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33. Metropolis (1927), dir. Fritz Lang

Another Thing Wot I Sore recently was this, at the Hyde Park Picture House. It was the 2010 147-minute restoration, which I have seen before on the big screen and reviewed here. I've also previously reviewed the 2-hour restored version, which was the best one available before 2010, here. So we can take it as read that all the things I enthused about in those previous reviews thrilled me once again this third time - the surreality, the balletic quality of the movements, the homoeroticism, the imaginative vision, the scale and ambition of the production, the wonderful restored score, etc. It really is a remarkable film.

A couple of things struck me this time which I hadn't really reflected on much on previous viewings, though. One was the sense of history built into the city of Metropolis. The main focus of the story and the cinematography, of course, is on its futuristic aspects - the soaring skyscrapers, flyovers, machines, night-clubs, aeroplanes, etc. It's easy to come away from a viewing thinking that Metropolis the city is entirely a futuristic fantasy-city - and indeed, that's what it has become a short-hand for in modern cultural discourse. But beneath it are catacombs which are explicitly glossed as being two thousand years old, Rotwang's house, which looks early modern and is described as being 'untouched by the centuries' and the Cathedral, which isn't given any specific dating, but is in the European Gothic style, and thus most naturally belongs to some time between the 12th and 16th centuries. These three settings do a lot to make the city feel like more than just a futuristic fantasy, but a real place with a real history which has evolved and grown organically over the centuries. They also, of course, add a lot to the story, and particularly its religious dimensions.

The catacombs in particular are set in direct opposition to the mechanised hierarchical world of the city above, where the exploited workers can gather in a crude and simple setting, and hear the words of their Christian preacher-figure, Maria. They carry all the resonances of early Christianity as a literal underground resistance movement which are popularly associated with real catacombs (e.g. those in Rome). The Cathedral meanwhile, sits both physically and temporally between the catacombs and the skyscrapers, and is thus the site of compromise. At the end of the film, it is the location where the film's central tension, between the modernistic over-lords of the upper city and the simple workers of the lower city, is resolved. In other words, it is the heart which we are repeatedly told must mediate between head (the over-lords in the skyscrapers) and the hands (the workers in the catacombs). It is neither too simple and crude, like the catacombs, nor too hierarchical and exploitative, like the skyscrapers, but a place where the best of the modern and the ancient worlds can meet.

Meanwhile, the crooked, ancient character of Rotwang's house sets him apart from both the over-lords and the workers in a different way. Unlike the workers, he seems to have chosen to reject the march of modernism, isolating himself away from it in his house. And although in one sense he is the archetypal mad scientist, with the bubbling flasks and the robot in the attic, details like the pentagrams on the doors of his house show that he is really more of an alchemist or even a magician, meddling with forces which mankind was not meant to tamper with. The crooked house captures that very nicely, too.

Actually, I found myself fascinated with Rotwang generally on this viewing, much more than I have before. I guess it wasn't until the 2010 restoration that his story arc really became clear, but the first time I watched it, I was too busy with the story-arcs of characters like Freder and his father to really have time for it. This time, though, Rotwang really rose to the surface for me, and I thought he was fantastic. As the villainous alchemist-scientist with the mechanical hand, he has left a clear legacy in characters like Darth Vader, Dr. Strangelove (OK, not actually a mechanical hand, but an evil one all right) and perhaps even Peter Pettigrew (a magical hand, rather than a mechanical one, but the line between the two is of course famously blurry in fantasy stories). He is also surely an important bridge between the Baron Frankenstein of Mary Shelley's novel, who must be one of his ancestors, and the various filmic versions of the same character, who are certainly his descendants.

I also can't believe I didn't notice before now that Rotwang's missing hand means that he is inherently shut out of the film's proposed solution to society's ills: the mediator between the head and the hands must be the heart. His mechanical hand shows him to be out of balance - he is all head, and indeed has used the intelligence which that gives him to replace the hand which he has lost in his quest to create the Machine-Man. But unlike Joh Fredersen, the industrialist, who is capable of compromise if only shown how, Rotwang has lost that capacity - hence the fact that it is he who grapples with and tries to kill Maria at the climax of the film.

All clever stuff, then, which was always there, but which I hadn't consciously thought through before. And of course it's a sign of a rich and carefully-structured film that it is all there for the discovering.

Meanwhile, viewing this only a few days after returning from Vienna, and finding that German isn't actually a completely closed book to me after all, but a rather neatly-structured language with rules which I am starting to grasp, it was also very pleasant to discover that I could fairly reliably read the German-language intertitles, without needing to rely on the English-language translations underneath. Obviously intertitles in silent films tend to be in fairly simple language - they are largely statements and explanations in the present tense. But still, that was nice.

And having said this last time I saw this film but done nothing about it, I now really, really need to get myself a copy of the soundtrack. Or, more like, pop it on my Amazon wish-list so that my family will have something they can buy me for Christmas, I think. But it will be mine!

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( 6 comments — Leave a comment )
Oct. 13th, 2014 11:06 am (UTC)
I'd forgotten quite how explicitly religious it is in places - not just the catacombs and the preaching but the seven deadly sins coming to life and how the final scenes take place in front of and on top of a cathedral.
Oct. 13th, 2014 11:33 am (UTC)
*nod* It's absolutely central, isn't it? In the end the whole 'message' of the film is very conservative, in fact.
Oct. 13th, 2014 11:36 am (UTC)
Indeed - but then who doesn't love a witch burning? ;-)

But to be serious I do wonder sometimes what has taken the place of big public events like executions.
Oct. 13th, 2014 02:08 pm (UTC)
I'd say a combination of reality TV, mass spectator sports like football, and mass outrage on channels like Twitter (especially at the point where they devolve into bombarding women with threats of rape and murder).
Oct. 14th, 2014 07:07 am (UTC)
The presence of the past is one of the things that makes William Gibson's future compelling, too. After several reading it becomes clear that he's cheating and the future's past is usually ust the current present, but ...
Oct. 14th, 2014 11:42 am (UTC)
Yep, layers of time are always good. I haven't actually read any of Gibson's fiction, alas, though it's always been kind of in my mind to read Neuromancer. But I'm glad to hear it does this, even if it in a slightly cheaty way.
( 6 comments — Leave a comment )

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