Metropolis – 1927 (Germany)

What silent film from the 1920’s features a Leonardo DiCaprio look-alike who falls in love with a girl who starts off acting sweet until they use her face to program an evil Miley Cyrus robot?  The story line manages to mash up science, religion, magic, and technology with a romance that will make you say “wait… what?” at least twice.  They also demo an early version of Skype and feature a mad scientist who shoots more lightning bolts than Dr. Frankenstein.

Metropolis is rightfully famous for lots of things that people had never seen before at the movies.  Besides being a jackpot of art deco style, it is sometimes credited with being the first feature-length science fiction movie, with being the first dystopian story on the screen, and featuring the first movie robot.  I read a few contemporary reviews of the film and two things are clear: 1) critics were impressed with the technical achievement and 2) it was controversial  – critics loved it or hated it.

The version I watched was the Metropolis Restored version that is currently available by streaming on Netflix.  This version, released in 2010, has a fully orchestrated original score that was quite good.  It contains several “lost” scenes that were cut from the version released in the US in 1927.   There are several versions available to watch for free on YouTube and on the Internet Archive.  Most of the free versions are pre-2010 restoration but many include modern sound tracks, commentary, even added dialogue and sound effects.  It’s a movie that has inspired lots of people in lots of ways for quite a long time so it’s importance is hard to overstate.

The positives are that this silent film looks far more advanced than any previous silent film I have seen.  Everything from the stylistic look of the film, the special effects, and complexity of the plot were new, ambitious, and expensive.  The film is said to be the most expensive ever made at that time and led to the bankruptcy of the German studio UFA.

On the negative side, the film clocks in at 2.5 hours; longish by modern standards and a bit of a slog for a 21st century viewer of a nearly 90-year-old movie.  If I hadn’t been taking notes for this review, I’m pretty sure I would have gotten lost and/or bored before things got interesting.

Depending on ones political leanings, you might find the head/heart/hands message to be gag-inducing or a revelation.  For myself, I found the labor/capitalist drama to be every bit as naive and preachy from the left as any Ayn Rand adaptation does from the right.  Your mileage may vary.

As I continue watching silent films leading up to their eventual end in the early 1930’s, I hope to see one with less melodramatic acting.  It’s hard to see anything other than unintentional comedy in actors who seem to be playing to a distant arena-sized crowd rather than a single camera a few feet away.

I guess my recommendation for this movie would be to watch it with a willingness to fast-forward and scene hop.  There are lots of cool things to see here, but seeing them may not be worth a 2.5 hour investment of your time.

The following is a detailed plot synopsis that contains many of my nerdy thoughts and observations.  It contains plot spoilers.  However, since the plot is not the strongest reason to watch this film, your viewing pleasure may be enhanced.  At least, that’s my intent 😉


 

A young man named Fred (bearing a striking resemblance to a guy named Jack who died on the Titanic in 1912)  lives a life of privilege and ease in the “Club of the Sons”  because his dad is THE Big Daddy in the city of Metropolis.  One day, Fred is visited by an angelic young woman with about 100 Dickensian urchins hanging on her and looking adorably scared and needy.  Fred is smitten.  He must find her and save her and have her and all that overacted passionate silent movie stuff.

One of these guys is the star of this film.

Fred runs after her into the lower depths of the city where the workers live.  He arrives just in time to witness a horrific explosion that kills several workers and causes him to hallucinate the machinery as a giant human eating monster.  Fred freaks and takes a cab to the top of the tower to talk things over with Big Daddy.

Fred's Vision of Technological Progress

Fred’s Vision of Technological Progress

When Fred gets to Big Daddy’s office, we see an interesting piece of incidental futuristic technology.  There is a guy (Josh, who becomes an important character later) on the left side of the screen who is working on the 1927 vision of a data terminal.  We don’t know what he’s doing but he looks highly trained and there’s numbers and symbols and stuff so it looks like some kind of futuristic computery thingy.

Big Daddy ruminates while Josh works the computer.

Big Daddy ruminates while Josh works the computer.

After Big Daddy hears about the explosion, he fires Josh for being incompetent and hires a goon to follow Fred.  Josh was incompetent because Fred scooped him with the news about the explosion.  The goon was sent after Fred because he’s chasing after a girl from the wrong side of the tracks.  Big Daddy is wound pretty tight.

Next we meet the Notorious Crazy Inventor Dude.  He has some odd Germanic name that I can’t remember so we’ll just call him Notorious C.I.D.   C.I.D. lives in an odd little house that is surrounded by skyscrapers.  Reminded me of Carl’s house in Up or the Bucket family house in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.   C.I.D. has one of the classic traits of an evil twisted genius; an amputated hand replaced with a glove/prosthesis.  This taps in to a wealth of old folk tales about murderous people with golden hands and such.  The artificial hands always have a mind of their own and do all sorts of mischief.  One more first for this movie!   Anyway, Big Daddy comes to visit C.I.D.   Turns out that C.I.D. was in love with Fred’s mom and she is now dead and entombed in a creepy theatrical tomb right out of Dr. Phibes.  Next, C.I.D. demos his Dr. Frankenstein cred in the form of his mechanical “man” that is obviously a mechanical woman.  No wonder he has bad luck with the ladies.  This is the robot that the movie is most famous for.  C.I.D. lets it slip to Big Daddy that he can give the mechanical, uh, person the face of anybody.  Big Daddy shows his true evil genius by telling C.I.D. to use the face of Fred’s angelic love interest who is also known to be riling up the workers.

