Tuesday, 5 January 2016
German Expressionism: METROPOLIS (1927)
METROPOLIS (1927). By the mid-1920s the boom time for German cinema internationally due to strong inflation was over, meaning that the Universum Film AG (Ufa) studio where such classic films as THE CABINET OF DR CALIGARI, DR MABUSE and FAUST were shot had to enter into a partnership with Hollywood to survive. The ‘Parufamet’ agreement was an agreement between Ufa, Paramount and Goldwyn-Mayer (not yet merged with Louis B Mayer to become M-G-M). It loaned Ufa 17 million marks in return for granting the Hollywood companies half of their release output in Germany as well as giving the USA rights to Ufa ‘s own films.
Around this time, Fritz Lang and his wife Thea von Harbou wrote the script for METROPOLIS whilst on holiday in June 1924. They then sailed on a sightseeing and fact-finding trip to New York, where Lang and producer Erich Pommer bought highly-prized Mitchell cameras for the filming and studied Hollywood special effects – while architect Eric Mendelsohn photographed the NY skyscrapers. These would inspire his stunning high-rise buildings for the film and later a book of the photos called ‘Amerika’.
METROPOLIS began filming in May 1925 with 310 shooting days scheduled. The budget was to over-run from 1.5 million marks to 6 million in bringing a hugely ambitious epic vision to the screen.
The story takes place in a dystopian future city in 2026 whose power rests in the hands of one man, Joh Frederson (Alfred Abel). His playboy son Freder (Gustav Fröhlich) is betwitched one day in the pleasure gardens by a beautiful young woman, Maria (Brigitte Helm) bringing the workers’ children to see the rich at play. He is utterly smitten by her and on pursuing her, sees for the first time the horror of the workers’ conditions and witnesses the death of an exhausted operative at the terrifying central Heart-Machine. He is stricken by a new conscience that will not permit him to allow their slavery to endure. His father fires his assistant Jehosophat for not preventing the disaster and Freder saves the underling from committing suicide.
We’re soon introduced to Rotwang, a mad scientist in the service of Frederson, whose great love Hel left him to marry Frederson and tragically died giving birth to Freder. Rotwang has kept a shrine to her all these years whilst building a humanoid robot that he convinces Frederson will do the work of imperfect humans and physically keep Hel’s memory alive by resembling her. In the city catacombs, Maria foretells the coming of a saviour in the form of a mediator who can bridge the gap between brain and heart and heal the terrible conditions imposed on the labourers. Rotwang kidnaps her and in his laboratory transfers her physical essence into the Maria robot. The android version with her exact likeness cavorts lasciviously in front of the city’s rich men, inflaming their basest desires – and then incites the workers to a huge revolt that neglects their children and machines till the resulting chaos floods the city with water. Grot, a supervisor, desperately urges the rebel employees to rescue their forgotten children. They burn the false Maria at the stake in their fury at being brainwashed; the real Maria along with Freder and Jehosophat manage to coral the hordes of kids above ground to safety. Rotwang and Freder fight atop the cathedral as Grot once again appals to the crowd not to harm Frederson who watches in terror. Rotwang falls to his death and it remains for Freder to assume the role he was destined for, to link the seemingly unbridgeable divide between worker and employer, the brain and the heart.
As a film, METROPOLIS is a staggering achievement, albeit one of contradictions. We cannot resist being spellbound by the jaw-dropping techno-beauty of the cityscape, though it comes at a grisly human cost. Also there is something hugely impressive about the reveal of the Maria robot, its design somehow still seeming ‘modern’ despite being conceived almost a century ago. I also find the fully-human transplanted version of Maria powerfully erotic and persuasive, from her suggestively-cocked eyebrow to her maniacal unbridled lust for storming the barricades and causing mayhem – due to Brigitte Helm’s thrillingly alive performance. She effortlessly switches from this to the beguilingly sweet and gorgeous ‘real’ incarnation.
At the same time, Lang and Von Harbou draw parallels between techno-fear of the malevolent power of industry and a harking-back to mediaeval methods of solving the problems of life. The Moloch – the Heart-Machine - and the lascivious gyrating of Maria in humanistic robot state herald a biblical return to Babylon and the coming apocalypse; Rotwang, (a gleeful, Expressionist, high-voltage vivid characterisation by Rudolf Klein-Rogge) is at the cutting-edge of science but resembles a Middle Ages blacksmith in his tunic. The android rebel-leader is notably burned by the crowd just like a mediaeval witch at the stake. (This may follow on from the subtle occult tease of the pentagram spotted above Maria as she is energised by the neon rings encircling her, as well as the discovery that initially the Tower of Babel was to have a pentagram-shaped flat roof). It’s not always easy to tell which period we are meant to prefer – or which is the more dangerous. In its time, the film also sits on the cusp between being considered the last Expressionist film and the first of the ‘new objectivity’ era.
