Saturday, October 20, 2012

Fritz Lang | Metropolis

dance of the masses
by Douglas Messerli

Thea von Harbou and Fritz Lang (based on a novel by Thea von Harbou) (writers), Fritz Lang (director) Metropolis [the restored film of 2010] / 1927

Let us agree immediately that the plot of Lang’s great film is absolutely ridiculous, akin at times to his “The Spiders,” a combination of serial adventure stories, exotic mysteries, and science fiction. Young Freder (Gustav Fröhlich), son to the wealthy “master of the city” John Fredersen (Alfred Abel), dares to venture out of the “pleasure garden” after encountering “the good Maria” (Brigitte Helm) as she tours worker’s children through the gardens (we never quite know whether her visit is a kind of protest or a planned event). Changing clothes and lives with a downtrodden worker, Georgy (Edwin Biswanger) goes to work in the City of the Workers, like the others, daily worked almost to death as they keep the wealthy above ground world bathed in lights and electrical power.

      After his workshift—during which he has found a strange, folded map in Georgy’s work clothes—Freder follows other workers into the underground tunnels lying below the worker’s city for a clandestine meeting led, quite surprisingly, by Maria, who speaks to the workers of the coming of a kind of messiah, the Mediator, who will help them to negotiate with the leaders such as Fredersen for a better life. Moved, by her words, Freder himself perceives that he is in a position to be such a mediator, and approaches Maria with the news.

     Meanwhile, through the maneuvers of the mad scientist and former collaborator Rotwang (Rudolf Klein-Rogge), Fredersen has himself been observing the meeting, troubled by what he observes and horrified by the presence there of his own son.

      Rotwang, we discover, was also in love with Fredersen’s wife, who died years earlier, and has created a robot to bring her back to life. Observing the beautiful Maria at the meeting, he determines to use her face and body to bring his robot into being, presumably, upon Fredersen’s instructions, as an evil Frankensteinian force to help the workers in their own self-destruction (why he would want this, resulting as it must in the loss of power for the upper-world city, is unexplained). But Rotwang has other plans in mind, and bids his “evil Maria” to obey only him.

     Freder who accidentally has heard Maria’s cries from the house in which Rotwang has captured her, attempts to enter, but is barred, until, one by one, doors open and close behind him, entrapping him in the same house while Maria’s visage is morphed onto the robot’s frame.

      There are other subplots, Freder’s being followed by The Thin Man, ordered by Fredersen to keep watch over his son, Georgy’s adventure in the licentious nightclub Yoshiwara, and numerous other plot twists that keep the action moving, but hardly matter in the larger scheme of things. What is at center is the now “evil Maria’s” ability to convince the workers to attack and destroy the machines, which are now seen as gigantean Molochs, idolatrous gods to which the workers must daily bow and by which they are destroyed.

      The most exciting scene of the film, certainly, is the worker’s entry into the machine plants and their destruction of the power systems. What they do not comprehend, as they attempt, finally, to destroy the very “Heart Machine,” the machine that ultimately controls all the others, is that in doing so they inadvertently have flooded their own houses, where their children lay in bed. The loyal worker Josaphat tries, unsuccessfully to tell them while Maria works them into a greater and greater frenzy.

      Meanwhile, the good Maria has escaped, miraculously unscathed, Rotwang’s chambers and made her way, with Freder, to the worker’s city. Observing what has occurred, she rings the town bells to warn the children, who come rushing out of their homes at the very moment that the streets are filling with water. Freder and Georgy have followed the workers to explain what is happening, but are trapped, temporarily, in the remnants of the destruction. Finally escaping, they join Maria hovering in the town square with the children, and order them to attempt to escape upwards into the world above. Doors are bolted and blocked, and for a while it appears all will drown, until Freder is finally able to break through, leading the children, along with Maria to safety in the posh halls of the executives’ club. In the transferal, however, Freder and Maria become separated.

