An essay by: Witney Seibold
It’s difficult for many modern audiences to connect with silent film. We’re used to a brand of slick, talky pseudo-realist melodrama, and have difficulty absorbing the bombastic acting and superobvious hyper-melodrama of the silent era. I have watched silent films with jaded classmates and inexperienced film-watchers and have observed snickers and disinterest at some of the bulging eyes, florid gesticulations, and grotesque mugging.
Take, to name an instance, Erich von Stroheim’s 1924 superepic “Greed.” In a modern film, we’d probably have a 100-minute subtle drama about people quietly stabbing one another in the back over the idea of money; we’d have something like a Neil LaBute film. In 1924, though, with grander financial resources, and a more bombastic dominating aesthetic, we are given a 9 ½-hour pain-fest of epic deception, the absolute nadir of suffering, and a final scene in which a man is chained to a dead body in the middle of a desert, watching his beloved pet canary die on his empty canteen. The drama has been ratcheted up to unnatural levels, and that ratcheting tends to alienate the average modern film viewer.
Surely, however, there are silent films that are worthy of not only a look, but detailed discussion and study. Right? How many have you, the average modern filmgoer, seen (And know that I address this question not to film nuts like myself, who have probably had to see “Metropolis” and others as part of voluntarily-taken film courses, but to the people who make Adam Sandler films #1 at the box office on opening weekend)? Not enough is the answer. The film camera was invented around 1890, and sound didn’t enter the picture until 1929. These were vital and glorious experimental years of unequaled creativity. Missing silent films is like missing every film made from 1960 to 2000. Well, maybe not exactly (you can calm down, film historians; I know history is not that simple), but know what a large portion of film history is being missed by average viewers. O Mr. and Ms. Average, I implore you, take a gander at Fritz Lang’s 1927 science fiction masterpiece “Metropolis” (I got some other silents on my list as well, but we’ll stay with this one for the time being).
“Metropolis” does indeed have loads of overacting. Alfred Abel who plays Joh Frederson mugs with the worst of them, and mad scientist Rotwang (Rudolph Klein-Rogge) makes Batman villains look restrained. The story is overplayed, and the Moral of the Story is pounded into us with a hammer, repeated ad nauseum until even infant sleeping in the back of the theater could repeat it to you. The good guys are all handsome and dashing and wearing white. The bad guys all scowl and gnash and exist in dark, cavernous places. The rich are extra-rich, and the poor and sweaty and destitute. This is not a film of underhanded themes. The noir-ish expressionism even goes past the film’s usual melodrama in some cases, and breaks into a hideous dumb-show.
So it’s not subtle, and it’s not as slick as many of today’s science fiction films. “Metropolis,” however, should not be dismissed. It is indeed, quite possibly the single most visually influential film in cinema. The film is nearly 80 years old, and yet its casuals are still grand and gorgeous and breathtaking. The huge flying bridgeways, the elaborate gardens, the subterranean lairs, the masses of workers being sacrificed to the Machine. While, as story elements, they may not be subtle, there is no denying how striking these images are. The exteriors of Metropolis, marvels of model-building, forced perspective and special effects, have burned their way into the collective filmgoer’s consciousness, and have influenced many artists and filmmakers (sci-fi and not) in the ensuing decades. Frankenstein’s laboratory is obviously modeled after Rotwang. Historical epics like “Ben-Hur” (1959) and “Cleopatra” (1963) no doubt took cues from the
Babel sequences. The city of Metropolis has been the model for other celebrated sci-fi films’ cities including Ridley Scott’s overrated-but-beautiful “Blade Runner,” (1982) and Alex Proyas’ underrated-and-beautiful “Dark City” (1997) The Big City (in a sci-fi film) was re-imagined by Fritz Lang, and any science fiction film since has had Metropolis as its model. Anyone interested in the genre needs to see this film. Rotwang, with his sneers, wild hair, and gloved hand seems to be the model for what we think of a mad scientist. The great machines below the city look like they are powering a city, and more powerfully invoke industrial-revolution fears than Charlie Chaplin’s popular classic “Modern Times” (1936). Indeed, a 2001 animated film with the same title (not to mention near-identical themes) was released in
Japan by Osamu Tezuka.
