Sunday, May 31, 2009


As one of the earliest examples of cinematic science fiction and fantasy, "Destiny" director Fritz Lang's "Metropolis" (**** out of ****) ranks as an unparalleled achievement in its size, scope, and vision. Forty years would elapse before Stanley Kubrick's “2001: A Space Odyssey” (1968) would rival Lang's epic spectacle about a troubled, dystopian society fractured along the fault lines of the economic inequality that isolated the haves and the have-nots. Nevertheless, nothing could ever be said to surpass "Metropolis" as a film of scale, special effects, and surrealism. According to Frank Miller at the Turner Classic Movies Website in his Overview Article about "Metropolis, "Fritz Lang and Thea von Harbou were influenced by several writers: "They drew ideas from a variety of sources, including Karel Capek's play about a robot revolt, R.U.R.; the pioneering Soviet science fiction film "Aelita" (1924); and H.G. Wells' novels." Miller describes "Metropolis" as "the most influential science fiction film of all time." Miller may be going out on a limb to make sure an assertion, but the limb that he treads on his very sturdy. "Metropolis" deals with machines that allow its futuristic society to flourish and how those machines govern mankind's relationships. Nevertheless, moviegoers should keep in mind that "Metropolis" was not the first science fiction film. The definition of science fiction here is fiction of a speculative sort set in the future. French filmmaker Georges Méliès' short, 14-minute, black & white silent film "A Trip to the Moon" aka "Le voyage dans la lune" (1903) and the Soviet film "Aelita" (1924) preceded "Metropolis."

The preamble encapsulates the film's timeless, universal message: "It has a moral that grows on the pillar of understanding. The mediator between the brain and muscle must be the heart.” “Metropolis" inspired generations of filmmakers with its use of state-of-the-art visual effects that transformed the science fiction film. Thea von Harbou's saga about an evil robot designed by a vengeful inventor to impersonate a flesh & blood female Christ figure and incite anarchy can clearly be traced as a source of inspiration to many contemporary sci-fi films and television shows, such as the "Terminator" franchise, "Robocop" franchise, "Blade Runner," "Total Recall," "I, Robot," “Logan’s Run,” “The Fifth Element,” "Westworld," and Battlestar Galactic.” The "Metropolis" robot was not the first robot, but it was unmistakably the seminal one that sired a long line of cinematic robots. Robots appeared in films as early as Italian filmmaker André Deed's "The Mechanical Man" (1921)about a robot gone berserk, but only bits and pieces of the film have survived the ravages of time.

Meanwhile, according to Dominik Zunt at The Karel Čapek website, Čapek introduced the public to the word "robot" in his play R.U.R.("Rossum's Universal Robots")in 1920. Specifically, Čapek's drama took place in a factory that builds artificial people designated as 'robots.' Earlier examples of robots can be found in literature, especially the Greek and Roman myths. Indeed, robots are to sci-fi films what horses are to westerns. The famous science fiction author Isaac Asimov has written many novels and short stories about robots. The famous transformation scene where the robot turns into a human foreshadows the "Frankenstein" franchise.

Many detractors of Lang's visionary work—primarily noted sci-fi author H.G. Wells--derided it as shallow and Wells' criticisms are not without some justification. Indeed, the characters lack depth because they represent archetypes instead of individuals in this larger-than-life story set in the year 2000. The spectacle, this Marxist chronicle of humanity at odds with itself over machinery, and the anarchy that emerges from this division makes "Metropolis" a memorable mediation about our flawed society, part sci-fi, part horror and a statement about the incompatibility that comes about between those who control and those who are controlled. In this instance, those in control are the heads and those that carry out of the orders of those in control are the hands. Again, von Harbou’s theme re-echoes with greater intensity. The virtuous Maria would say that the head and the hands would need a mediator and the mediator would be the heart. You cannot understand and appreciate science fiction as a cinematic genre until you see that every sci-fi film owes a debt of gratitude to Lang's masterly work of genius. Actually, while Lang would make many great movies in a long career, the legendary Austrian director never made another sci-fi film that surpassed this milestone.

