Metropolis at 90, Part II (Behind the scenes)

Metropolis is based on a 1925 novel of the same name, written by director Fritz Lang’s then-wife Thea von Harbou for the express purposes of being adapted for the screen. Lang and von Harbou also wrote the screenplay. The story shows influences from H.G. Wells, Auguste Villiers de l’Isle-Adam, and Mary Shelley, as well as the culture of the Weimar Republic.

Before the book existed, though, the story was set in motion by Lang’s very first trip to New York City in October 1924. He was fascinated by the skyscrapers and the lights. Ultimately, the set designs were a beautiful mix of German Expressionism, Art Déco, and New York City architecture. Reportedly, Art Déco got a huge boost of popularity from the film.

Filming began 22 May 1925, with a budget of 1.5 million Reichsmarks. Lang cast Rudolf Klein-Rogge as mad scientist Rotwang (marking their fourth film together); established screen and stage actor Alfred Abel as Joh Frederson; and unknowns Brigitte Helm as Maria and Gustav Fröhlich as Freder.

Lang was quite the demanding director, much like Chaplin, and frequently made his actors do numerous re-takes. A simple scene could take as long as two days to be deemed just right. Fröhlich could barely stand up by the time Lang was finally happy with all the film he’d shot. For the flood scene, Lang also made Helm and 500 poor Berlin kids work in a pool of water at a low temperature.

Filming finally wrapped on 30 October 1926.

The original soundtrack was composed by Gottfried Huppertz, who’d also scored Lang’s two 1924 Nibelungen films. He drew inspiration from Wagner and Strauss, melding classical elements with mild modernism. Other elements included hymn “Dies Irae” (“Day of Wrath”) and “La Marseillaise.” During filming, Huppertz often played his score on the piano to inspire and guide the actors.

The score was meant for a large orchestra to perform. Side note: If you have the opportunity to see a silent with live orchestral accompaniment, go for it! I saw some Laurel and Hardy shorts by MASS MoCA with live musicians in I believe 2007, and I also saw the original Ten Commandments with live music in November 2015, at a local church which has been kind enough to loan their beautiful building for several film screenings.

Metropolis features a number of ambitious special effects, most famously the Schüfftan process. This involves using a special mirror to give the illusion of actors being on huge, realistic sets which are actually miniatures. The technique was used again in Alfred Hitchcock’s first talkie, Blackmail (1929).

During the adaptation from book to screenplay, and again during the numerous edits on the way to the finished product, a number of changes were made. Most of the references to magic and occultism were left on the cutting-room floor, as were the moral motivations for certain actions by the main characters.

Also abandoned was an ending where Freder flies to the stars. Since good writers can find inspiration even from junked plot elements and scenes, this ending became the basis for Lang’s final silent, 1929’s Frau im Mond (Woman in the Moon).

All that intense, hard work ultimately paid off. Initial reception was mixed, but the film has more than gone on to prove its incredibleness.

Metropolis at 90, Part I (General overview)

Released 10 January 1927 at the Ufa–Palast am Zoo cinema in Berlin, Metropolis is not only one of the greatest silent films ever, but one of the greatest films ever as well. This was also the very first silent I ever saw, at least that I was consciously aware of. This past summer, I was lucky enough to see it at the local indie theatre, at one of their 35-cent matinées. I believe that was the first time I got to see the 148-minute 2010 restoration.

In the year 2026, Joh Frederson presides over the huge, futuristic city of Metropolis. The few haves live in high-rise towers, while the many have-nots toil away in dangerous underground factories. Joh’s pretty son Freder is an idle playboy when the film opens, but all that changes when he falls in instalove with Maria.

Maria has brought the workers’ children aboveground to see how the idle rich live, but this field trip isn’t long-lived. Frederson and his stooges make them leave, but Freder is determined to see Maria again. He goes below ground in search of Maria, and stumbles upon one of the machine rooms. Freder is horrified when the Moloch machine explodes, killing and injuring several workers.

