December 6, 1996
REVIEW OF FUTURISTIC 1926 FILM 'METROPOLIS'!by Howard Hobbs, Staff Film Review Writer, The Daily Republican Newspaper
WASHINGTON DESK- Late in 1945, a major battle over movie morality erupted when some American city government banned the Hollywood film Scarlet Street starring Edward G. Robinson as a mild-mannered clerk who becomes the unwitting target of a seductive woman and her gangster boyfriend.
Indignant producers, angry legislators, opinionated critics, and everyday moviegoers traded charges and counter-charges over the film. Many questions were raised about the role of government in control and regulation of thematic film media and of limiting the freedom of speech.
Finally the movie's director, German-born film maker Fritz Lang, restored some perspective by asking a Pittsburgh reporter, 'How could anyone possibly want to copy any of ze sings zese characters do?'Readers were uncertain if Fritz Lang was speaking about the character of American politicians or that of the movie script.
Fifty years later, Lang's question still has the ring of truth in it. Some American politicians clearly aim at nothing more lofty than exploitation and titillation. Others incite taxpayers to debating whether corruption, sex, and other illicit behaviors have a place on movie screens. Perhaps others approve, but in cautionary contexts. It seems clear that American taxpayers want the freedom to examine the conduct of an American president, and even local, state, and federal elected officials. Seeing a film about immoral conduct in public officials does not condone the imitation of it in the present or the future.
Fritz Lang's was building his 'bridge to the future' in 1926. Seventy years later, he still commands our attention. His futurist classic Metropolis was set in the year 2000. The theme of that film questioned the morality of big government manipulating and man-handling the people of the Nation. He depicted what he saw as the future of New York in the year 2000. By the millennium, machines have come to dominate Man, leading to a society of two distinct levels. The higher, smaller group inhabits the surface, commanding the subterranean masses, who tend enormous power stations and endless conveyor belts.
Joh Fredersen (Alfred Abel) is the single-minded ruler of the great city of Metropolis, providing beautiful gardens for his son Freder (Gustav Frohlich) and oppressing his workers in the same breath. However, the sanctuary of these parks is disturbed one day when a young woman, Maria (Brigitte Helm), brings a group of workers children into the open air. Although they are hurried away, Freder is intrigued and attempts to follow her into the factories.
Unfortunately he loses her but, instead, stumbles onto the scene of an horrific industrial accident. Appalled by the senseless waste of life Freder rushes to his father, who disregards his pleas and tells him to ignore the suffering of the teeming hordes - that's just the way things are! Disappointed by this attitude Freder decides to join his down-trodden brothers.
Taking over from an exhausted worker, at some devilish electricity-routing device, Freder discovers just how hard it to work for ten hours non-stop.
By the end of his shift he is ready to drop but perks up when invited to a secret meeting in the ancient catacombs. Maria, as a Christ-like figure, preaches a sermon of peace and compromise, asking the workers to wait for a divine mediator. Her beauty and charm is such that she can quiet the mob, which includes Freder.
Meanwhile, there are plans afoot which could make all of these slaves obsolete, replacing them with robots. Their inventor Rotwang (Rudolf Klein-Rogge) has convinced Joh that these are the future for Metropolis, promising workers who will never tire or revolt.
In a stroke of evil genius, Rotwang takes Joh to the underground caverns where Maria is arguing against violent rebellion. Joh's reaction to this minor disobedience is to give Rotwang the chance to kidnap Maria and replace her with an exact robot copy. In this way he hopes to manipulate the workers into destroying themselves, saving him the trouble.
The only flaw in this plan is that Freder has fallen in love with Maria (and she with him) and will do anything to rescue her, even destroy his former compatriots.
From the initial montage of meshing gears and pounding machinery "Metropolis" is a visual masterpiece. The geometric patterns formed by buildings and workers alike show how the two are meshed symbiotically in this future hell. To these slaves nothing is more important than looking after the machines; feverishly watching gauges and turning dials until they drop. In the over-world the sky is full of arching expressways, fantastical sky-scrapers and myriad 'aeroplanes' - a stunning cityscape which predates 'Blade Runner' by decades. To our modern perspective the acting can often seem melodramatic and extreme but, in the context of silent films, this was the only way to project the required emotion.
Anyway, the performances aren't bad (Klein-Rogge is notably excellent) and the story is basically the classic tale of true love overcoming all obstacles. The result is that you don't have to be a film student to enjoy 'Metropolis' - its theme and style are equally relevant and enjoyable today.