Crazy Inventor Dude lays down the law to Big Daddy while Mechanical "Man" silently ponders gender identity.

Crazy Inventor Dude lays down the law to Big Daddy while Mechanical “Man” silently ponders gender identity.

Meanwhile….  After leaving Big Daddy’s office, Fred went down into hellish underground worker bee land and switched places with a guy named 11811.  Fred now has the overly dramatized job of lining up the two hands of a clock gizmo with two lit light bulbs around the perimeter of the clock.  Different bulbs light every few seconds so he has to keep moving the hands.  Fred shows his inner wussy when he screams in agony over his torment.  Whatever.  In a movie filled with creative future technologies, this machine seemed really dumb.  I get the idea that the workers jobs were mind numbing, but I think they could have come up with something better than this goofy pointless clock thing.  The one good thing that comes of Fred’s shift-from-hell is that he learns where he can find the angelic girl of his dreams.

Fred Struggles with the Pointless Machine

Fred Struggles with the Pointless Machine

After being relieved at the end of his shift, Fred continues his search for his mysterious angel.  He learns that the workers are meeting in a chapel in the 2000-year-old catacombs below the workers level.  There he finds his angel, Maria, telling the assembled workers the story of the tower of babel.  One thing I noticed about Maria was that she would clutch her breasts when consumed with emotion.  I’m not talking about placing a hand over her heart, it’s a full on boob grab.  What is the deal with that?  Was this gesture common in the 1920’s?  Is it a European thing?  Is it a quaint anachronism that has gone the way of hat tipping?  Or is it just a part of silent movie vocabulary that we’re not used to seeing anymore?

Maria Expresses Womanly Feelings.

Maria Expresses Womanly Feelings.

Whatever the back-story, Maria clutches her breast passionately as she looks on the face of Fred, who she declares to be the messianic mediator (heart) between Big Daddy (head) and the workers (hands).  A ridiculous/passionate kiss seals the deal.  The audience suspects that mixing the business of a worker’s rebellion with pleasure can’t possibly end well.   Fred leaves to meet up with Josh (remember him?) and 11811 who he traded places with.  Once she is alone, Maria soon has need to clutch her breast in fear as she becomes aware that she is being pursued by none other than C.I.D. who captures her with face-stealing on his mind.

Back at Josh’s place, Fred learns that 11811 took advantage of his new identity to go out clubbing with all the dead presidents he found in Fred’s trouser pockets.  This whole scene is a minor plot point but it does contain another interesting little futuristic techno-goodie from the past; a continuous pair of elevators that act kind of like a vertical revolving door.  Moving compartments continually pass by; going up on the left and down on the right.  You just wait for an empty compartment and step on.  Probably not practical because of safety issues but it is a cool idea.

Metropolis09

Josh and The Goon get acquainted as citizens of Metropolis pass by vertically.

As Fred passes by the odd little house, he hears the screams of Maria being hooked up to C.I.D.’s face stealing machine.  Fred manages to break in but gets trapped in a hallway by some magically closing doors.  This is where C.I.D. goes full Frankenstein and gets to show off all of his cool mad scientist gear.

Metropolis10 -x

Two views of Crazy Inventor Dude’s Lab with Maria in the glass tube body-transfer-machine in the foreground.

There is an impressive amount of detail in the mad scientist apparatus on display in this scene.  The picture above shows how the film-makers took extra care to give the viewer a reference point (maria in the glass tube with the disco ball thingy overhead) when changing perspective in the scene.  There is what appears to be a blacksmith forge on one end of the room next to a stylish art-deco inspired curved shelf.  An odd anachronism that may be a nod to Director Fritz Lang’s earlier work on the Ring of the Nibelungen.

Metropolis10 - y

More detail of apparatus in the laboratory of the Crazy Inventor Dude.

Our Crazy Inventor Dude is obviously a student of chemistry and electricity.  The photo on the right side above shows an interesting mash-up of electrical coils and chemical glassware.  I got curious about real life inspiration for all of this and I realized that this was the heyday of Nikola Tesla, famous inventor, rival of Thomas Edison, and popular subject of conspiracy theorists.  Here are a couple of famous pictures of Tesla’s lab and an unidentified chemistry lab researcher from MIT in the early 1900’s.  Tesla was well-known worldwide by the 1920’s largely due to his self promotion.

Nikola Tesla (left) reading as plasma bolts arc around him + Unidentified Chemistry Student at MIT ca. 1910.