Freder rushes to tell his father about what happened, very shaken. Frederson is upset to learn that not only was Freder prowling around underground, but also that he didn’t learn of this accident from his assistant Josaphat. The foreman of the Heart Machine, Grof, also shows Freder secret maps which were found on two dead laborers. Frederson fires Josaphat for his incompetence.

Freder resolves to do all he can to help the exploited proletariat, after seeing his father cares less about their living and working conditions. These living human souls are just impersonal cogs on a machine to Frederson, expendable commodities.

Frederson gives orders for Freder to be closely watched, but Freder goes back underground. Freder is horrified to see a worker named Georgy struggling and finally collapsing by the paternoster machine (i.e., the giant clock). Georgy pleads that someone must stay by the machine at all times, and Freder kindly volunteers to take his place. They switch clothes, and Georgy gets into Freder’s car.

Frederson goes to visit the mad scientist Rotwang (Rudolf Klein-Rogge, who starred in many of director Fritz Lang’s films, both silents and talkies). Years ago, Rotwang was in love with Hel, who left him for Frederson. Sadly, she died giving birth to Freder. All these years, Rotwang has been obsessed with Hel.

Rotwang is trying to create a robot to take the place of human workers, since it never makes a mistake or gets tired. He sacrificed his own hand towards the creation of this robot.

Rotwang tells Frederson the maps depict a network of catacombs beneath Metropolis, and they go to spy on the workers. Freder is also by this meeting, having been invited under the false impression he’s Georgy. Freder almost didn’t make it to the end of his 10-hour shift, and indeed collapsed at the end, right before the next worker took his place.

By the meeting, Maria tells the story of the Tower of Babel, imparts some spiritual teachings, and promises a mediator will come to save them. Frederson demands Rotwang make the robot in Maria’s likeness, so it can spread discord among the workers.

Rotwang kidnaps Maria, and uses her to bring his robot to life. By the time Freder finds Rotwang, the robot has been animated and gone to Frederson. Freder is shocked to find his father with the woman he believes is his sweetheart, and goes a bit mad. He passes out, and the robot goes to do Rotwang and Frederson’s bidding.

I won’t spoil what happens after this, but suffice it to say, it’s an incredible, powerful, intense, dramatic, emotional journey. The film meant even more to me after my political awakening at age fifteen, but I’ll discuss that more in a later installment.

It’s hard to put into words just how awesome and incredible this film is. Your cinematic education isn’t complete if you haven’t seen Metropolis!

WeWriWa—The most dangerous force of Nature

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Welcome back to Weekend Writing Warriors and Snippet Sunday, weekly Sunday hops where writers share 8–10 sentences from a book or WIP. This week’s snippet comes right after last week’s, and closes the first scene of the fourth section of this chapter.

18-year-old Gáspár turned from making fun of 18-year-old Emánuel, who’s just disappeared, to making fun of 14-year-old Móric. He mocked Móric for having been so close to Emánuel, and said he was only still alive because his two older brothers took him out of the women and children’s line.

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A potential future mass extinction event, Attribution: National Science Foundation

“Zaki and Viki aren’t here now, and Mórci’s kept going without them,” Kálmán said. “Give him more credit.”

Adalbert cast his eyes up at the dark night sky, lit up with a nearly full Moon. “Nothing will matter soon enough.  It’ll be our turn eventually, and no one will be left to tell our story.  The only people lucky enough to go to Palestine will be the ones who went into hiding, or who escaped to safer countries.  Maybe this is the next mass extinction event I learnt about in geology, accomplished without any meteors, floods, volcanoes, or other natural disasters.  Man evolved to be more dangerous and deadly than all the forces of nature combined.”

Happy Purim!

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Since Purim begins this Saturday night, I thought I’d feature a Purim-themed excerpt. Chapter 3, “Happy Purim,” of the book formerly known as The Very Next, takes place on 4 March 1939 (also a Saturday). It’s interspersed with public domain photos of illuminated Megillot (scrolls of the Book of Esther) and a few vintage photographs. Sadly, it’s very hard to find vintage greeting cards for any Jewish holiday except Rosh Hashanah.

