Sunday, September 26, 2010

On the Big Screen: METROPOLIS (1927)

About five years after I bought my "Restored Authorized Edition" DVD of Fritz Lang's silent superproduction, it became obsolete. A more complete, albeit damaged copy of the much-cut classic was found in Argentina, making possible the "Complete Metropolis" that's been playing select theaters around the world since its re-premiere at this year's Cannes Film Festival. It has just reached my neck of the woods, where it's playing at a venue that could have hosted its original American release. The Proctors theater in Schenectady, New York, was built in 1926 and is one of two still-functioning movie palaces in the Capital Region; the other is the Palace, a 1931 structure in Albany. Neither is a full-time movie house; the Palace hosts a variety of concerts and the top stand-up acts, while the Proctors showcases the touring companies of the big Broadway musicals. Both houses frequently run revivals, however, and Proctors goes the extra mile with movie events like the upcoming third annual "It Came From Schenectady" festival of sci-fi, horror and all-around weirdness. The Schenectady theater has one asset that makes it ideal for Metropolis and silent film in general: "Goldie," a Mighty Wurlitzer organ played this afternoon by Avery Tunningley. "Goldie" has accompanied silent-film revivals for about 25 years now, and I vividly remember a summer season dedicated to the Barrymores back in the late Eighties. It's been more than a decade since I last went to the Proctors, and longer since I'd heard "Goldie," so with Metropolis stopping in I decided to drop in. I felt it was a film to be seen on a big screen when you have a chance.

Proctors Theater of Schenectady outside and inside. Interior shot taken from

As many readers know by now, calling the current version "Complete" is a bit of a bait-and-switch. In a text preface Kino International calls Metropolis "virtually complete," and two scenes remain missing. One of those is pretty important; it's when the industrialist Joh Fredersen rescues Maria from the (putting it mildly) mad scientist C. A. Rotwang. The other is a church sermon on Revelation, with information repeated later to set up the "false Maria," Rotwang's "Machine-Man [?!?]" in human form, as an Antichrist figure. Still, there's a lot of "new" footage from Argentina, recognizable by its apparently irrevocably beat-up condition. The remarkable thing about this salvage is how much footage of Brigitte Helm as both Marias hit the cutting room floor in the past. You'd think that any distributor would want as much footage of the lead actress as possible, but the impulse to tighten the show for more showings was inexorable. This recovered footage basically extends existing scenes, but the extra shots of the real Maria struggling to activate the alarm bell in the flooding Worker City make the scene more clearly a parallel to Freder Fredersen's ordeal on that whatchamacallit with the clock hands after switching places with Georgy the worker.

The false Maria is such an Antichrist that she's an anti-cross, too.

Speaking of whom, that character (Erwin Biswanger) gets much of his story back, as the restoration includes his ill-fated trip to the Yoshiwara nightclub. Also enlarged in the new version are Josaphat (Theodor Loos), the flunky fired by Joh Fredersen but befriended by Freder, who's more clearly the No. 2 male hero here, and Fritz Rasp's creepy "Thin Man," Joh Fredersen's enforcer who persecutes Josaphat and Georgy, then appears as an apocalyptic preacher in Freder's delirium, and finally denounces Joh's selfishness during the climax.

I always assumed that the "C.A." in "C.A. Rotwang" stood for "Crazy Ass." How about you?

Curiously, I expected the big screen to really showcase Lang's sets and effects as well as his vast crowd scenes. It did that, but it really showcases the acting in a way the small screen doesn't. Metropolis is an allegory told through pantomime, that silent substitute for naturalist dialogue, and that requires the performers to go big. The stupendous Rudolph Klein-Rogge as Rotwang rises furiously to the occasion as expected, and on the big screen I better appreciated Gustave Froehlich's oft-maligned turn as Freder.

