10 august 2018

Today I found myself thinking about Metropolis (1927). It's an unusual movie that's probably just about as visually striking and thematically relevant as it was ninety years ago. It's famous among film scholars for pioneering a number of visual effects that pushed the boundaries of available technologies, allowing convincing backdrops that were too large to construct in life size, stunning aerial views of a city of the future complete with fast-moving vehicles, and glowing rings of electrical current that appear to pass over the body of one of the film's title characters. But the reason this still works today is the film's artistic consistency; it captures the apex of the German Expressionist style explored in titles like Nosferatu and The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari and fuses that with a prevailing strain of Art Deco futurism that was destined to fall apart with the onset of the Great Depression, and every shot, especially any shot that employed novel techniques, was executed meticulously to fit this æsthetic. It works so well I found myself largely unphased by the broad, unsubtle perdormances of the cast, who performed in a manner that was standard for the silent film era but can come across as hammy to someone raised on more contemporary talkies. And then there's the central conflict of the movie, which has to do with an increasingly radical division between the residents of a city of the future, whereby a privileged professional-intellectual class dwells in gleaming towers and lush pleasure gardens above ground while everyone else toils at constant risk of their life in a fetid, smoggy subterranean industrial & residential complex. Into the midst of this turmoil steps the mayor's son, a young man born into the highest social privilege imaginable but driven by an almost unearthly innocence and compassion — coupled with a sometimes alarming naïvety — that ultimately sets him against the excesses of his father's admininistration. Thus we arrive at the movie's boldly stated thesis: "The mediator between The Head (the intellectual, academic and professional classes) and the Hands (the working class) must be the Heart (compassion, ethics, and openness)." Metropolis director and co-writer Fritz Lang, who fled Germany in 1933, was later to say it was a naïve and ridiculous basis for a film.

If you endeavor to watch Metropolis I encourage you to seek out Kino's "Ultimate Edition" from 2010, as all prior home video releases are missing substantial (and plot-important) footage that was removed after the film's Berlin theatrical debut to achieve a more marketable runtime.