The Blindspot Series is a series of twelve posts spread throughout the year designed to offer bloggers a chance to catch up classic films we somehow may have missed. Started by The Matinee, here is my list of Blindspot films for 2015. First up for January is Fritz Lang’s Metropolis.
My viewing of Metropolis is still a little bit incomplete. After having recorded the 2010 restored version off of TCM, my cable went out about an hour or so into the film, and I found another version on Youtube that I’m pretty sure is not the 2010 one. So I’ve seen some of the restored footage, but not all. I intend to solider on with the review, and revisit it if my cable is fixed and I can see the full version.
Metropolis is often thought to be the pinacle of silent film. Indeed, it is one of the best silent films I’ve seen. The story is very elaborate and confusing (though perhaps it would have been clearer without my mixing up the different versions), but the filmmaking is powerful. Most importantly, it kept me involved the entire time despite the crazy story it was offering.
Metropolis is a futuristic city with two classes. The lower class slaves away at the machines underground in ten hour shifts in order to keep Metropolis functioning, whereas the upper class just lies around and parties all day above them. This is with the exception of Metropolis’s ruler Joh Frederson (Alfred Abel), who is the brain of the city and manages the workers. Freder (Gustav Frohlich), his son, is blissfully unaware of the inquality in the city until Maria (Brigitte Helm) bursts into the upper part of the city with a horde of ragged children, forcing Freder to think about his privledged status. This leads Freder to explore the undgerground part of the city, trade lives with one of the workers (Erwin Biswanger), confront his father about the workers’ opression, and fall in love with Maria.
Complicting matters is Rotwang (Rudolph Klein-Rogge), a mad scientist who has a grudge against Frederson because they were in love with the same woman. He makes a robot, and at the request of Frederson, gives it the appearence of Maria, and sends it to incite the violent rebellion of the workers. Maria has been a leader advocating for peacefull negotiation rather than violence, but when the Machine Man (Brigitte Helm again) becomes her double, all of this changes. Freder and Maria must save the workers from and dangerous flood caused by the destruction of the machines, then confront Freder’s father about the injustice in Metropolis.
There are constant biblical references throughout the film. Rotwang’s lair is decorated with pentagrams, and his machinery doubtless inspired the laboratory in the classic Frankenstein films. Maria is seen as a sort of Christain leader, often surrounded by candles and advocating nonviolence. Meanwhile, the Machine Man is portrayed as a hyper-sexual harpy, tempting the men in the upper part of the city with sex and the lower part with violence. Freder also has dreams of the apocalypse, a particularly terrifying dream shows statues representing the seven deadly sins coming to life and dancing around the grim reaper, and can be seen as a Christ-like figure.
The other major way the film makes its point is through the relationship of the humans to their environment. The city of Metropolis dwarves all the humans living in it, especially the workers. The workers are almost always stuck in a very small portion of the bottom of the frame, and in the beginning of the film are rarely afforded closeups. The people in the upper part of the city are still framed this way, but not nearly as often. They are also given many more closeups. The workers are also trapped in their machinery, each moving mechanically in their isolated niches.
The production design of Metropolis may be its most powerful asset. Metropolis is undeniably expressionist, and as I am a pretty big fan of German Expressionism this is one of my favorite things about the film. The buildings are often disjointed and angular, and with the exception of Rotwang’s house, they are all huge. The actors take up only a tiny amount of space in comparison to the rooms they’re in. There is also a creepy underground cave and giant elevators that carry hundreds of workers. One of my favorite sets was the first machine Freder sees, and he has a vision of it turning into a giant monster that consumes the workers in its mouth of fire (I couldn’t help but think that Lang is foreshadowing the holocaust with this scene). The one that Freder ends up working at is shaped like a clock, showing how the workers are slaves to their ten hour shifts.
I really ended up liking Metropolis, though the sort of random nature of how the events play out did bother me a little bit. Everything makes sense, but it’s to imagine why the characters have to go about achieving their goals in such roundabout ways. The acting style is also going to be hard for modern viewers to take, though for the most part I think it works within the bizarre mileu of the film. Everything is very jerky and exaggerated, keeping with the Expressionist style.
I’m really glad I finally had a chance to catch up with Metropolis. I don’t think it’s destined to become one of my favorite films of all time or anything, but I did enjoy watching it and greatly appreciated the craftsmanship that went into it. I thought the spirit of the film of nonviolent resistence and cooperation between different classes really powerful, and the possible forwshadowing of the Third Reich really creepy. The story and characters may be a bit random, but on the whole the technical aspects are masterfully carried out and the film ends up working really well.
“There can be no understanding between the hand and the brain unless the heart acts as mediator.”
Long story short: 3.5/4 stars
For Further Reading:
The next Blindspot will be on James Cameron’s Titantic, coming February 22nd.