Our hero can seem like an over-earnest ninny, but Froehlich has to convey a sheltered youth's simultaneous discovery of workers' squalor and Maria's messianic beauty, his disillusion upon experiencing his father's heartlessness, his naivety in taking on crucial industrial work with no training whatsoever, and the romantic righteousness that impels him to become Maria's prophesied "Mediator," the Heart who will reconcile Head and Hand. Most importantly, Froehlich has to portray privileged guilelessness along with instinctive goodness -- a combination that makes him too good to be true for many people. But on the film's terms he acquits himself admirably, misstepping only when the script requires him to swoon into delirium when he sees "Maria" consorting with his dad. Speaking of dad, I came away from this viewing with greater respect for Alfred Abel's performance as Joh because he doesn't indulge in the general frantic gesticulation until very late in the game. While everyone emotes intensely around him, Abel is the calm eye of the storm, and his calmness ideally expresses his power. You can see that when he silences Freder, who's just burst into his office, with the slightest wave of the back of his hand.

"Good lord, Rotwang, are you blind as well as mad? How can you call that a Machine-Man?" Alfred Abel contemplates his nemesis.

The biggest challenge, of course, was faced by Brigitte Helm in her double role. As the original Maria she's amazing, a charismatic leader yet still hardly more than a girl all-too-easily and believably terrified by the onslaught of events. While she preaches the parable of Babel (equating class conflict with God's confusion of tongues) and predicts the Mediator, I found myself wondering why she couldn't be that awaited one. I'm not sure the film can answer that question, but it does emphasize her vulnerability as well as her bravery in a way that makes Freder's claim to the role implicitly necessary. As the false Maria, the robot, Helm has to articulate a somewhat different notion of artificial life than what prevails today. In our time, we define artificial life as heartless and thus emotionless. In Fritz Lang and Thea von Harbou's time, influenced by the German Alraune myth, they thought of artificial life as soulless and thus depraved. But while the false Maria is depraved, Helm still has to show that she's still a machine-man under that sensuous facade. She does that with the occasional facial tic and birdlike head movements that were probably imitated by Elsa Lanchester in Bride of Frankenstein -- a film for which Helm herself was reportedly considered. The overall effect sometimes contradicts itself, which brings us to one of my favorite subjects in the realm of cinematic revivals.

Throw Metropolis at a 2010 American audience and you run the risk of unintentional laughter. It should be no reflection on Lang if that happens, since it happens to a lot of classic films. I remember sitting through a campus screening where the audience chuckled their way through Paths of Glory, for instance. But while that film at least has a conscious satiric streak, Metropolis is a surpassingly humorless film, which puts it in peril if people start laughing. There were three significant outbursts of unintentional laughter at Proctors this afternoon. The first came during false-Maria's whore-of-Babylon dance at the Yoshiwara. Part of the laughter derives from the fact that Brigitte Helm does her best dancing while sitting perfectly still. Combine the spectacle of her stomping around half-naked with the shots of the young swells ogling and leering at her and you get unintentional laughter, though to be fair to Helm the laughs fell when the swells were on screen.

It's terrible, but you can't look away. Brigitte Helm does the Robot.

Another unintentional laugh-moment comes when the fickle workers, having learned that false-Maria's revolutionary tactics have put all their children in mortal peril, decide to burn "the witch" at the stake. The laughter comes when Grot, the big foreman who had resisted her machine-smashing scheme all along, breaks into a victory jig as she goes up in flames. That does seem out of character for someone who comes across as level-headed and conscientious throughout, but for the people at Proctor's a fat guy dancing was just funny. The funny thing about that to me is that Grot, as mostly underplayed by Heinrich George and as a big slob, is one of the most modern-looking and modern-seeming characters in the picture.

Ding, Dong, the 'witch' is dead. Heinrich George does the happy dance.

