Necessary Overload

*Good Times Dept: I recently saw the 1927 Fritz Lang silent epic Metropolis for the third time.

In a real theater (a throwback art deco thing at that), on a big screen.

I’ve never seen a silent film on the big screen before.

It was perfect.

Well, ok - I guess there could have been a live orchestra, and a pristine, scratch-free print, and inserts in the original German with English subtitles - but it fully met my generalized expectations for presentation, and even exceeded a few of them, which made it ‘perfect’ for me, as badly stretched as my definition might be.

Ah, but then we have the film itself.


Good old Metropolis. Who hasn’t seen that famous robot before, even if they haven’t seen the film itself? And many have seen the film who didn’t quite get into silent film in general, as Metropolis tends to be one of the big ‘gateway’ films to the world of silent cinema - it’s generally something by Buster Keaton, something by Charlie Chaplin, F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu (that was mine), or the Lang colossus. Not all pass through the gateway, but they do see the gateway nonetheless. It helps that the film is widely available in a multitude of different versions, having temporarily lapsed into the public domain in the US - it’s said that Lang’s original vision didn’t survive more than a few years before entering the realm of lost films, with the US only receiving a heavily edited and re-written version (courtesy of Channing Pollock) for the work’s initial theatrical run, and subsequent German releases being shorn of much footage. And then there’s the infamous tinted 1984 restoration by Giorgio Moroder, backed by the sounds of Adam Ant and Loverboy with all of the intertitles ripped out and replaced with subtitles atop the ongoing action - actually, I’d rather like to see that, though there’s no R1 dvd.

The most recent restoration follows the original German storyline, retains the intertitles, provides a rendition of Gottfried Huppertz’s orchestral score as provided for the film’s 1927 premiere, contains the most footage, and offers special intertitles (in a different font) describing what happens in scenes considered lost. It is kind of a downer to experience a whole bunch of build only to have to read about a big fight scene, but such are the pitfalls of film deterioration. I also recall the R1 dvd (from Kino) being somewhat overcranked, though oddly I didn’t detect any such speeding in this theatrical presentation, though it’s the same restoration and I doubt the theater was running it at anything other than 24 fps (the runtime was still just over two hours, for instance - slowing it up would but it close to two and a half). Maybe the theatrical experience managed to overpower my senses in a way that my television cannot manage.

Preventing the viewer from coming to their senses is generally a good strategy for a showing of Metropolis - it's one of those films that's so big, so old, so influential, so troubled, so iconic, that many gloss over the problems the film has. It's a flawed work, in my opinion, sporting Lang's consummate command of the visual cinema, some really fun performances, and special effects that always remain charming (and sometimes remain impressive) close to eight decades after the fact, but also cardboard characters running around in the service of a simplistic political message, hammering overuse of biblical allusion, ineffective romance, occasionally silly plot contortions used to prod the story forward, a few below-average bits of acting (perhaps attributable to said cardboard characters), and a general tendency on the director's part to spell everything out for the audience. And I don't think I'm imposing unwarranted criticism on a film from an earlier age - I've seen a lot of silent films, and Metropolis is overbaked given even that comparison.

But flawed doesn't necessarily mean 'not good' - I'd go so far as to say Metropolis is great (I mean, I've seen it three times now), and that's because visual acumen is simply more beneficial to a silent film than it is for a contemporary picture. It's not the only necessary element, though, at least not in a film like Metropolis, one that also strives to convey a political message and tell a fairly detailed story. This isn't Battleship Potemkin, which dispenses almost entirely with character primacy (all the better to emphasize the good of the collective!) and complex plot-driven narrative to focus mainly on a visceral cinematic experience related to a particular event - Lang's film spends time with characters, who nurture relationships and hatch schemes, but not in a terribly interesting way.

The plot, in case you're not familiar, concerns Gustav Fröhlich as a child of privilege, cavorting through the upper levels of a gleaming urban sprawl (apparently free of any government, save for the will of the masters of commerce) and frolicking with fancy-clad women, until he lays eyes on saintly, conservatively-attired Brigitte Helm, hero of the working class, all of which must work to the bone in awful conditions, dwelling in the lowest regions of the sprawl. Needless to say, Fröhlich falls wildly in love with this pious lass and never once stops being a dippy, starry-eyed blank of a personality. Which is maybe kind of the point, though it does the film little good, particularly given the actor's wide-eyed performance, over-the-top but never imbuing his character with the personality that good stylized silent acting can manage. Not that all silent acting needs be over-the-top - Alfred Abel plays the lad's father, master of the city, and his is a sly, quiet performance, slowly burning with cunning and dry menace. He's complimented by Dr. Mabuse himself, the great Rudolf Klein-Rogge, who plays a crazed scientist who rants and raves with style and regality.

