33. Metropolis

MetropolisJanuary 10, 1927
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.


23. Greed


December 4, 1924
Directed by Erich von Stroheim

In August 1923 Warren Harding died and was succeeded by Calvin Coolidge, who was free of all of the baggage of Harding’s scandals. Further, the economy was booming. Coolidge and his running mate Charles Dawes faced a democratic opponent, John W. Davis, chosen after a long deadlock at the Democratic Convention, who was just as conservative as Coolidge and offered no real alternative. It was safe to say the election was in the bag. The only liberal candidate was Wisconsin Senator Robert LaFollete, who denounced both the Farmer-Labor and Communist parties and ran under his own Progressive party. This was actually one of the most successful third party runs of the 20th century, even winning a single state (his home state, Wisconsin), but there was really no hope for a leftist. The great railroad strike of 1922 had been broken and the unions were in bad shape. The Pennsylvania Coal Strike was shut down. The Red Scare had made socialism a dirty word, to say nothing of words like communism or Bolshevism. Samuel Gompers, head of the American Federation of Labor, was in deteriorating health for 1923 and 1924, and by the time he died in December you could be forgiven for thinking the Left itself was dead and buried in the United States, except for handfuls of dedicated socialists who kept their eyes to the movements in the Soviet Union. And anyway, unemployment was low, prices were stable, and the economy was growing. There was plenty of money to be made, spent, given away, and lost. Who needed the left at a time like this?

The 1924 election was the first to feature the use of radio as a propaganda tool. It was used by all three of the parties, but the Republican party, with more money and better organizing, made the maximum use out of it in the last weeks before the election. They bought out two radio stations and devoted them to a continuous political rally, with Charles Dawes on every night addressing the NY metro area. The night before the election, President Coolidge gave an ostensibly non-partisan address where he urged everyone to go out and vote. Broadcast by a massive network of stations, it was the first speech in history to address over 20 million people at once. Radios were still expensive – in order to get one to work you had to buy a unit, and antenna, and a battery, which would cost $100 at the least, and you had to continually tinker with all of the parts to get any reception – but they were now a serious medium that has no further need to prove itself. The radio age had arrived.

Back in the silent word of cinema, Greed had finished shooting in 1923. The picture was been made for Goldwyn, but when that studio was enveloped into the MGM conglomerate in early 1924, Erich von Stroheim found himself once again working for Irving Thalberg, his old nemesis from Universal that had forcibly stopped his productions and slashed his movies to pieces. In January Stroheim showed a rough cut to twelve friends (apostles?) that was over nine hours long. By the December premiere, it was a two-hour movie, with entire subplots were removed. It’s the first classic MGM feature and the first film discussed in the television documentary about the history of MGM, When the Lion Roars, which depicts the studio as the first large-scale industrial film factory. Greed now exists as a four-hour slideshow of production stills with some brief motion picture sequences. It’s full of pathetic scenes, but much less comprehensible than Foolish Wives, and to call it a masterpiece feels like a protest of behalf of the auteur.

The story of the film, which closely follows the source, concerns an unlicensed dentist Mac and his greedy wife, who hoards any money she gets her hands on, even the money she wins from the one time she reluctantly bet on the numbers game. Her greed destroys the marriage and both of their lives. It’s impossible for me to watch this movie and not immediately worry about money. Less so about my marriage, but this movie does emphasize the cruelties involved in marital finances. The sum of Mac’s wife’s windfall is $5,000, which accounting for inflation is roughly equal to the debt that my wife and I owe for student loans we took out to finance her education. They are currently in forbearance, but soon they shall be due. And these days, there is no place to run from problems. In Greed, when the uxoricide finally comes, Mac can run back to the goldmine, at least for a while, before he is tracked down by the man from whom he originally stole his wife. Impossible in the matrix today that extends to every point in the globe.

Such a matrix was already in construction at this time, primarily run by the telegraph, whose construction was a crucial step in delivering humanity into the service of artificially intelligent Capital. The conflict between human relations and capitalist relations is emphasized over and over. Capital is anti-human. It seeks only the accumulation of itself and to do so obeys its own set of rules which are at odds to human morality. Morality cannot withstand capital, and money will devour whatever it needs to. The extant edition of this movie, hacked apart beyond all repair and beyond any recognition, is itself a victim of the morality of capital, which puts greed above all. Society has raised Pluto to its highest throne, and we must all provide his sacrifice.