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That evening, Sparky reached into Cinni’s closet for her Purim costume, a Gypsy outfit she’d put together with Cinni’s help.  The dress was peacock-green, with long, flowing sleeves, a floor-length skirt, and a modest neckline.  To transform it from just an ordinary but fancy dress into a real costume, Sparky wrapped herself in a deep blue silk scarf, wrapped her hair in a dark orange velvet scarf, and exchanged her French hook ruby earrings for huge gold hoops she’d picked up at an indoor flea market last month.

“Now why are you perfectly okay with wearing a costume for this holiday, but you felt wrong for wearing a Halloween costume?” Cinni asked. “It’s exactly the same, just for a different holiday.”

“They’re completely different holidays,” Sparky said. “Purim is a Jewish holiday, and Halloween is a pagan holiday.  They’re celebrated for totally different reasons, and have completely different origins.  There are no Purim costumes with stuff like pumpkins, bats, spiders, and witches.  Even the treats we give out are different.”

“So you’re going trick-or-treating after you do your thing at synagogue?”

“We don’t trick-or-treat.  We exchange gift baskets with stuff like money and hamentaschen.  None of the gift baskets have stuff like chocolate bars, caramels, and whatever else you got on Halloween.”

“You get treats for doing nothing?”

“It ain’t nothing.  You wouldn’t get treats unless you were a member of the synagogue, or we knew you.  It ain’t a mitzvah to give Gentiles mishloach manot, but we’ll give you one ‘cause we love you so much.”

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Sparky finished changing into her costume and headed downstairs to join her family.  Cinni sat at the top of the stairs and watched them heading off to synagogue.  Mr. and Mrs. Small were dressed rather boringly, as an Army officer and flapper.  Cinni wondered where Mr. Small had found the vintage military uniform with all the medals and insignia.  He’d been too young to serve in the Great War, and since it was an American uniform, it obviously hadn’t belonged to any of his ancestors or older relatives.  Gary, just turned fifteen, was dressed just as boringly, as a sailor.

Of all their costumes, Cinni liked best Sparky’s Gypsy costume and Barry’s toreador costume.  It reminded her of Rudolph Valentino’s suit of lights in Blood and Sand, in one of the vintage movie advertisements of her namesake which she’d collected over the years.  If Barry were this beautiful from a distance, she could only imagine how much more dashing he’d look when he came back later tonight and she’d be able to see him up-close and from the front.

***

Cinni spent the next few hours listening to the radio and reading movie magazines, ignoring her small pile of homework.  She almost always saved homework for the very last moment, as many times as her mother begged her to do it immediately instead of the night or morning before.  Only the Nobodies liked homework and did it right away.

Cinni didn’t have particularly hard homework, nothing more than a few worksheets with math problems or vocabulary lists in English, French, Italian, and Portuguese.  This was nothing that needed lots of time to complete, like a twenty-page research paper or complicated trigonometry problems.  Life should be about having fun, particularly now that the wolf had been chased away from the door.  She’d had enough hard times in the first few years of the decade, hardships enough to last for the rest of her life.

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Near the time the Smalls were expected to come home, Cinni left her amusements and went downstairs to wait on the davenport.  Lucinda was on one of the other cushions, bent over the spring dresses she’d begun making for her nieces and daughter several weeks ago.  Every year, Lucinda made the girls special spring dresses from repurposed materials found around the house.  Last year, they’d been made from quilts, and this year, they were being fashioned from curtains.

The materials in prior years had included pillowcases, lightweight blankets, bedsheets, silk shawls from London, scarves from Los Angeles, pillow shams, satin bonnets from Amsterdam, and cloth shower curtains.  Before the Stock Market Crash, the family’s spring wardrobe had come from expensive catalogues and upscale department stores.  It amazed Cinni how Lucinda could be frugal and ingenious in this way, but otherwise waste so much money on fancy house embellishments and overpriced clothes for herself.

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“You want a change of scenery from that boring little sewing room?” Cinni asked. “It musta been hard to lug that big old sewing machine here.”

