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Posts Tagged ‘Metropolis’

Many years ago on their film review TV show Andrew Collins and Stuart Maconie wisely observed that, under normal social codes, there are only really two situations where it is acceptable to go to the cinema on your own – if you are going to watch Arthouse, or Porno. And, in either case, the most important rule is to give everyone else in the theatre as much space as you possibly can.

Wish someone had told the staff of Odeon George Street that, as we were crammed together like sardines the other night, great swathes of the auditorium left completely empty. I should probably add that we were not there for Porno purposes, but were united not just by being in very close proximity but by our love of 1920s Expressionist German silent cinema. Wait! Come back! Would you be any more interested if I said that the film on offer was the Avatar of its day, a legendary classic, and basically the first SF movie ever made? Yes, we were there to see Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927), showing virtually uncut for the first time in over 80 years.

In an unspecified future, the vast and gleaming city of the title is a wonderful place to live – provided you’re one of the ruling class. The workers, on the other hand, lead lives of unspeakable drudgery and bleakness. No-one cares about this – at least, nobody very important – until Freder (Gustav Frohlich), son of the city’s master, catches sight of a beautiful girl named Maria (Brigitte Helm) who has the affrontery to preach brotherhood between the classes and take the children of workers into the gardens of the elite. Instantly smitten he pursues her into the lower levels of the city and is appalled by the conditions there. He resolves to do his best to improve the lot of the workers.

His father, Frederson (yes, Frederson’s son is just called Freder. No, it doesn’t make sense to me, either) is not best pleased by this, nor by Maria’s preaching of a new order to the workers. He contracts the brilliant inventor Rotwang (stop sniggering at the back) to kidnap Maria and place her appearance upon a female android he just happens to have recently finished, with the idea that the Maria-bot will discredit the original and defuse the threat of an uprising. However, Frederson has reckoned without an old score Rotwang is intent on settling – the replica Maria’s mission will be to destroy not just the rebels, but all of Metropolis…

Metropolis at times seems like a relic from an another world, which in a way it is – it’s certainly the oldest film I’ve ever seen at the cinema¬† by a vast margin (though if we’re including TV showings the winner is still 1922’s Symphony of Horror). This doesn’t make it a particularly easy watch, as much of the costuming and a lot of the acting is unintentionally funny to a modern audience. There are characters with peculiar names, as you’ve already seen (another key figure is an engineer named Grot). It’s also quite slow and at least one of the numerous subplots could easily have been cut. The main plot itself is sentimental and, unforgivably, revolves around a number of highly unlikely coincidences.

And yet, and yet… The visual DNA of this film has entered the meme pool, if I may dare to risk pretentiousness. Metropolis itself, a landscape composed entirely of skyscrapers, elevated roads, and neon signs, with planes cruising in the streets, is not just a stunning creation in its own right but the clear forebear of everything from Mega-City One in Judge Dredd, to Star Wars’ Coruscant, to the LA of Blade Runner and New New York in Doctor Who. No-one has been able to escape this vision in nearly a century. The same can really be said of the film’s most iconic character, the female android. Once again, she is in a very real sense the ancestor of nearly every movie robot since, from C-3PO to the Terminator. The sequence from this film you’re most likely to have seen is the android’s assumption of human form, which is (here’s that word again) iconic in its own right – I found the image of the robot’s destruction even more striking, but (possibly absurdly) the need to avoid spoilers precludes me from going into detail.

No wonder C3PO turned out such a Mummy's Boy.

There’s a bit more to Lang’s film than a series of stunning visuals, as this is clearly intended to be a deeply thoughtful look at the dehumanising effects of modern urban living and the horrors of automation. The film comes out against this, as you can probably guess, and is very much in favour of empathy and compassion as things to be striven for – well, you can’t argue with that. It’s not an especially subtle subtext – and there are some allusive scenes in the middle of the movie where the Maria-bot (indulging in some fairly risque – for the period – burlesque) is shown to be in league with Death and the Seven Deadly Sins which just came across as weird.

But what is interesting is that the film does not come out in favour of an actual uprising on the part of the downtrodded masses, and demonstrates that this would cause carnage and generally be a very bad thing. It opts for reconciliation rather than revolution, and seems to believe such a thing would be possible. Its venom is reserved for Rotwang and the android, who are represented (the android especially) as utterly evil and the source of all the trouble.

Well, if the makers of Metropolis believed that you can’t redeem a scientist but there’s always hope for the capitalists who bankroll them, then I think we’ve reached the point at which I must part company with it. But it remains a fascinating movie, if viewed on its own terms. The important fact is not that it does not, perhaps, live up to its own legend, but that it spawned such a legend in the first place.

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