly require them to move in synchronized dance steps. (Combine their funky, jerky motions with the Machine-Man robot introduced later in the film, and the logical result is Kraftwerk, who paid homage in a song named after the movie.)

The one to lead them all is Freder Fredersen (Gustav Frohlich), son of Metropolis' architect. (One of the movie's cannier, still-relevant ideas is to eliminate government altogether, concentrating power solely in the hands of business, in this case CEO-type Joh Frederson [Alfred Abe]). A prototypical trust-fund brat, Freder has no clue about the oppression enabling his privileged life -- until, that is, enter Maria (Brigitte Helm). An ideal of rural, unspoiled, German loveliness, Maria inexplicably gains access to Freder’s mansion with a bunch of shaven-headed youth and speaks to him of brotherhood. Freder is lovestruck, as much by her peasant dress -- in stark contrast to the Weimar-era frippery of the women surrounding him -- as by her vaguely Communistic exhortations, and descends into the workers' region to find her. The course of true love never did run smooth, and Freder's quest leads him not just to Maria, but to justice and equality for the workers.

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Metropolis' greatest strength isn't the massively influential sets; the highest compliment I can pay them (an uneasy blend of obscene numbers of extras and cardboard miniatures) is that they'd be genuinely mindblowing if replicated with contemporary F/X. Instead, Lang gets by with incessant melodramatic reversals and confrontations; the spot-on editing is as exemplary a use of good coverage and reaction shots as anything since. (In many ways, Lang's feel for tempo here outpaces a landmark like M, where ambition clashes with primitive sound technology; this is silent film at the peak of its resources.) The whole thing feels like one of those junk-food serials that promised 12 chapters with twists and turns in the decades to come. This is praise; there’s nothing worse than a self-serious dystopia.

But the need for meaning and grandeur dilutes the visceral juice. The future has not only enormous, Art Deco buildings, but churches denuded of crosses that serve as sanctuaries for monks preaching from the Book of Revelations, and martyrs' catacombs where disgruntled workers gather. The futurism is placed into rude contrast with a medieval vision of virtue, where progressive workers' meetings are explicitly equated with Christian martyrdom. It’s thematic overload, with motifs with thousands of years of history behind them doing battle and carrying more symbolic weight than one movie can bear.

But it works: Poised halfway between dated camp and genuinely engrossing melodrama, Metropolis still demands attention. The press kit -- speaking of Giorgio Moroder's unkindly regarded '80s remake, one of at least six versions of the much-mutilated film -- sneers at "his apparent belief that the film best functioned as a feature length music video." But Moroder may not have been far off: Metropolis has been quoted too extensively to be genuinely revelatory, and it’s nothing if not a series of set-pieces. What we get instead is The Shape of Sci-Fi To Come, satisfyingly crossbred with dashing heroes and damsels in distress. Lang would go on to better if not bigger things, but Metropolis remains surprisingly satisfying -- as much as for what it predicts as what it does.

Comments (1)

That Metropolis can be viewed and enjoyed by an audience some 80 years after it was made says much for Lang's vision and viseral grasp of the human condition.
Of course some of the conjecture and extrapolation come up short, HELL! - look at the truth/hell of the past 80 years!!! I wouldn't wanna try to guess past the next two years, much less into the next century.....
My point is that Metropolis is and was a work of art and should be viewed and enjoyed as such. The morality play endures as does humanity........

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