(Tired of seemingly all discussion of movies in this country anymore sliding towards poop fests and other kiddie fare? Me too, which is why I decided to dedicate my Netflix account to nothing but "grown-up" movies, and to write reviews here of each one I see. For a master list of all reviews, as well as the next movies on my "queue" list, click here.)
Metropolis (1927; restored 2002)
Written by Thea von Harbou and Fritz Lang
Directed by Fritz Lang
The year I'm writing this review (2007), Fritz Lang's dystopian masterpiece Metropolis is 80 years old, which makes it officially the oldest full-length film I've ever sat down and watched from beginning to end. It's also one of the rare films of this "Movies for Grown-Ups" series that I'd already seen before renting it through Netflix; I caught the early-'80s edition by Giorgio Moroder a number of years ago, in fact, at a midnight screening at the Music Box Theatre in Chicago. But that's the weirdo crappy edition of the film, the one with the colorized sections and the supremely odd new-wave and heavy-metal soundtrack, the one that cuts the already-butchered original film into a can't-make-sense-at-all 80 minutes; even though I had technically "seen" Metropolis already, I figured that the newest restored edition would be in reality like seeing an entirely different film.
And indeed, this is part of the mystique of Metropolis, and is what inspires people to continue renting and discussing it to this day; that the film has been mishandled so badly over the decades, butchered so much, that there are literally a dozen different "versions" of the film floating out there now, with none ever being able to claim itself as the "original" because of so much of the original footage being lost forever (over 25 percent, in fact). But thankfully, in these times of archival interest the academic film community now has (especially in Europe), we now have an edition of the film that can be called as completist as it can pretty much get anymore; and not only that, but that was meticulously scanned and cleaned using a variety of expensive computer tools, including the creation of a new piece of software just for this film alone. It's distributed commercially by the excellent archival company Kino, and can be found just about anywhere you find DVDs. Ah, the modern world in which we live.
Oh, but don't try to convince Lang himself of this brave new world; he was having none of it in this film, one that set the blueprint for almost every dark science-fiction movie that would come after it, from Blade Runner to The Matrix to Brazil. It is essentially the tale of a city in the future -- a very, very, very big city, simply known as the Metropolis -- where free-market capitalism has been allowed to run amok, without any regulations to protect human safety, comfort, dignity and the like. As a result, the city is literally split into two halves; those who benefit from the wonders of this futuristic world, who live in splendorous skyscrapers with their own enclosed gardens and pools, and those who perform the actual labor to make the city function, who toil facelessly in dirty rat-like subterranean live/work hives.
Yeah, not exactly subtle, this one is, and basically wields the political issues of Germany in the 1920s about as gracefully as a serial killer with a bloody chainsaw. But then again, this is not supposed to be a subtle movie; it's a spectacle, damnit, and had been planned so from the beginning, ever since Lang made his first-ever visit to Hollywood a year previous, and suddenly realized what the German film industry was going to have to take on if they were to keep competing with the Americans. Believe it or not, Germany's film industry at the time was actually three times as big as Hollywood, because of the postwar economic crash there making it so inexpensive to shoot films in the location. This film was meant to impress, was expected to make some serious bucks, and (rumor had it at the time) was going to address some of the political issues of Weimer-era Germany in a way that was sure to cause controversy.
Ah, yes, the Weimer era, which it helps to know a little about, if one is to make sense of films like Metropolis; the roughly 20-year period between World War I and World War II, after Germany had been defeated but before Hitler had come into power, when a feeble Socialist government installed by the Allies couldn't come up with a single Constitution or President the entire time that could last over a year. Morals were loose in these years, artistic expression experimental and bitter, with a general feeling in the German air that their entire society was destined for downfall, so they might as well drink and laugh it up along the way. And the German Expressionist films of the time, the Berlin cabarets, and other forms of then-shocking creative output, were partly reflecting the general mood and partly leading it.
This was the same time, though, that the business world first started becoming truly international, and it was no different for the film industry; both Hollywood and Germany were actively trying to encroach on each other's territories in those years, forming overseas distribution partnerships with each other while simultaneously trying to release better and better films than their foreign-speaking friends. When you put this all together, you suddenly understand a lot better how a film like Metropolis came about; obscenely expensive, cutting-edge to the point of near-disbelief, with a temperamental artist in charge who also happens to believe in radical politics, whose every indulgence is being granted by a bloated film studio because they believe it'll make for good eventual publicity. Is it any wonder that the film was destined for the kind of spectacular financial crash the film industry had never seen before, and frankly has rarely seen again?
