Sunday, August 1, 2010

Metropolis

Fritz Lang's utterly breathtaking film, his complexly realized world, Metropolis, still represents one of the unavoidable foundation myths for our world, all these years later, in the ruins of The Future.

Because silent film relied primarily on visuals to entertain and to score its points, one recalls the novelty of film as an international medium. Perhaps more so then than now, where language in sound films may function as a culturally reductive valve. This is, self-consciously, a story told in images for the world stage.

The use of inter-titles to advance the plot (in cases, because the original stock was apparently all but destroyed by Nazi culturati in ferocious retribution against both modernism and The Future), ironically, makes this film that much more the moving-picture-book fairy-tale it sets out to be. It is a young man's apprenticeship story, a young prince's battle against a sorcerer (the Technocrat) and the sorcerer's monster (the Robot). It is a sentimental love story, chalk full of a male suitor's inspired heroics at the pains of first love. There are large battle scenes. A Joan of Arc retelling plays out in demonic inversion. There are two sets of doubles. Elements of the Prince and the Pauper make an appearance. I sense Zola's Nana was an influence.

The monumentalism of modernity is assigned an epic fate, in the form of a question: What is to be done now this thing it is built? Class has a literal infrastructure, elaborated architecturally: underground for the workers, high up for the managerial class. In between, there lies a maze. The Future is the combination of surface aesthetics from the banal present (Art Deco) exacerbated into a Babylonian nightmare of scale and prop-based sci fi.

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THE STORY OF MODERNITY, in this case, is the story of a single city. This makes Metropolis very close to classical drama, a sense of unity despite the frequent cut shots. The film's pacing is stately. The characters interact with this overwhelming city via cut-aways to expressionistic sets built on large stages, where the actors have plenty of room to interact, move around. The features of factories, gardens, offices, etc. are exaggerated.

The machines and scenes describing mechanization of labour are uniquely gorgeous. Theatrically effective *because* the labor-machines are sets built on stages, this film is much closer to a stage production (albeit baroque) than the total illusion more usual to contemporary narrative cinema, with their unlimited budgets for technical wizardry. Metonymy and imagination intervene largely to complete the viewer's sense.

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THE CHARACTER OF THE TECHNOCRAT (who, along with his Robot, is the only irredeemable villain of the story) pulls from the wells of folklore and stock types, a combination of mad scientist and sorcerer. Faustian science and black magic, herein, are synonymous. The Technocrat is also part machine. His one hand is of iron. He sees with a spotlight.

Interestingly, the Hero, by standards of contemporary thrillers, is not a particularly effective one. Physical acts require massive and exaggerated outlay of energies. He is often breaking down into nervous exhaustion. His physical mastery is undermined by slapstick clumsiness, bringing Charlie Chaplin to mind. Yet we are to understand he is young and strong. At a key development in the narrative, he is overcome by ennui then sidelined for much of the ensuing crisis. This revolves around a misunderstanding that the girl he loves has been corrupted. In fact, she has been replaced by a robot infiltrator.

Rare for this film, otherwise so heartfelt and moral, a small cloud of ambivalence in its generous empathy haunts the portrayal of the Robot and her ensuing fate. Even to cast aside the conceit of doubling (that the actress who plays the saboteur robot is also the virtuous heroine, the chief voice of political concern; that, to us, these characters are *supposed* to remain different), one detects an undercurrent of erotic, sympathetic fascination for the thin line separating utopianism from fanaticism, chaste love from sexual aggression, christian virtue from satanic riot, labour from automatism, activist intervention from sabotage. This fascination with duality is not given very searching treatment within the dutiful moral machinery of the plot. That this character is ultimately burned at the stake, this Robot Witch Saint, to put aside the more obvious overtures of misogyny, for me, simply is not an effective exorcism. The Robot is the one character that *comes to life* in the film, leaving behind the stock type of sentimental heroine from nineteenth century novels. This winking Robot has the vivaciousness and frenetic charisma one associates with all later film divas. She is the most modern character in this film.

c/f Transcript
c/f  Behind the Scenes of “Metropolis”, 1925-1926 | Retronaut
c/f Stunning Behind-the-Scenes Photos Show Iconic Movies in a New Light
c/f 1927 Magazine Looks at Metropolis, "A Movie Based On Science" | Paleofuture
c/f Metropolis 1927 - Film Archive - Scene & Intertitle Listing
c/f Metropolis : Thea von Harbou : Metropolis, the novel 

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