Archive for December 26, 2010

The Boxing Day Intertitle: The Metropolis Courier

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , on December 26, 2010 by dcairns

Well, God knows it took us long enough, but we finally watched our BluRay of METROPOLIS (new and restored) — it was a big event that couldn’t just be indulged in on any old night. I was going to call this post “Things Fiona Said During Metropolis” because there were some zingers, but she was so charmed by the sight of The Thin Man reading The Metropolis Courier (the daily rag of Fiona’s home city Dundee is likewise a Courier) that I had to give up that idea, and my other one, which was McTROPOLIS. “How are you going to find enough Scottish references to justify that title?” asked Fiona, and I backed away from the challenge.

Fiona’s first line comes from before the film even started — “I’m afraid I still have fond memories of the Giorgio Moroder version,” which I decided was fair enough because GM did, for his sins, start the ball rolling restoration-wise. His “discretely” color-tinted, 80s pop-scored version undid much of the damage done by the US distributor’s rewriting of the intertitles, and left us wanting more, an important first step. My view of the music — perfectly acceptable in its place, but its place is not METROPOLIS.

Your opinion of Fiona may now rise, as I report her excitement at hearing that the disc is scored with the original score (slightly rejigged to allow for missing scenes) — I’d seen the excellent interim restoration of a few years back, on the big screen of Filmhouse 1, so I’d experienced this in shorter form, but it was news to Fiona. With all the versions of METROP which circulated during the years post-Moroder, not one of them seemed to have an adequate score, despite the fact that surely the film must exert considerable appeal to musical types (as its life as a pop-promo inspiration — Queen, Madonna — would indicate) and the fact that subtlety is not chief among its many insuperable virtues, and so finding an appopriate note to strike in a score ought not to be that hard…

Seeing the movie almost complete, I was struck again by how fast it moves — from the introduction to the world of the workers, to the Sons’ Club up top, with giant iconic skyscrapers in between, we get to the machine room inside fifteen minutes. Seeing TRON: LEGACY the following day, it was striking how much slower our plots move today, for all the kinetic embroidering they get. Fiona always remarks on the sexiness of the robot, although it was Olivia Wilde in TRON: LEG who caused her to report signs of incipient lesbianism.

Rotwang: “This is where I keep my old bikes.” ~ That’s Fiona’s line.

A word on Alfred Abel — the subtlest of the film’s actors, his character is often accused of making no sense. Each of the additional scenes in the “new” cut enhances his motivation, until it’s only his senseless allowing of the workers to shut down his whole city by trashing the Heart Machine that seems a bit silly. What’s missing (not in terms of the edit, but in terms of the original script) is a scene of him calling in the riot cops — fomenting revolution in your own country in order to quash the impulses behind it is an old dictator’s trick (the later burning of the Reichstag was a variant — frame the “revolutionaries” for your own crime) but it’s no good if you allow them to destroy the whole joint. Metropolis seems oddly devoid of police and military, come to think of it.

The film’s craziest acting probably comes not from its prototypical mad scientist but from hero Gustav Frohlich, a Marius Goring type rocking the jodhpurs look. “He’d be pretty if it weren’t for that helmet of hair,” said Fiona, and “He’s prettier than her.” METROP is often knocked for its acting, its theme and its story, but there are words to be said in favour of all three. The story, as I’ve said, makes reasonably good sense once the studio interference is neutralized. The acting is not “typical silent movie acting” by any means — in 1927, the early, broadly gesticulatory performance mode was old-hat, and the frenzied perfs provoked by Lang don’t belong to that tradition anyway. He’s more like Kubrick, encouraging his thesps to embody the wildest extremes of their own style. Klein-Rogge is violently declamatory, or else broods and glowers, a surly gargoyle. Abel is dignity itself, a marble statue. Frohlich freaks, Rasp sneers. Brigitte Helm, a newcomer, had no existing persona to caricature, so Lang has his way with her — she’s not remotely like this in her later movies. The good Maria is a Lillian Gish with pursed lips, while the bad is a psycho-nympho, more like her later ALRAUNE role in terms of perversity, a pure demon of annihilation, cackling hysterically as she’s cremated.