This list of the film’s influences is endless, and any science-fiction film of today, from Alien” to “Batman,” owe much to the visual innovation conceived in 1927 by Fritz Lang and his team. “2001: A Space Odyssey” would not exist where it not for “Metropolis.”
The robot in this film is one of the most popular images in film, and deserves a close look herself. Not that she necessarily represents anything hugely significant to the world at large; she is essentially just an image. But, what an image! She was a prelude to Gort, to the robots in “Star Wars,” she inspired Isaac Asimov, and made machines “real” for the first time. The idea of robots had been around for only a few decades, and now we were seeing one, in the flesh, so to speak. Her bare, machine parts, exposed, shining. Her awkward walk was decidedly machine-like (yet she was still played by Brigitte Helm). It must have been extraordinary to beat the premiere and witnessing a robot, a real-life robot, for the first time. Awe-inspiring, terrifying. A testament to the capabilities of human’s technological know-how, and a Frankensteinian horror beyond our control.
I will admit to being more than a little disturbed on my last viewing of “Metropolis,” when the angry mob burned the robot at the stake, and her human façade burned off. It was unsettling to see the human become the machine again.
In my essay on “The Day the Earth Stood Still,” I pointed out the function of all great science-fiction: that the genre uses its own fantasy elements to uncover and dispel social stigma and vague societal paranoia that might be too touchy otherwise. “The Day the Earth Stood Still” took on the nation’s nuclear fears at the time by disguising them as Gort. One of the reasons “The Day the Earth Stood Still” is an entertaining film is because it puts those fears into an historical context; we look at the 1950s through the lens of history, and, seeing as we now know that the world did not come to nuclear annihilation, see nuclear fear as slight, even quaint. “Metropolis” covers a bit more ground than vague nuclear fears. It dares to challenge the very socio-political structure of 1920s
The Communist Manifesto was published in 1848, and it swept through
Europe. Socialism was taking hold in the world, and new governments were being built. There had already been a World War, and millions had already died. Modern issues of class were beginning to crop up; the world seemed to become intensely aware of the fact that we had workers and non-working rich in charge of them. Of course, this is largely the way most Western societies have been constructed since day one, but it seems that Marx brought it into stark relief, and began to cheer the working man. He called for revolutions, and not reforms. Marx, it should be remembered, was deported for his writings, and governments rose and fell, made friends and enemies, based on new class-based beliefs. Nietzsche was writing in Germany mere decades before “Metropolis” was filmed, and he was calling for a change so profound it stretched beyond ay political schema (of course, this was the time when Nietzsche was being wildly misinterpreted by backers of the Nazi party; Hitler would be invading Poland in 12 years time). Change, a destruction of the old ways, a serious social self-examination was underway in
Revolutions! Wars! Class! Ideals! Idioms! Political theory! Oh my! So how does one artist deal with these social issues of the times without being a politician, or a revolutionary? How does one make art about, or socially address the masses on, the huge socio-political mess that’s tromping through
Europe? Why, make a science-fiction film, of course. Fritz Lang set his film in Metropolis, an imaginary city of the future that is in no country, and follows only vaguely any set political modes. The classes are indeed separated. There are talks in the film of revolutions and the lower classes rising to destroy the rich. These things are, as I have said, are not exactly subtle, but they are coded enough to easily sneak past the eyes of some of the more prickly world leaders who would be keeping an eye on such things.
And what are the politics of “Metropolis?” Obviously, it’s not in favor of the workers being exploited, especially as the rich do nothing but vapidly cavort upstairs. The workers are indeed oppressed and treated like chattel, as we see in Joh’s hallucination of Moloch. The rich are definitely bad guys, as they do nothing but hang about in horrendously glitzy gardens, and occasionally (for reasons I was not able to discern) plot to kill all of the city’s workers. I think they wanted to replace the workers with robots, but it’s not made too explicit. So: rich = bad, poor = slave.