Human Desire (1954), made during Fritz Lang's last decade as a film director, begins with an emblematic image: a locomotive rushes forward, swift and dynamic, but locked to the tracks, its path fixed, its destination visible. Like Lang's films the train and the tracks speak of a world of narrowly defined choices.
The closing image is even more severe: survivor Glenn Ford departs, his locomotive passing a sign on a bridge. Ford does not see the sign, but we do; abbreviated by intervening beams we suddenly see THE WORLD TAKES as the film concludes.
Lang's career in the 1920s was one of spectacular rise to fame. With each film, he became more assured, garnering critical acclaim as well as a popular following. Dr. Mabuse the Gambler (1922), Die Nibelungen (1924), Metropolis (1926), and Spies (1928) are among the greatest silent films produced anywhere. Lang also made a remarkable transition to sound, with M (1931), but he ran afoul of Nazi authorities with The Last Will of Dr. Mabuse/The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (1933), whose villains mouthed Nazi propaganda.
When the film was banned and when Nazi Reichsminister Joseph Goebbels' American born propaganda assistant, Karl Leonard Falk, approached Lang and requested that films be produced for the Third Reich. Lang's response was to suddenly leave Germany for France. Leaving behind most of his personal possessions, Lang also left his wife, screenwriter Thea von Harbou. Frau von Harbou liked Falk's proposition, and immediately joined the Nazi party as the Third Reich's official screenwriter.
The American, Karl Falk would render an English narrative version of Frau van Harbou's Nazi propaganda films. The German language films were produced by the Nazi firm UFA for demestic German moviegoers and for export to New York and California from 1933-1938.
Lang made one film in France, then moved on to Hollywood, California where he spent the next 20 years working in a variety of genres, mainly thrillers (e.g. Man Hunt, 1941, Scarlet Street, 1945, While the City Sleeps, 1956) and some outstanding westerns (The Return of Frank James, 1940, Rancho Notorious, 1952). Tired of warring with insensitive producers, Lang left the U.S. in the mid-1950s to make a film in India and then returned to Germany for his last set of films, including a final chapter in the Dr. Mabuse saga.
The disorienting frame in Caligari is an important part of Lang's distinctive vision. His films are punctuated by shifts of viewpoint and discoveries which transform the reactions of his characters - and of his audience.
Most obvious of these shifts of viewpoint come in Caligari and The Woman in the Window (1944), in which the drama is suddenly revealed to be a dream. But they also occur in the Mabuse films; in M, with the policeman mistaken by a burglar for another thief; and in The House by the River (1950), when a servant is strangled because another maid appears to be responding to her cries for help.
Lang's films are also about contingency, the recognition that extra-personal forces mold our lives, shape our destiny in ways we cannot predict and only somewhat modify. In the two-part film, Die Nibelungen, Kriemhild is transformed from a secondary figure in the first film (Siegfried) into a whirlwind of fury in the second (Kriemhild's Revenge). Even the characters in the film are shaken by these transformations. The king of the Huns is staggered by Kriemhild's thirst for death; the vengeful underworld in M that has captured and tried Peter Lorre is taken aback by Lorre's confession that he is compelled to rape and murder, that he is something of a spectator to his crimes.
These moments of perception are the foundation of Lang's importance and continuing strength as a film maker. They constitute a kind of morality that he never abandoned. In the script for Liliom (1934), his French film made after he fled the Nazis, Lang wrote, 'If death settled everything it would be too easy...Where would justice be if death settled everything?' Thirty years later, playing himself in Jean-Luc Godard's Contempt (1963), Lang wrote for his character, 'La mort n'est pas une solution.' (Death is no solution). Nor does death erase human striving.
Between Two Worlds/Der Mude Tod/Beyond the Wall/Destiny (1921) the force of love survives, in Fury (1936) the cycle of vengeance is broken, in Clash By NightBig Heat (1953) Glenn Ford finally turns to the police and ends his vendetta, and in Human Desire Ford again leaves the scene of the crime, choosing life over the locus of death.
Fritz Lang Director, screenwriter
Birth Name: Friedrich Christian Anton Lang
Born: December 5, 1890, Vienna, Austria
Died: August 2, 1976
Education: Technische Hochshule (architecture); Vienna Academy of Graphic Arts (art); School of Arts and Crafts, Munich (art); Academie Julien, Paris.
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