33. Metropolis

MetropolisJanuary 10, 1927
UFA
Directed by Fritz Lang

By 1926 there was only film industry that could pose a remote challenge to Hollywood, and that was Germany’s UFA. But even they could no longer keep up. They decided to throw in all of their chips on one big production. The next Fritz Lang/Thea von Harbou film was to be an American-size spectacle with the sophistication of European culture. For most of a year, an enormous crew labored under excruciating conditions and spent over 1,000,000 of the stable new Marks.

The result was a complete failure. The movie was too long, the characters’ motives were incoherent, and for an audience that had so recently been stirred by Bronenosets Potyomkin, the politics were laughable. UFA would not be given a second chance. They went into receivership and had to accept humiliating terms of defeat that meant they would never challenge American hegemony again.

By the time Siegfried Kracauer wrote his bold history of Weimar cinema, From Caligari to Hitler, Metropolis was assigned to the second tier of German movies. Metropolis made its great comeback in a drastically cut version circulated in the Video Age of the 1970s and 1980s.

The 2010 restoration presents a more coherent story, but this hardly matters, because Metropolis is so overwhelming in its diversity of images that the events of the story come at us like a dream. Each scene is so startling that we barely remember the previous one: the city with its tramlines crossing the spaces between skyscrapers; the gardens crowded by beautiful women in diaphanous gowns; the terrible power plant itself (das Kraftwerk) with its transformation into the all-devouring mouth of Moloch (the image that filled Allen Ginsberg with prophetic horror); the office (those suits!); and most of all, the laboratory.

It’s impossible to overstate the significance of Rotwang in his laboratory. Dr. Faustus had a study filled with books, a feudal laboratory, and stage adaptations of Dr. Frankenstein and Dr. Jeckyll explored the physical possibilities of a wealthy disturbed genius given a room of his own. But Rotwang is the first example of the modern archetype of the mad scientist, living in a feudal-style hut between the high-rises, that leads into a a vast multi-room chamber filled with scientific equipment.

This is the first science fiction film in the story since #1, and we will not see another one for the rest of the Silent Age. In 1927 science fiction was a marginal genre. Many dreams of the future have been published, but only in the past year has Amazing Stories began  publishing monthly issues of technological fantasies.  This may be hard to imagine now, thirty years after George Lucas and Steven Spielberg revealed science fiction as the essential genre of cinema, and perhaps the essential genre of modern storytelling. To ask a young person today to describe science fiction is to ask a fish to describe water.

Metropolis, with its visions of that medium revealing its essence. For the first time, a director with enough genius and tyranny has combined forces with a crew with enough talent and willingness to work and been given a budget colossal enough to make the project possible. But here it is. For the first time in the modern world, where man must learn to share the world with machines, the story has been told. The fish learn about water.

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Introduction

Greetings. I, your friend Articulus, a.k.a. ck-one, a.k.a. Maxwell von Bismarck, have attempted four times previously to write a blog. My first (2003) blew up spectacularly, and the rest were half-hearted and abandoned within days. I am trying once more, for the first time since 2010, with what I hope is not only more wisdom, but a specific project.

I am going to write my way through the canon of movies, successively, from its birth to the time of writing, which by the rate I’ve projected will be sometime in 2034. I’ve chosen movies because in the past few years I’ve found that I do not watch more than two or three feature films a year. I spend almost all of my watching time following different television series, and now I can only justify the time following a story visually if it follows from series I have already comprehended. Since the series I will be following will be that of the great films of the past 125 years, every individual movie shall attempt to explain its own historical role.

But how to determine the selection of the canon? I have largely left that task to Bill Georgaris at They Shoot Pictures: Don’t They? Who has compiled a list of the 1000 great movies. I take the list as it is in chronological order by premiere date. I’m not interested in delving too much into the sources of the list, but it is obvious that the selections skew toward the art-house and toward the campus screening. I like these scenes, and the list as a whole strikes me. I’m coming from a media studies background with an obsession with the dates of history and the points on the globe, but I hope this project will expand my writing, research, and media literacy skills. Other projects, as well as various emergencies and the exigencies of life, may interfere with the timely publication of posts, but I will do my best to spend at least one session a week film-watching, and publish an entry of a nonzero length each time. So.

Silencio. Come take a textual journey with your friend Articulus through the exciting history of film. Motion pictures – the great Apollonian artform of our time.