The Boxing Day Intertitle: The Metropolis Courier

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.

24 Responses to “The Boxing Day Intertitle: The Metropolis Courier”

  1. The Nazis were mighty impressed by METROPOLIS, Goebells especially. He once said that the message of the film, about mediating between head and the hand with the heart, basically making sure everybody is in their place class-wise was what needed to be said. Weirdly enough the ending, mediating between head and hand was reused down to a T in the Matrix movies.

    That’s one of the reasons why Lang grew to hate his own film. Of course it’s not at all a Nazi film, just insipid in the ideology of its plot and titles where its images are powerfully ambiguous and frightening. For me METROPOLIS is a movie where the narrative is scattered along several lines and when these lines intersect, it often leads to chaotic collisions, like that amazing proto-Brakhage montage of cuts and splices that leads to Frohlich’s breakdown when he discovers Maria(the robot) and his father together and of course the robot Maria’s orgiastic gyrations at the Babylon club. Or even the famous Tower of Babel scene which was famously excerpted by Rivette in his first film.

    Frohlich, as per Thomas Elsaesser’s BFI monograph signed up as an extra and was literally picked on the spot to play the hero. All that suggests that Lang deliberately went against choosing a powerful heroic figure, in that respects its anti-totalitarian, at least as far as casting, you can’t buy that he really is a “Mediator” whereas Maria, by Brigitte Helm, both the real one and the robot and Rotwang are the powerful characters of the film, with Alfred Abel coming after that.

    I prefer other Lang silents – like Dr. Mabuse(both parts), Kriemhild’s Rache, Spione, but METROPOLIS is the definitive vision of a technological future and fairly prescient in how it percieves technology as a conduit and outlet for psychosexual hysteria.

    Fritz Rasp was an actor associated with Brecht’s troupe by the way.

  2. The influence cast by METROPOLIS extended to films that didn’t get made as well, chiefly Sergei Eisenstein’s THE GLASS HOUSE which he intended to be a left-wing response to the Lang film.

  3. I was able to see this at the Detroit Film Theatre this past summer, and left afterward feeling, well, not disappointed, but not enthralled either. It’s been years since I’ve seen DIE NIBELUNGEN (two decades perhaps) and I recall being very impressed with that, especially with the sturm und drang of KRIEMHILD’S REVENGE. You’re right about the pacing of this more complete version of METROPOLIS, it does move along at a brisk clip. And I agree with whoever said that the newly added footage, consisting of fairly brief increments, goes by so fast that you eventually become oblivious to its obvious flawed condition.

    I enjoyed Fiona’s feedback, love the quip about the old bikes (the same old bikes Lorre found in the storage facility at the end of M). That got me thinking of MST3K, and a possible reboot where she might audition. I had a conversation over the phone about the old MST3K, seems one of their alumni has become a conservative Republican. He recently left a comment on one the political blogs classifying the Left and their thinking as “silly”, and the Right as “serious” by comparison. To which I surmised that it’s their very “seriousness” that makes them silly, and hard to take seriously. And let’s be honest, the old MST3K was very silly indeed.

  4. “MOLOCH!” figures prominently in Rob & Jeffrey’s Howl — the performance for which James Franco WON’T be Oscar-nominated for (though it’s his best to date.)

    “The Head and the Heart” reminds me of “Once Hand, One Heart” from West Side Story. I’ve been reading about it (and much else) in Sondheim’s Finishing the Hat , which Bill gave me for Xmas. Lots about how pretentious Lenny was, though simpatico. And lots about what an evil bitch Jerry Robbins was, though insightful. Sondheim was brought onto the project when Comden and Green were forced to bow out due to prior commitments. I’m sure Betty and Adolph could have kept Lenny’s grandiosity in check making the whole thing more like On the Town with an unhappy ending.

  5. Thank you Guy! But I’m shocked to hear about the right wing MST3K member. Who is it?

  6. I’m shocked too.

    I’m sure it isn’t Crow.

  7. Must be Tom Servo then. That would, I guess, kind of make sense. I read Kevin Murphy’s A Year at the Movies and he certainly seemed artistically conservative. His stunt of seeing a movie every day for a year, at the cinema, didn’t seem to include many challenging films. And he hated Stroszek because it didn’t make Wisconsin look attractive enough.

  8. My friend Colleen couldn’t remember his name, but she told me last night over the phone about his comment. It could very ell have been Servo. How funny, that Stroszek didn’t make Wisconsin attractive enough. Doesn’t seem like a film designed for the tourist trade, does it?

  9. Michael J. Nelson, head writer for the show and on-air host for half its run?

  10. Wow, I hope not.

    Ulp. According to his Wikipedia page, it’s true.

  11. Oh no. Not Mike.

  12. I always liked Joel better.

    Now I know why.

  13. I’ve never been a MST3K fan so I will continue, unbothered, with the news that the long history of pop musicians drawing inspiration from Metropolis continues with Janelle Monae, who is apparently obsessed with it. She also covers Chaplin’s ‘Smile’ as part of her live show. I’m surprised and delighted to find silent cinema leaking into the mainstream via yet another unusual route.