Nikola Tesla (left) reading as plasma bolts arc around him + Unidentified Chemistry Student at MIT ca. 1910.

I don’t know how much of C.I.D.’s lab was based on the reality of Tesla’s actual research space, but Tesla was well-known at the time for creating lighting effects with a variety of devices, one of which bears his name: the Tesla Coil.  This device was used in this and countless other movies to give the “mad scientist” lightning effect that we all know and love.

Anyway, after bustling around the lab throwing switches and looking concerned, C.I.D. fires up his machine and we get to see those Tesla lightning bolts, bubbling chemicals, and weird radio hula-hoop waves surrounding the robot.

The body image transfer machine transforms the robot into evil-Maria.

The body image transfer machine transforms the robot into evil-Maria.

When the smoke clears, a perfect image of Maria is seated where the robot was before.  Except, this Maria doppelganger is evil!  Where Maria was angelic, the new, evil-Maria cocks her head, wriggles suggestively, and leers obscenely.  Almost like….. Nah!  It couldn’t be!  Could it?

Sweet, angelic Maria is transformed into an identical but soulless, leering, evil robot.

Anyway, Big Daddy shows up and he instructs Evil-Maria to lead the workers in a revolt.  She winks seductively in approval and they embrace passionately just as Fred bursts in the room.  When he sees evil-Maria in the arms of his father, Fred’s world goes cinematically coo-coo with lots of  double exposures and composite images of angry workers and confusing images of Maria.  He faints (the wuss) and wakes up a few weeks later in bed at Big Daddy’s house.  Josh shows up to fill Fred in on happenings while he was unconscious.  The big news is that evil Maria has been doing the nightclub circuit, driving the boys wild with desire as she presents an apocalyptic tableau, complete with the seven deadly sins.  Fred can’t believe that his angel would act this way.  Millions of adolescent Disney fans feel his pain.

Evil Maria sampling the Metropolis nightlife and the boys' reaction.

Evil Maria sampling the Metropolis nightlife and the boys’ reaction.

Fred & Josh head to the catacombs but evil Maria is already there inciting the workers to revolt and destroy the machines.  Evil Maria continues to leer and shout, spurring the workers to abandon their homes to join in the machine-destroying mob.  An enormous crowd descends on the “heart machine” that powers the city and is valiantly guarded by a bearded loyal worker named Grot.  In another small scene showing a vision of the future, Grot confers with Big Daddy over a video-phone.  One interesting feature about these video phones is that they have a built-in ticker-tape printer on the side.  Kind of a cool mix of 21st century tech with an early 20th century convenience for the jazz-age stock trader on the go.  Anyway,  Big Daddy tells a disbelieving Grot to “Open the gates and let ’em in!”  The intertitles explain that Big Daddy is letting the mob have their way so that he can justify his use of excessive force to put the workers back in their place.  I guess that’s a good justification to kill all your consumer base and destroy your means of production, but I’m no economist.

Big Daddy: "Open the Gates and Let 'em in!"  Grot: "Say it ain't so, Joh!"

Big Daddy says “Open the Gates and Let ’em in!” Grot says “Say it ain’t so, Joh!”

When Grot opens the gates, the mob swarms in and starts trashing the machines as he warns them that the under-city will flood without the power from the heart machine.  They pay no heed because evil Maria is at the front of the angry mob, leering and cheering and twerking goading them on.  The machines explode with flames and lighting bolts and an impressive array of special effects.  The mob begins to dance in circles as the machines die.

It turns out that good Maria was not harmed by the body swap machine.  C.I.D. has been holding her captive as a forced recipient of his creepy repressed feelings.  She manages to escape and arrives at the underground workers town just as the predicted flood waters start rising.  The emotional ante is raised as we see that all the adults have left the town on their machine-smashing binge and left their kiddos behind.  So, no child protective services in this vision of the future.  Fred and Josh arrive on the scene and Fred realizes that this Maria is the real deal.  They embrace and kiss passionately as children scream and drown all around them.  Totally believable.  Since this film was conceived, written, and filmed in Berlin, its obvious that Hollywood does not have a monopoly on improbable romance.  The three manage to lead the children to safety through the air vents to the “Club of the Sons”; the exclusive rich-kid neighborhood where Fred first saw Maria at the start of the film.

Just as the kids are led to safety, evil Maria buggers off back to the surface night clubs so she can watch the workers drown like rats.  The workers realize that  “Oops!  Guess we broke the wrong machine!” and follow Grot on a vengeful riot to “Burn the witch!”.  Those workers are pretty damn fickle.  For a minute, it looks like the angry mob is going to burn good Maria and let evil Maria go free.  Fortunately, they encounter the night club revelers and burn evil Maria who changes back to a robot as she dies laughing and leering till the end.  Fred throws C.I.D. off a church roof and Big Daddy learns that his son almost died with the commoners so he has an epiphany of the error of his ways.   We end with a happy tableau of  Fred, the heart/mediator joining the head/capitalist Big Daddy with the hands/laborer Grot and Maria smiling beatifically.


 

 

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