That aside, METROPOLIS has always been secure as a source of influence on dystopian sci-fi and horror ever since its release. Klein-Rogge’s Rotwang, with his shock of white hair, electrifying emotive peaks and not forgetting that perverse, glistening surgical glove on his right hand has been the model for all mad scientists from Universal’s FRANKENSTEIN films through Hammer and beyond. Incidentally, Lang sensitively balances his and Helm’s heights of fervour against more restrained work by Fröhlich and Abel (the latter has a compellingly subtle sadness in his eyes throughout, no doubt marked by the loss of his wife before her own humanising guidance on him was extinguished, to the destriment of all).
Seen a futuristic overhead monorail in a film? - the design of METROPOLIS got there first. Credit for the astounding visuals must be shared. Stunning artwork and design elements for the city were prepared by Erich Kettlehut, some of which exist on screen as simply unfilmed paintings. The marvellous photography was by Karl Freund and Gunther Rittau, the former going on to a career as a director himself on Universal’s THE MUMMY, MAD LOVE and then cinematographer for TV’s I LOVE LUCY! – the latter credited by Lang for his ground-breaking multiple-exposure shots made in-camera by continually shooting images, then rewinding the film and shooting again. There is also the technically-innovative ‘Shuftan Mirror Trick Method’ named for Eugene Shuftan who enabled live-action such as the strip line of trudging workers at the base of the city skyline to be seamlessly blended into a shot composed above them of painted skyscraper scenery.
Another new tool used in filming METROPOLIS is the surprising material that created the body of the robot Maria: a flexible type of wood. On screen it is superbly disguised as metal. This was part of the striking sculpture work by Walter Schultze-Mittendorf who also created the macabre Grim Reaper and Seven Deadly Sins that come to chilling life in the climax.
Let’s not forget as well the prophetic video-screen used by Frederson at one point in the movie. Since even television was in its absolute infancy then, such an invention had to be cleverly crafted by projecting the filmed portion of the conversation from behind onto Frederson’s screen and then phase-connecting it to synch with his live responses in the scene.
Highly visual film-makers like Ridley Scott were clearly inspired by METROPOLIS. Whilst you could argue the cyborg Maria is in essence a BLADE RUNNER-style replicant, the strongest connection is with Scott’s seminal TV commercial introducing the Apple home computer in a suitably Orwellian 1984 (filmed that year) populated with the familiar grey-overalled interchangeable drone-like workers mechanically trooping in to be fed a video-screen of totalitarian hectoring.
On the subject of the ‘subjects’, the choreography of the labourers in Fritz Lang’s vision is more fuel to the flames of paradox; at the Heart-Machine it is eerily appealing in its dynamism, like a form of contemporary dance as each man goes from a neutral A-stance then flits to one side or the other, building almost a Busby Berkeley composite dance number of slavery. Certainly, the pain and tyranny of exhaustion is there in close-up, as when Freder takes over from the worker at the ‘clock-face’ display whose hands must constantly re-connect around the dial to keep electricity flowing – but even there the framing of him recalls Da Vinci’s spread-eagled Vitruvian Man in its odd beauty of form.
The evocative score by Gottfried Huppertz, who wrote also for DIE NIEBELUNGEN, was composed using leitmotifs, themes attributed to characters or structures, for example the Workers Theme, the Machines and the Tower of Babel itself. You can also hear the Dies Irae during the ghostly Grim Reaper sequence and ‘Le Marseillaise’ amidst the workers’ uprising.
Whilst METROPOLIS was shooting, one of the senior team from Ufa went over to New York to see the historic first talkie THE JAZZ SINGER and came back demanding that now their film must have sound sequences. Lang refused, insisting that going from silent scenes to sound and then back would be too disturbing for the film’s rhythm. In response, the studio temporarily stopped paying his contract till he won his argument.
Lang credited the great cameraman Karl Freund with amongst other effects the sequence of the woman Maria becoming the robot part by part gradually without a straight full dissolve shot.
After a glittering premiere in Berlin in 1927, surprisingly METROPOLIS was considered unreleasable by Ufa’s Hollywood paymasters. They re-edited it for release, removing a quarter of the film and bringing in a less-than-respectful screenwriter Channing Pollock to write all-new intertitles to cover the gaps. This would cause confusion if, like me, you saw one of the restored versions in the 1980s that occasionally switched Frederson’s name with the Americanised ‘Masterman’.
The Buenos Aires 2008 edition I obtained for this review may be the most complete at two and a half hours, and though its intertitles were in German and the added footage is of very rough quality, it’s still a pleasure to see more added to the scenes - rather than extra scenes to be found.
It’s easy to see Rotwang’s android creation and the dehumanising state depicted in METROPOLIS as a foreshadowing of Hitler and his National Socialist Party’s rise to monstrous power (much like Caligari and his somnambulist Cesare, and Nosferatu elsewhere in his country’s Expressionist cinema), yet Frizt Lang maintained this was never a conscious aim. Lang liked METROPOLIS at the time of making it, but this feeling changed to disappointment in the sixties when he listened to counter-culture criticisms of modern society by his students. They felt their world had become ruled by computerised and lacked feeling for the workers. He reflected on this and felt he had not connected consciously enough with this central theme when making METROPOLIS, oversimplifying the work instead, though many fans would disagree, feeling that compassion for the unjust treatment of the proletariat comes across most strongly.