  14. Michael J. Nelson has apparently always been an extreme right-winger, as opposed to one of those reactionary-come-latelies who have been pissing themselves with fear since 9/11 and thinks everyone who isn’t is a weakling. I’ve always liked Joel better too, but the fact is that Nelson is also funny. We’ll just have to cope.

    I can’t imagine how Rosenbaum can see Metropolis as even “naively” socialist. The fact that it’s not is inherent in the “head and hand” tag. The workers aren’t “hands” because that’s how society is organized; they’re “hands” by nature. Even when they’re supposedly rebelling. they’re still a mindless mob that can be turned against first this target and then that one. The Metropolis ideology seems drawn from the early-modern notion of society as a collection of “corporate” interests (landowners, church, peasants, etc.), an idea which persisted in Prussia past its sell-by date. And of course it was updated as Fascist “corporatism.” In other words, Metropolis may not be Nazi but I think it’s Fascist.

    But entertaining! I was among the lucky crowd that saw this restoration on the REALLY big screen of the Castro Theater, with exciting live accompaniment by the Alloy Orchestra.

  15. I read with interest a comic strip by Marvel maestro Stan Lee published in a 9:11 benefit book. According to him, America’s enemies are motivated by jealousy of all the cool stuff Americans have, like Marvel comics, presumably.

    There was always a sort of schism in MST3K, between the impulse to watch weird, non-good movies and get entertainment from them, and the impulse to mock. The best gags seem to riff off the film’s absurdities, rather than going on the attack. So there are progressive and conservative elements to it.

  16. kevin mummery Says:

    I have nothing really pithy to add, not having seen this yet (got the previous Kino version, though…evidently this new restoration has rendered it obsolete) except to note that the last still shown is evidence of the lasting influence J. Arthur Rank obviously had on Fritz Lang. Also, the MST3K goofballs had nothing on the old horror show host The Ghoul, who would also comment on the action onscreen, while it was playing. And who was the sworn enemy of Sir Graves Ghastly, a more benign, stately sort of horror show host.

  17. kevin mummery Says:

    Oh, and Fiona’s comment about storing old bikes should probably added into the intertitles on the next restoration. It’s just that good!

  18. Rotwang, like all the best mad scientists (Albert Hoffman for instance) was clearly a keen cyclist.

    I guess the previous restoration might be worth hanging onto for its more consistent picture quality — but I don’t find the damaged bits in the new one too distracting. It’s good that there are a few new shots up front to get us used to the fluctuating image. And the additional scenes all enhance the story — it’s such a well-structured piece that any omissions were bound to have a negative effect. You sit watching the new stuff and wonder, “How could they cut THAT?” and then realize that no cuts were really possible without hurting it.

    I meant to say: thanks for your readings, Arthur and Katya: illuminating stuff. Where Rosenbaum finds it absurd that Grot, the boss’s man, stands in for the workers during the final hand-clasping, a reading of the film’s right-wing heart makes complete sense of this. Interesting also how it’s Abel, the true architect of all the destruction and chaos, who’s not quite ready to forgive…

  19. Glenn Erickson cracks the mystery of Frederson’s motivation here — And in the process makes me wonder if Harbou’s novel influenced Christopher Nolan’s Inception.

  20. Wouldn’t surprise me, that is a movie about brainwashing as the world’s coolest job and it is bereft of anything that would complicate the gimmick on which the movie is structured.

  21. This is the last place I expected to see mention of Janelle Monae’s METROPOLIS album. It was my most highly-anticipated, and probably still my favorite, record of 2010.

    Post-MST3K, Mike and Bill and Kevin have been running, selling joke commentary tracks for commercial DVDs. They’re usually worth the couple bucks they cost – it’s the only way I was able to sit through those last two Star Wars movies. I’ve noticed more of Mike’s political views coming through in the jokes lately, but maybe it’s just because I’ve paid more attention since reading that he’s a huge republican.

    I still get warm fuzzies thinking about the Thanksgiving chapter in Kevin’s “A Year at the Movies,” when they snuck their whole dinner into a screening of MONSTERS INC.

  22. Randy Byers Says:

    I suppose it’s the same point you’re making about pace, but the thing that struck me when I saw this version was the rhythm of it. Suddenly the musical structure implied by the section titles make a great deal of sense. The thing builds and builds over the length of the movie to an impassioned crescendo. Some of the restored bits are brief flashes that are almost more rhythmic than visual.

    I also saw a live show with the Alloy Orchestra (at the SIFF Cinema here in Seattle), and it was one of the great theater experiences of 2010. It’s a shame they didn’t include the Alloy Orchestra score with the Kino DVD, although I do like the Huppertz score too.

  23. It’s a movie which deserves to be treated in a variety of musical ways — what I don’t understand is why so few previous scores were any good. And yes, the movie is not only a succession of stunning images (with no dull ones in between) and a crazy, inventive narrative, but a visual symphony.

  24. Randy Byers Says:

    Maybe the mutilated version was harder to score than the more intact versions.

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