A malevolent robot, messianic crusaders, a patriarchal titan of industry, a vindicative mad scientist, and masses of mindless men and women enslaved by the patriarch constitute the array of characters in this milestone of German Expressionist cinema that embraces Art-Deco in his architectural designs. Scenarist Thea von Harbou and Fritz Lang assembled these protagonists and antagonists for the clash of the century with visuals that were designed to overwhelm 1920’s audiences by their sheer beauty and grandeur. In the annals of science fiction film, these special effects, involving the use of mirrors to supplement shots of live action, matte paintings for sprawling cityscapes, and miniatures of the city, were singular. All the planes, trains, and automobiles in the long shots were done either with wires pulling them along or shot-action photography. Reportedly, Lang got the idea for his cityscape from a trip to Manhattan, but there are too many undocumented stories about Lang and his inspiration so you’d have to read the biographies available about his life to sort out the fiction from the facto. One thing is certain Lang was more a film dictator than a director and he toiled endlessly and made his cast and collaborators toil to forge his vision. Lang drove his actors, actresses, and technical crew like a slave driver and often exhibited a sense of perfectionism that defied civility and common sense. He amounted to a cinematic Herod.

While “Metropolis” qualifies as sci-fi, the film also dabbles in the disaster film. The villainous father of the hero, Joh Fredersen (Alfred Abel), enlists the evil inventor, C.A. Rotwang (Rudolf Klein-Rogge), to create a robot look-alike of the virginal heroine, Maria, who preaches a gospel of sorts to unit the workers. Rotwang dresses in dark colors, has wind-blown hair, and wears a black glove on his right hand. Fredersen wants Rotwang to forge a robot that can assume the identity of Maria (Brigitte Helm), mislead the masses, and get them to destroy themselves. Joh has obtained secret plans about meetings among the workers in the catacombs and wants to thwart them. When they learn about the meeting, Rotwang escorts Joh down into the 2000 year old catacombs to witness Maria preaching her gospel of unification. During this scene, Joh spots his son Freder (Gustav Fröhlich) among the workers and watches as he embraces Maria.

Previously, Freder has been smitten by Maria since he saw her first early in the film. She entered the Club of Sons where Freder cavorted with various women. Freder was so stricken by Maria that he descended to the depths where the workers operated the machines and witnessed a meltdown. Joh is worried about his son’s dalliance with the workers because it threatens to destroy everything that he has worked for so many years. In fact, Joh fires his secretary Josaphat (Theodor Loos) because Josaphat didn’t inform him about the incident with the machines. Joh replaces Josaphat with the Thin Man (Franz Rasp) and orders him to keep him constantly abreast of his son’s whereabouts. Eventually, the false Maria does mislead the workers into destroying the Heart Machine and the loss of power leads to a flood that wipes out their homes. Grot, the foreman in charge of the machines, warns Joh, but he orders Grot to open the gates so that the workers can destroy the Heart Machine. The evil Maria leads the men and women workers alike to the machine hall, but she slips out a back exit while they destroy the machines. What the workers fail to realize is that the destruction of the Heart machine.

Meanwhile, Freder and the real Maria rescue the children below as the flood waters rise from an underground river that Joh had constructed. They use the air shafts to escape from the depth and take the children to the Club of the Sons above the earth. At the same time, Grot alerts the workers about the dangers of what they have done and how it will jeopardize their children. The furious workers now want to kill Maria. The evil Maria has gone to a nightclub where she is celebrating her triumphant masquerade over the workers. The nightclub revelers leave the club with Maria on their shoulders and go out into the night air. The virtuous Maria has gotten separated from Freder and the children and is now being pursued by the mob of angry workers. She runs into the revelers and wicked Maria and the mob grabs the evil Maria. They tie her to a stake and set fire to her. Rotwang captures the real Maria and takes her to the top of the cathedral. Freder spots Rotwang with Maria over his shoulder and sets off in rapid pursuit. They fight on the roof-top and Rotwang plunges to his death below. In the last scene, the virtuous Maria calls on Freder to serve as the mediator between his father and Grot, the worker’s representative, to work together.

“Metropolis” concerns one of Lang’s favorite themes—mob violence. Later, he explored this theme in “M” (1931) with Peter Lorre and “Fury” (1936) with Spencer Tracy. Although “Metropolis” has been available as a cheap, inexpensive public domain film for over 40 years, Kino Video has released a splendid restored version that true movie lovers will genuinely appreciate for its clarity of picture. Meanwhile, this is one hell of a silent German movie!

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