One more laugh came during the admittedly protracted and anticlimactic cathedral chase involving the real Maria, Rotwang and Freder. Once Rotwang had grabbed Maria and started climbing the roof the Proctors audience was tittering at how over the top the scene was. On the other hand, once Freder finally sends Rotwang over the railing and down to his doom the crowd burst into applause, and they cheered again once Freder and Maria were united for good. What does that tell us? It tells me that despite some awkwardness that has to be expected given the 83 year gap from production then to projection now, Metropolis still works. And why shouldn't it? Its influence has recurred so often in movies that in some ways it still feels contemporary. Watching it today for the umpty-umpth time, I felt retroactive echoes in my memories of not only Bride of Frankenstein but in a wild array of pictures from The Ten Commandments (the Mediator angle anticipates DeMille's unbiblical Deliverer concept) to Tim Burton's Batman films (in ways too many to list) to Howard Hawks's Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (the interaction of a seductress and a mob of tuxedo-clad suitors on a staircase). Metropolis isn't even my favorite Fritz Lang silent film (ask me about his Nibelungen films sometime), but I'd be willing to say that it transcends lists of personal favorites and transcends film itself. It's an authentic 20th century myth, one misheeded by its own authors (for Thea von Harbou, it seemed, the Mediator was Hitler) and by many in its original audience, and more poignant for all that. But now it belongs to the ages, and the "Complete" version will be out on DVD soon enough -- but if you have a chance to see it on a big screen, with a live audience and a live accompaniment, do so.

For the record, I paid $12 to see Metropolis, though I could have taken $2 off had I bought a ticket in advance. That's the same amount I paid to see a matinee of Toy Story 3 in 3D. That should give you a good objective idea of what $12 is worth to a moviegoer. Accept nothing less for your money.


Telugu News said...

Thanks for the information

Paul said...

Thanks for coming out to see this, and thanks also for writing about it. Love your blog! Glad to now know about it. If you should make it to one of our "It Came From Schenectady" events, be sure to introduce yourself!

The Vicar of VHS said...

Samuel, I'm very jealous of your experience! I would love to see METROPOLIS on the big screen. Even on small ones its special effects still hold up pretty damn well, and those sets! I know that the few older movies that I have been able to see in large format--King Kong, The Maltese Falcon, Casablanca--all benefit greatly from the increased scope, and in each case I noticed things about a performance or a set-piece that had escaped me on TV at home. I'm sure that METROPOLIS would be full of such moments for me, the ones you mention here and others as well.

Too bad Arkansas has so few revival houses within its borders. :P

Samuel Wilson said...

Paul: I'm thinking it over right now; this year's "Proctoberfest" lineup looks pretty promising.

Vicar: The really great thing about Metropolis at Proctor's on top of catching fresh details and nuances was the crowd response, both the laughter and the cheers. There were several hundred people there for the Sunday matinee (admirably well advertised, btw), and it felt like they were all getting into it. I'd be thrilled to hear from anyone who went to the Monday night show.

I've been lucky enough to see such classics as SPARTACUS, GIANT, THE WILD BUNCH, THE LEOPARD, VERTIGO and REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE on big screens, along with a bunch of stuff at Proctors over the years. But the picture that really bowled me over the most on a big screen was Robert Aldrich's 1954 western VERA CRUZ. The picture was filmed in "Superscope" and on a gigantic Harvard screen that name was no hype!

Brent said...

I'm very fortunate like yourself to have seen this film on the bigscreen.I've actually seen it twice that way. It is a true classic of cinema even though it is uncomplete. I saw it about 10 years ago and then again last year. I liked it the first time but with age and more life experience I saw this film alot differently and actually understood it more. And with the advent of CGI in film these days Metropolis really highlights that special effects in film are nothing new. Only the techniques have changed , and I'm sure everyone who has an eye for film knows spectacular special effects don't necessarily make for a good film.
I think this must go down as one the great films. It must be viewed through the eyes of the time. Visually it may have dates but it was revolutionary in its day and even now the the moral isn't less potent for its age.