Abel is pissed at his son's sudden interest in the lower classes, and he really doesn't like their affection for Helm (a possible subversive organizing force), so he has Klein-Rogge kidnap the gal and use her image as basis for the scientist's new robot (puzzlingly called a 'machine-man' in the English translation, even though it's obviously female), also played by Helm (even in skinless machine form) in a mirror image of her other performance - this artificial woman is loose and wild and lusty and evil, driving the people to violent revolution in opposition to Good Helm's preaching of non-violent mediation. So yes, one is a complete Madonna, and the other a whore, and no there is no middle ground. One cares for children, needs to be saved by men from any danger, enjoys chaste kisses, and screams a lot. The other lives wild and free, laughs in the face of any threat, drives men wild with lust, and loves that old ultraviolence. And also isn't really human. The latter gets burned at the fucking stake in the end, whilst saintly Good Helm stands around beaming as her boyfriend provides the film's final symbolic gesture. I expect it is intentional that Helm's performance as the evil robot is about 10,000% more interesting, as she does have to appear appealing for plot purposes, but that doesn't excuse the fact that she struggles to do what little she can with her other, nothing role, requiring only yelling and beatific gazes.

There's also a subplot involving the robot also being meant as a substitute for a lost love that connects Klein-Rogge and Abel, though it goes absolutely nowhere (maybe because footage is missing, though the new intertitles don't really offer much help on that front). Ditto for whatever it was Abel's plans for using the robot were - at one point he wants it to sew discord, but then we're told he's being manipulated by Klein-Rogge, but then he's apparently going along with the same plan on his own accord because it'll allow him to use violence on the workers - this also goes nowhere, since it's quickly subsumed into the main 'message.'

Which is pretty much that we need to find a peaceful common ground between total industrial oppression and a people's revolution. Amusingly, the film starts out firmly on the side of the workers, making it seem like almost a classic Soviet propaganda picture - soon, though, it becomes clear that the film has as little respect for the common mob as it does for the monied class, the mass of workers proven again and again to be needlessly destructive, superstitious, and willing to recklessly tear down a society's good in favor of vulgar instant gratification. Both sides need a mediator, a heart, or none can be truly happy. And if you're willing to read the plot as a sort of fable that exists mainly to provide that message, perhaps you can overlook some of the more nonsensical bits of the story later on. Some might say reading any 'sense' into this film is a mistake, but I think it oversteps the bounds of sheer fantasy aesthetic by placing often silly actions in service of a political message and what at least attempts to be a grounded, character-driven plot.

But oh! Oh that visual style! That goes so very far. As I've said before, references to biblical stories are repeated a few too many times, and it maybe feels that way because Lang's use of repeating visual motifs is so strong, a gigantic Tower of Babel sequence evoked time and again later in the film, often through pure character positioning and motion, when the same message of violent, destructive revolution is needed. Characters don't need to repeat the actual words, though they often do. Words aren't needed so much here - seemingly every scene benefits from Lang's ability to convey meaning through visual action, Abel showing us his disregard for the lower classes by drawing the curtains of his office's picture window to a close. The pure impact of the visuals is often outstanding, like a scene where Fröhlich writhes in bed as the evil robot dances wildly in a club, men panting and gazing like Tex Avery wolves, Lang eventually transforming them into a horrid flesh creature of a dozen leering eyes through multiple exposures, Helm's dance punctuated with the ejaculative tooting of the workday whistle, cuts and cross-cuts over and over, until a church-bound statue of Death itself springs to life and approaches the viewer, its scythe swiping, and then a final cut back to the bedridden young noble, a big fat scratch inflicted directly upon the print to mark the arc of doom's attack.

Truly, it's scenes like that, especially on the big screen, that form Metropolis' great triumph (also the famous model designs and special effects and the like). The sheer cinema of it envelops you, capturing you in the occasion. The viewer is carried toward the finale, lifted up on Lang's prowess. That on the walk to the car afterward it finally begins to unravel, that the faults and the shortcuts and the prodding begin to nag at you, does not entirely erase the joy of being there. The third time's the charm, and the joy was still there for me, after years of potential contemplation. It may never fade.