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.

12. Der müde Tod

IMG_0910-1
October 7, 1921
Decla-Bioscop
Directed by Fritz Lang

By October 1921, when Der müde Tod premiered in Berlin, most of the population of Germany and Austria had lost any control over their lives. The Mark had been stable through 1920, worth about a penny and a half, American. But the inflation had returned, and begun to accelerate once the first Reparation payment was made in June 1921. Money became worthless, and you had to sell whatever you could to get by. Death could come to anyone at any minute. Everything in life was surrendered to Fate.

But what is this Fate? How do we explain it, especially now that we see Christian metaphysics as but one choice among many. Fate can be observed and even maybe understood. This is the modern world. We live in the city. We can afford movie tickets and get an evening’s entertainment.

Fritz Lang grew up in the modern Vienna of Freud and Hitler, the son of a successful Baumeister, where he soaked in both high and low culture. When the war came, he enthusiastically enlisted in the Austrian Army, and in Fall 1915 he was assigned to a reconnaissance unit on the Eastern Front, where he made sketches of enemy fortifications and repaired damaged equipment in exposed positions, and was wounded in the eye from a mortar shell during Austria’s long retreat from the Brusilov Offensive in 1916.

While regaining his sight, he began to envision movie scenarios. Some of them may even have been made, though nothing survives now. In 1917 his father bought him a horse to replace the one that had been shot from under him, and he rejoined the Eastern Front. He was wounded again in early 1918, and this time claimed a nervous disorder that successfully kept him out of the rest of the war. While recuperating, he began living with his girlfriend, a nurse/cabaret dancer known today only by her pseudonym, Lisa Rosenthal.

 

One day he was sitting at a cafe, wearing his officer’s uniform and the monocle necessitated by his eye injury, when he was spotted by the producer of a patriotic play who thought he would make the perfect Prussian officer. He used this producer’s connection to arrange a meeting with Erich Pommer, the head of Decla. Lang won Pommer over completely, and convinced him to give him a job at Decla and a discharge. He was in Berlin by September.

Lisa came with him, and they were married in 1919. This was also the year that he began directing films, in addition to writing them. Fritz worked at both Decla and May-Film, and at May-Film he was introduced to an aristocratic Prussian named Thea von Harbou.  Van Harbou had published her first novel at the age of seventeen and made her theatrical debut the following year. Her dual work during the war was suitably patriotic, and built her a writing reputation. When May-Film bought a story from her, she joined the company as a screenwriter, and Lang was brought in to assist with the film adaptation of her novel Das Indische Grabmal. They wrote it with the idea that Fritz would direct, but it was snagged from him by his boss Joe May at May-Film. What was to be Lang’s prestigious coming-out was cancelled, stolen by an inferior artist.

 

Lang threw himself into a new project with Thea von Harbou. Der müde Tod is the first story they wrote from scratch together. A small pre-modern town has a strange visitor (Death, of course) who builds an immense doorless wall around his purchased plot of land. A newlywed couple stop at the inn for their nuptial drink, and Death joins their table. Death disappears, taking the bridegroom with him. The bride searches for her husband, encountering a vision of a procession of ghosts – one of them is the husband. She is found collapsed on the ground by the local apothecary, who takes her into his shop and prepares a remedy for the fever she’s developed. Here, she reads from the passage from Song of Solomon 8:6 that states love is stronger than death, and decides to try it. She takes a poison so as to confront death and ask for her husband back. Weary Death tells her he doesn’t really want to do what he’s doing, and gives her three chances to prove her love is stronger than death by saving a life about to be extinguished.

And so the gripping frame story turns to three formulaic costume adventure stories that continuously retell the same story which the same actors. Time always runs out and the heroine fails to save the life of man doomed to die. In each story, she wields a little more power over her fate, but it is never enough. Love, at least her love, is never stronger than fate.  In the end, she gives in to fate and finds her existential worth within fate’s cold system.

But this is no traditional concept of fate. It can’t be equated with Death, though the link is strong and clear, because for all his power, Death himself is not in control. He is also trapped by the workings of fate, in what Tom Gunning calls the Destiny Machine. A reification of fate in the Modern Age. Technology has not given any of us more power over our lives and by extension, over nature. It has grown, inorganically, into a network of interlocking mechanisms. To Gunning, the most we can hope for in Lang’s world is a visionary experience of the Destiny Machine, where we see how everything works, before we finally succumb to it.

 

Thea von Harbou joined Fritz on set, balancing his hard authority with sweet feminine friendliness. She had by this time left her husband, become Fritz’s lover, and moved into an apartment in his building. Lang’s wife “Lisa” was humiliated and pleaded with him to no avail. One day in late 1920, she walked in on a “script conference” between the two lovers. That evening, during a heavy snowstorm, was shot with his Browning, between her breasts, and found by police in the bathtub. Lang and Von Harbou were the only witnesses, and they waited a long time to call the police. She had phoned a friend and made plans earlier that evening. Fritz Lang was known as a megalomaniacal director within the German film industry, and there were many people who didn’t believe him. Erich Pommer definitely provided assistance in getting Lang off the hook, as he had with getting him out of the army in 1918. Fate isn’t an abstract concept for Berlin’s artistic power couple. Fate, in the form of a “destiny machine” has arranged a cruel plan for all of us. A story not written in a scripture, but set by a machine.

Bibliography

  • Eyck, Erich. Eine Geschichte der Weimarer Republik. E. Rentsch Verlag, 1956
  • Gunning, Tom. The Films of Fritz Lang: Allegories of Vision and Modernity. British Film Institute, 2000.
  • Jensen, Paul M. The Cinema of Fritz Lang. A.S. Barnes, 1969.
  • Kracauer, Siegfried. From Caligari to Hitler: A Psychological History of German Film. Princeton University Press, 1947.
  • McGilligan, Patrick. Fritz Lang: the Nature of the Beast. St. Martin’s Press, 1997.