Wednesday, July 14, 2010

At the Cinema: the (almost) complete METROPOLIS

Just got in from seeing the almost-complete cut of Fritz Lang's METROPOLIS at DC's Avalon Theater.


OK, it's hard to write anything about this 1927 flick that hasn't been discussed to death before, but I'm going to go ahead and write a few things about it.

A quick rundown of the plot, for those who haven't seen it before. At some unspecified time, presumably in the future, there's a huge city, Metropolis. Underground there are dispirited workers who slave away at the machines that keep the city running. The city is the brainchild of industrial titan Joh Frederson. His son, Freder Frederson, is a spoiled child of privilege, romping in a luxury garden until he sees the lovely Maria (Brigitte Helm) leading a group of the workers' children into the garden, calling on the rich to see their brothers. Freder is taken by her beauty and at once is a convert to her philosophy, and goes to the undercity for the first time to see for himself the conditions of the workers. He witnesses an explosion at a giant machine and in a mini-nervous breakdown, envisions it as the fiery idol Moloch. He rushes to his father's office, but his father is uncaring, except for firing Josaphat for being behind in the news. Freder stops Josaphat from committing suicide and convinces him to be on his side. Freder returns to the undercity, switching places with a worker, and meets Maria again when she leads a church service/rally in which she promises a mediator who will be the heart that connects the brain and the hand. Naturally, Freder sees himself as that mediator.

Meanwhile, Joh Frederson pays a call on mad scientist Rotwang (Rudolf Klein-Rogge), who was once in love with Frederson's wife, Hel, who died giving birth to Freder. Rotwang has now constructed a robot woman to take Hel's place, at the cost of his hand. Frederson has some charts that have been found on the workers, and Rotwang deduces that they lead to a chamber in the 2,000 year old catacombs beneath the city. The two go there and spy on Maria's lecture, and determine to make use of Rotwang's robot. In the now-famous transformation scene, the robot is made to look like Maria, and is sent to destroy the worker's trust in her.

Freder has a big nervous breakdown finding the evil Maria in his father's arms. Evil Maria does an erotic dance in the decadent Yoshiwara nightclub, embarking on a career of sin and depravity while inciting the workers to revolt. This is all Rotwang's doing, part of his own plan to destroy Frederson. Eventually, she leads the workers to destroy the machines...which leads to the flooding of the worker's underground city. The real Maria escapes and makes it to the city, in time to be joined by Freder and Josaphat as they rescue the worker's children. The workers realize too late what they've done, and hunt for Maria on the surface, chasing the good one until they finally meet the evil one, partying with her Yoshiwara friends. Evil Maria is burned at the stake in front of the cathedral, good Maria is almost killed by Rotwang until rescued by Freder, and a hopeful future is promised.

Quite a story, eh?

First off, I've seen it before, many times, and seeing the new footage is amazing. There's an entire subplot that was lost, in which industrial titan Joh Frederson (Alfred Abel) sends his operative, the Thin Man (Fritz Rasp) to spy on his son Freder (Gustav Frohlich), and a lot of scenes with Frederson's former assistant Josaphat (Theodor Loos), in his city apartment and aiding Freder.

There's also short scenes that were cut that add dimension to the story. There's many reaction shots of Joh Frederson that let us see him as other than a sneering rich bitch, but as a man moved by what he's seeing, but not enough to make him sway from doing what he thinks is best for his position.

There's some bad, too. The extended cut lets us see how badly Helm chomps the scenery; her Evil Maria struck me as closer to Carole Lombard doing a parody of villainy. The final confrontation on the roof the cathedral goes on waaaay too long. Freder's character is inconsistent; one moment he's strong and driven by a sense of purpose, the next he's a weak, neurasthenic fool having hallucinations from his latest psychotic episode. The Thin Man seems fairly silly today, and Freder's interactions with Josaphat almost always include long hugs and extreeemely close face-to-face conversations, and I kept expecting them to start playing tonsil hockey right then and there.

But there's a lot that's interesting. METROPOLIS is a surprisingly Gothic film. Rotwang's house is a medieval pile almost forgotten in the towers of the city, and his laboratory seems equally scientific and supernatural. There's even hints of black magic with his robot, who sits before an upside-down pentagram.

There's the presence of the crumbling cathedral, complete with a statue of Death and the Seven Deadly Sins that animate during one of Freder's hallucinations. And a ton of Biblical references, to boot. Maria tells the story of the Tower of Babel as a parable of brain vs. the hand. The Evil Maria dances dressed as the Whore of Babylon (seen in a Bible earlier) and finishes her number seated atop the ten-headed dragon on a pedestal held aloft by the Seven Deadly Sins. (Gee, symbolic?)

Of course, there's all the social/political/economic factors at work here. It can be seen as anticapitalist, as it condemns the exploitation of the working man by the oligarchy. But...the rebellion and mob rule of the proletariat is portrayed as counterproductive and self-destructive. The Bolshevik Revolution was still fresh in everyone's minds and one can suppose that there was quite a bit of commentary going on about that in here. The regimented life of the exploited workers can be viewed as both a result of unregulated free market capitalism and as the result of communism. There's definitely a criticism of mob rule going on here, when the workers destroy their own city and endanger their children's lives, then immediately nearly kill the good-hearted Maria, who only sought to improve their condition.

The film's message, applied with a sledgehammer, is that "The Mediator between the head and the hand must be the heart!" and it makes sense. METROPOLIS doesn't necessarily condemn or condone capitalism or socialism or communism, but is really a call for understanding and compassion between the levels of society, and an end to exploitation.

There's still sections missing; title cards talk about missing scenes of Freder seeing a monk preach in the cathedral, and a missing scene of Frederson's struggle with Rotwang. This cut is about 2 1/2 hours long; supposedly Lang's full cut was a full hour longer than that, and I doubt we'll ever see it.

It's making the rounds, folks, so go see this if you can. Despite a few flaws, it's still an amazing experience and well worth seeing. And I think it's due on DVD come fall...

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