The film, however, does not advocate bloody revolution. In fact, I like how it sneakily suggests how counterintuitive revolution actually is. The bad guys, not the good guys, are the ones who try to cause a worker uprising. The real heroine, Maria (Brigitte Helm), a Messiah-like peacenik, looks not for a shift of power, but a simple moderator who is of neither class, a philosopher who will think with both head and heart.
I like the non-violent solution the film suggests. I like that it preaches against the revolutions made so popular by Marx. It’s kind of comforting to see that, especially after seeing so many science-fiction (and other genre) films of this type that all call for mayhem and vainglorious conquering of the Bad Guy. A recent socio-political sci-fi film “V for Vendetta” ends with the destruction of a large government building, and the out-and-out ousting of the Big-Brother-like government. The film was tastefully done, but it’s hard to get past its messages of a need for violence.
“Metropolis” does not call for a balance shift. It does not want the slave workers to take over; the slave-workers are not fit to be in charge, and the rich rulers are foolish enough to think that they can quell a workers’ revolt. It calls for something very simple: better communication between the classes. The rich can stay rich, the poor can stay poor, but if they actually understand one another, then class separation is o.k.
Is it a practical political philosophy? Well, that’s one of lecture halls. Is the message complex? Certainly not. Are these new ideas? Let me just say that if the concepts of “slaves” and “philosopher rulers” sound familiar, it’s because you’ve studied Nietzsche and Plato respectively (hi, Nora!). And Plato was writing about this stuff a couple hundred years before Christ was around.
Ultimately, I think Fritz Lang, like a lot of Germans at the time, saw the coming of the Nazi party, or at least a change for the worse politically (“Metropolis” would later be hailed as one of Adolph Hitler’s favorite movies, alongside “King Kong.”). And he, a filmmaker, showed the world this coming tide in the cleverest, sneakiest, and most powerful form he knew; that of the science fiction film.
The film itself
“Metropolis” is part of the Germ Expressionist movement. For those of you unfamiliar with the term, it is a genre from the silent era in
Germany which is marked by stark shadows, large sets, looming shapes, and a lot of uncomfortable acute angles. It’s like the filmic equivalent of Art Deco architecture. They are, in an odd way, one step away from reality, creating this eerie netherplace that closely resembles reality, but is obviously not.
At the premiere of “Metropolis,” there was a live orchestra. It was customary for most silent films to have live accompaniment, usually by a single musician, usually improvising, or, failing that, a recording of music to match the on-screen action (to experience this again, go to the Silent Movie Theater on Fairfax in West Hollywood). “Metropolis” did this one better by having a fully composed score set to an entire classical orchestra. It was the most expensive film to date, costing about 5 million Deutschmarks.
The film ran 210 minutes, but was quickly edited by the studio to under 120 minutes due to length restrictions, and a clench on its content. Much of the film stock had been lost to history. Due to political choices, bad film-storage techniques, and the imple fact that celluloid literally crumbles when it ages, about a quarter of the film has been totally lost. In the 1980s, an American studio was able to restore some of what was left. This cut was only about 80 minutes, and the original music was also lost. Eerie electronic music pioneer Giorgio Moroder added a decidedly modern-sounding score, which did enhance things, but does, at times, sound like an anachronism.
The studio Kino, however, in 2001, was able to restore most of “Metropolis” and re-record its orchestral score. This new cut runs 127 minutes, and includes all of the known footage, filling in the missing subplots (involving an anonymous worker known only by his number, and his nights of debauch upon entering the upper city for the first time) with brief description cards. The flooding scenes were reinserted, making the film feel all the more epic and impressive. The Kino video I have has all the restored stuff. It’s a wonderful and impressive video. Bully to the restoration team, and bless you for keeping “Metropolis” available to all of us here in the 21st century. That it still survives, and is still able to impress… That its images continue to inspire, and show their influences in modern films… That it remains one of the most important films of the silent, or indeed, any era… is a testament to the importance of “Metropolis.”