She also looks like the idealized lovechild of Lang and Harbou — big chin, long straight nose, hooded eyes, prominent brow.

David Wingrove saw the restoration ahead of me and remarked that seeing the damage on the newly-added scenes had the positive effect of allowing you to pinpoint what had been cut and to speculate on why. Much of the trimmed material relates to sex or politics (but so does much of the remaining material) — David suggested that, given Frederson and Rotwang’s love for the same woman (the previously-deleted Hel), it’s not unreasonable to suggest some doubt as to Freder’s paternity: if Rotwang is really his dad, then his line, when asked by Freder where Maria is — “With your father.” — is not a lie…

If the last major missing scene, Freder’s first fight with Rotwang, leading to Maria’s escape, were restored, we might get more of this.

All this is even more interesting given Rotwang/Klein-Rogge’s sort-of-threesome relationship with Lang and Von Harbou…

“I want a METROPOLIS desk-lamp!”

The film’s theme is a little harder to defend. Partly because its delivered as a naff homily, “The mediator between head and hands must be the heart,” and partly because once that’s analysed, it does seem like a rather sappy bit of political wish-fulfillment. Lang was embarrassed by it in later years, and Jonathan Rosenbaum in the excellent booklet accompanying the Masters of Cinema disc calls the film’s conclusion “one of the lamest endings of any great film I can think of,” and he’s not wrong. But I think he’s perhaps mistaken to speak of  “naive socialist notions” — while Lang and Von Harbou are vague about exactly what kind of Metropolitan Paradise is going to be set up, it still seems set to be divided between workers and bosses. Seems to me that the movie is calling on the bosses to treat the workers just decently enough to avoid revolution. This puts it in the same camp as THE DEVIL AND MISS JONES, directed by rightwinger Sam Wood in Hollywood in the 40s. While it seems odd that a man who required his heirs to take a loyalty oath before they could inherit would make a comedy with a trade union leader as hero (Robert Cummings, the Butcher of Strasbourg), the logic is that socialism and communism can be de-fanged if the bosses are kindly to their underlings. “Let the fools have their ‘tartar sauce’,” as The Simpsons’ Mr. Burns once put it. It’s the same faux-liberal philosophy Charles Foster Kane sets out with: if those with power and wealth look out for the little guy’s interests, he won’t be tempted to revolt.

Joseph Tyrrel saw this movie, like twenty times.

So, while I don’t like the film’s philosophy, I see it as a somewhat artless expression of a wily conservative agenda rather than any kind of naive socialism. Von Harbou would later become a Nazi, after all, and National Socialists aren’t proper socialists.

Still, moving quickly along, it must be remarked yet again that each iteration of METROPOLIS reveals greater qualities. Lang spent his unheard-of budget wisely, crafting a movie composed entirely of extraordinary shots, each sign a triumph of design. As in DIE NIBELUNGEN, several opposing styles are integrated into the film, from the neo-brutalism of the workers’ city to the art deco majesty of the Upperworld, to the Gothic tumbledown menace of Rotwang’s home. And looking at the deleted scenes one marvels how they could ever have been removed, so essential are they to the overall scheme. But Lang’s film is so neatly plotted, and so full of grandeur, than no truncation would have been possible without mutilating the narrative.

“Health and Safety would never allow this today!”

Biggest casualties of the cuts were probably hapless prole Georgy 11811 (Erwin Biswanger) and The Thin Man (Fritz Rasp), a suavely repellent spy/factotum. I’m now aching for a version of Jeeves and Wooster starring Rasp and Gustav Frohlich. Paul Wegener as Roderick Spode, please!

Opening of Von Harbou’s novel ~

“Now the rumbling of the great organ swelled to a roar, pressing, like a rising giant, against the vaulted ceiling, to burst through it.”

It’s all like this — within a few lines we’ve had “wide-open, burning eyes” and “innermost depths” and “glowing moisture” — it’s a Jack Kirby universe of ultimates and extremes. Within a page or so of this pomp, I recoil, exhausted. The translation doesn’t help. Where Lang works as the perfect partner for Von Harbou is in distilling her fervid excess down until it’s clear and coherent, without losing any of the mad, visionary passion.