The “evil” Maria, who has already enchanted the wealthy patrons of Yoshiwara, returns to Metropolis, with the workers, who have finally discerned what has happened and despair for the lives of their children, chasing her with the intent of her destruction. When they finally encounter her in the midst of a celebratory group of night clubbers determined to dance their way into oblivion, they create a pyre upon which they tie her, setting it afire. Freder, believing it is the “good” Maria tries to convince them to cease, without success, and as the flames surround her, all suddenly perceive that behind the outward visage, she is only a metal construction.

     The “good” Maria, however, has been cornered outside the cathedral by Rotwang, who believing she is “his” Maria is determined to now consummate the sex for which has created her, and takes her to the towers of the church. Perceiving what has occurred, Freder goes on the chase, with the masses behind him. After several battles between the two, Freder defeats the evil genius, freeing Maria. The last scene, as they exit the cathedral (symbolizing also their spiritual marriage) they encounter the crowd slowing moving in a large triangle toward them, facing off against Joh, Freder’s father. Meeting the foreman, Rot, Joh attempts to speak conciliatory words, but cannot. The Mediator, Freder, must bring them together in a handshake, as all realize the truth of Maria’s words: There can be no understanding between the hand and the brain unless the heart acts as mediator.”

     If this preposterous plot had been all Metropolis had to offer, the world would never have missed the film that, through censorship and disdain at its length, had been cut away so much that at the end of his life, even Lang was convinced that his art work no longer existed. While the original film ran approximately 153 minutes, the one shown in the USA, with a rewrite by playwright Channing Pollack, ran for only 115 minutes, and later versions were winnowed down to 91 minutes (in the copy released in 1936, and archived in the Museum of Modern Art film library. The 1984 restoration, edited by Giorgio Morderer, featured added special effects and a pop soundtrack instead of intertitles. In 2002 Kino returned the original score and restored previously unknown sections of the film.

     In 2005 an historian and politician found a longer print in the National Film Archive of New Zealand, and in 2008 film historians found an original cut of the movie in the archives of the Museo del Cine in Buenos Aires, which, although in bad condition, added over a half an hour to the film. Only two scenes, one in which a monk preaches and a fight between Rotwang and Fredersen were in such bad condition that they could not be salvaged. Today, what is called “the complete” Metropolis, reissued in 2010, consists of a restored original with the missing links, which appear in a more scratched and grainy condition. Indeed, one might write about the experience of moving back and forth between the two versions as creating a sort of unintentional reverence for the work, as if the movie itself were a sort of holy grail brought back as much as possible into its original condition.

     What one perceives, despite the banal plot and the deteriorated, interleaved clips, however, is a thing of visual magnificence. The most expensive film of its time (made at a cost of over five million Reichsmarks in 1927), Lang’s work is a wonder even today, and visual splendors have been imitated in hundreds of other films. Lang’s creation of the city, both above and below ground, is a wonder to behold, and his scenes in Rotwang’s laboratory as the mad scientist transforms his metallized robot into a human being has been repeated in nearly every horror film that portrays such scenes. Just as remarkable are Lang’s portrayals of the masses, as they slowly march forward in what one can only describe as patterned dances, looking at times eerily like the films we have of Holocaust prisoners on their way to the showers.  Only at the foot the Heart Machine do they actually break into a leaping dance. So ritualistic and overpowering are these scenes, that the Nazi rallies and, particularly, Leni Riefensthal’s films employ crowds in a somewhat similar manner.

      Lang’s work, however, is far more than that. In Metropolis Art Deco takes on Bauhaus, Fascism rubs elbows with free-market consumerism, Karl Marx meets Marilyn Monroe.  

      So taken was Joseph Goebbels with Lang’s vision, that he offered the director the position of head of the Film Division of the Nazi government. Lang sat impatiently through the long conversations with Goebbels, only hoping to be able to get the bank before it closed. By the time Goebbels was finished with him, it was too late. Lang put together a few of his possessions and as much money has he could gather and left the country immediately, leaving behind his wife, Thea von Harbou, the writer of Metropolis, who remained a Nazi supporter throughout the War.

      Never would Lang again be able to make the brilliantly visual films that he had in Weimar Germany, although he did accomplish some fine works for the Hollywood industry. Metropolis, however, remains his cinematic highpoint, even though it is a far cruder film that his nightmarish M.

Los Angles, October 19, 2012

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