by Andrew Mooney
Metropolis (1927) – Fritz Lang (Dir.), Brigitte Helm
Finally, day one was rounded out with Fritz Lang’s sci-fi epic from 1927, making a perfect Scandinavian start. I’ve owned this movie for years and have never even attempted to watch it. I’ve had everyone and their mother and their dog and their dog’s mother tell me it’s amazing. And, let’s be real for a second, it is. Yes, the plot is simplistic. Yes, the vision of the future is surprisingly well-choreographed and biplane-filled (and yet disappointingly Zeppelin-lacking). Yes, every character looks as though they emerged from the wrong end of a clown factory explosion. But it is fucking cool. The sets are massive, the acting is hilariously campy and the number of extras would give the Chinese census a run for its money. This was, hands down, the most enjoyable film of the day.
For those of you not in the know, Metropolis tells the tale of two cities. One houses the filthy rich, hanging high above the massive ‘metropolis’ (see what I did there?) and centered around the not-at-all-allegorically-named Tower of Babel. The other is a nasty, grime-soaked hellish world of machines constantly manned by workers forced into 10 hour shifts. Freder the son of the…I want to say ‘owner’?…of the city is content with his life of chasing dancers and philandering about until Maria, the mesmerizing Brigitte Helm, somehow wanders in with an army of dirtied children in tow. Immediately, Freder is convinced that the world below needs to be liberated from its infernal existence. His father doesn’t agree, of course. So Freder goes down to the catacombs, where the throngs of the downtrodden worship Maria as a saint (Mary/Maria…see what’s going on? Yep. Now you’re getting it!) and realizes he is the peoples’ ‘Mediator’. See Mediator is like Jesus in that…well…okay, that one lost me a little.
Anyhoo, this is where the film takes an odd, wonderfully delicious turn. Joh Fredersen (the father) goes to an inventor, a character played by a man who must have founded the Robin Williams School of Acting. The level of mugging would have given my primary school performance of Oliver! a run for its proverbial pennies (but, for reals, I played Mr. Brownlow. It was a singing audition and I got the only non-singing role. It still hurts).
This inventor has created a ‘machine-man’ in order to replace Hel, Joh Fredersen’s wife who died in childbirth. In his position, I would have asked ‘What is your damage?’, but Joh seems decidedly unperturbed. Then…there’s the reveal. The poster-child of the film is, in a word, breathtaking. In my years of creature/robot design adoration in modern science fiction, there is little that can surpass the original great. She’s only there for two or three scenes, but she doesn’t leave your head. The rest of the movie involves Joh Fredersen replacing Maria with the robot and having her wreak havoc in the lower levels to destroy the uprising. Of course, Freder discovers that the robot isn’t his love and tries to stop her. The climax is a pseudo-Buster Keaton exercise in stage combat and sped-up filmmaking. I had never noticed how quickly people could run in silent movies. We would certainly be more productive as a society if we just shut up and turned black and white. Much faster.
Where to begin with this epic? I watched Netflix’s restored version that was apparently unearthed in Argentina (why would a German film be in Argentina? How strange that it would be found in…who are we kidding? Nazis.) If the opening credits are to be believed this version is the closest thing we have to a director’s cut. What was released in US theaters was missing about a quarter of the final film, taking with it a number of side plots and whatnot. Most of it is there, if grainy and almost impossible to discern. Some scenes are simply summarized with title cards. All I can say is that there is a lot going on in this thing. From biblical references to Towers of Babel and the seven deadly sins, man’s dependence on machines and the Whore of Babylon, it’s difficult to know where to start. Some of the imagery, simply from a technical standpoint, was mind-blowing. It was also amusing to discover, after the film was over, that the flooding scene in the below city took 14 days to film. Children. For 14 days. In water. They don’t make ’em like they used to. On that note, apparently the extras weren’t really acting. They were actual poor people yanked from the streets of Berlin. And now, in the present, we’re giving those jobs away to commuter sprites and descendants of Jar-Jar Binks. How far we have fallen.
I will say, for everything I loved about the movie, one element will always stand out for me. Brigitte Helm. Only 18 when this was filmed, a complete green unknown, gives a performance that can’t be described. One minute she’s the sweet and innocent Maria, the next, she’s the whorish bat-shit-crazy robo-Maria intent on driving men out of their minds with desire, making sex-eyes at the audience at home and laughing while burning at the stake. ‘Bitch is crazy’ doesn’t even scratch the tip of the iceberg. So to speak.
I have only one morsel of criticism. There is a scene where Robo-Maria is dressed as the Whore of Babylon, like you do, and performs for society’s upper-(literal and figurative)-crust. That’s an odd plot choice, but I can roll with it. It’s the dance…the dance is…well… Perhaps 1920s Berlin just had an incredibly different concept of ‘sexiness’ and ‘seduction’, but Robo-Maria’s dance wouldn’t give a semi to a sailor. Like a seizure-struck monkey, she leaps about the stage, sometimes imitating a scarecrow, sometimes creeping like the Grinch. Today, such moves could only be found in the whitest of hip-hop clubs, spaces infected with suburban wiggers (that’s still a word, right? Wait…it’s offensive? Since when?) attempting their approximation of Crip-walking after smoking copious amounts of cannabis. Really. It’ that bad. However, whatever she does, it works on the men of Metropolis, who clamber to taste of her bizarre booty-bouncing, hip-popping and hand-gesticulating.
So, see Metropolis. See it for the technical achievement. See it for Brigitte Helm’s manically brilliant performance. See it because it is good. If I could find the right mood, I’d convince others to watch this again with me. It takes intense concentration and a flair for the sic-fi absurd. But if you put in the work, you will be rewarded.