When all is said and done, in fact, besides the visual element of the film which is still breath-taking to this day, perhaps the most interesting thing about Metropolis is in the way it's been interpreted politically in so many polar opposite ways, all because of a script that was muddy in the first place and then kept getting cut with each round to fit the next political landscape. The traditional view, for example, especially with the shorter versions, is that it's a pro-Communist film; the entire thing hinges around a worker's revolt, after all, in a world that seems curiously like the proletariat-and-bourgeoisie society of Karl Marx's writings. A more interesting interpretation, though, is that the film is pro-Fascist; that its main message, "The mediator between the hand and the head is the heart," means that labor and management will never get along without a strong authoritarian central government, one that is respected by both groups and whose decisions are never questioned. According to Lang, in fact, this is exactly how Hitler himself interpreted Metropolis when first seeing it, and it was Lang himself who was first asked to be the Nazi party's official filmmaker, instead of Leni Riefenstahl. (Of course, we know that that was the moment Lang instead fled to western Europe and the Allies, and when Riefenstahl took the position instead; I've reviewed her first documentary under that position, Triumph of the Will, as part of this essay series as well, for those who are interested.)
People literally couldn't stop complaining about Metropolis when it first came out; the left wing thought it was a right-wing movie, the right-wingers thought it was a leftist film, the scientists thought it advocated religion and the religious thought we were all going to hell for the film existing in the first place. And this is part of the mystique, too; that without this hatred, without all these extra chefs thinking they can fix the soup, we wouldn't have had all the cuts the film endured, all the sections that haphazardly got thrown away for good, all the different versions that have existed and floated around in grainy forms on PBS stations late at night over the decades. But then, would we have as strong and passionate a global community of film preservationists now? Would such care have been taken into the 75th-anniversary digital restoration of this film? Sometimes bad things happen to good artistic projects, and there's simply nothing to be done about it; but if they can serve as cautionary catalysts towards things getting better, at least their abuse didn't go without meaning.
Now, let's be realistic, that Metropolis is never going to be mistaken anymore for something that will delight and entertain a modern mainstream audience; for example, I dare you not to burst into laughter during the scene with the evil hot-girl robot, doing this ridiculous Egyptian erotic dance that's supposed to be turning the men in the audience into panting buffoons, which apparently was quite the legitimately scandalous scene at the time the film first came out. But I'll tell you, even 80 years later, the visual effects of this movie still unbelievably hold up, are still even impressive in this age of Lord of the Rings style excess. This is enjoyed more anymore as a historical document than as a gripping sci-fi tale; but for those who like watching movies occasionally for their historical value, you can't really go wrong with Metropolis. Babel! BABEL! BABEL!!!
Out of 10:
--Wow, you think modern Hollywood revels in excess? Metropolis ended up employing over 37,000 extras; and when adjusted for inflation, its official budget was over $200 million. (In fact, some scholars think this number might be as high as $800 million, when adding all the costs that were never officially recorded.) And this, mind you, while Germany was going through its worst economic depression in its history, a time when people were literally taking wheelbarrows of money to the store to buy loaves of bread. Jeez, no wonder this film almost put its producers, Universum Film, out of business.
--And speaking of Universum, their publicity department at the time boasted that over six million feet (or two million meters) of film had been shot and printed to make Metropolis; that would make the ratio of shot film to used film a whopping 148:1, pretty much an impossibly outrageous number no matter what year you're talking about. But as film historian Martin Koerber points out in the notes to this film's restoration, it was a fairly common practice in those days to actually shoot four or five versions of the complete film while on location, so that the footage could be cut into four or five slightly different negatives, to be shipped around the world for four or five slightly different versions of the movie. Could you even imagine such a thing now -- of the European version of a movie consisting entirely of slightly different takes of each scene than the American version, which itself is slightly but completely different from the Asian version? Just think of all those pointless DVD box sets!
--By the way, fantastical author HG Wells hated this movie; he rightly claimed that it routinely ignores scientific facts in order to present highly stylized visuals, and therefore didn't deserve the newly-coined phrase "science-fiction." And thus did the fanboy debate officially begin. "Worst. German. Expressionist. Film. Epic. Ever!"
Best viewed: As a first date with a hot nerd at an art-film revival house on a gusty autumn Saturday night. Either that or as a college freshman on acid.
Next on my queue list: A Scanner Darkly, a slightly more modern dystopian sci-fi thriller, based on one of my most favorite novels of all time, done using a cutting-edge animation technique that slides a new layer of cartoon reality on top of actual physical film. Oh man.