Lucinda sighed. “How can I concentrate in there anymore, now that I have a roommate?  Samantha shows no signs of moving out, though I don’t know how she can bear to sleep on that little cot.  Your father told her she could share the attic with you and Sparky, but she likes my sewing room more.  Maybe she thinks she’s being some holy Christian martyr by depriving herself of a real bed.”

“Martyr, nothing!” Urma shouted from across the room. “My girl ain’t gonna share her sleeping quarters with some Yid!  Bad enough we have to share living quarters with five of ‘em indefinitely.  If she were younger, I’d insist she sleep in the bed Mortez and I got.  But a sewing room cot is still a bed, however pathetic.”

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“I’m going to need my sewing room back eventually.  I can handle a few days of being displaced, but I can’t keep sewing in other rooms, without any privacy.  Perhaps you and your daughter don’t understand that room is my castle, my special place all my own in this house.  I’ve always been happy to live with my dear sister’s family, but it’s nice to have a small room all my own, where I can go to be alone with my thoughts and not be bothered or distracted by anyone or anything else.”

“It’s true,” Cinni says. “Aunt Lucinda is constantly holed up in that precious sewing room of hers.  It’s her special place, and not very nice to intrude upon it.  I hope Sam ain’t gonna steal nothing from it, though it ain’t like Aunt Lucinda generally sews with fancy stuff like golden thread and silk cloth.”

“Stealing is against the Bible!” Urma thundered “My girl would never steal anything!  And why do you have such awful grammar?  I don’t want words like ‘ain’t’ and double negatives to rub off on my girl.  That’s not how proper, civilized people speak.”

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“It’s how my niece talks,” Lucinda said protectively, putting her arm around Cinni. “Most of the people in this neighborhood talk like that, even the rich people.  We live in a very strange neighborhood.  It’s hardly a crime to not speak the King’s English.  Cinni’s not hurting anyone by saying ‘ain’t’ or using double negatives most of the time.  She does use proper English sometimes, so it’s not like she’s ignorant of the existence of more refined grammar.  It’s the same way with how she speaks Russian with her father’s mother, and how my sister and I speak Polish with our parents.  You speak differently depending upon your audience.”

Urma screamed and made a hex sign. “You mean to say I’m not only sharing living space with five Yids, but also with sub-human Slavs?  I had no idea Mortez’s friend had a Pollack wife and was part Russian.”

“Yes, my sister and I are almost entirely of Polish blood, and damn proud of it.  Our maiden name is Radulski, and our birth names are Łucja and Katarzyna.  We’ve been in this country for a very long time, since the early days of Polish immigration.  H.G.’s mother is Russian, and he was born in St. Petersburg.  Since he came to America when he was only twelve, he doesn’t have a Russian accent anymore.”

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Urma was weeping. “I don’t want to live in this house anymore.  This is such a nightmare Mortez sprung on me.  I want to go back to D.C.  My sister Ursula would take us in, even if she’s got seven kids.  There’d only be eleven people in her home, as compared to seventeen here.”

“Well, it’s too late to move now,” Mortez spoke up softly. “I’m already looking for jobs here, and I’ve gotten attached to this city in the last few days.  It’s much less crowded and fast-paced than Washington.  Don’t make me move when I’ve barely started to get settled into a new place.  I’m happy here so far, and I wasn’t very happy in Washington.  This is one issue you can’t push me around regarding.  We’re staying in Atlantic City.”

Urma growled and stalked out of the room.

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“Why do you let your wife railroad over you so much?” Cinni asked after she was positive Urma was well out of earshot. “She’s even worse than the wives in Laurel and Hardy’s movies.  That’s just make-believe, and those wives ain’t really bullies or mean.  Your wife is a whole different type of henpecker.”

“She is who she is.  I can’t change that.  Sometimes we fall in love with a person with a really bad character flaw, and we have to ignore it because we love the person so much otherwise.”

“That’s more than just a character flaw like always being late or being a bad cook.  She’s outright mean, and a religious fanatic.”

“I agree, but I can’t do anything about it.  She wasn’t a fanatic when we were growing up.  That only happened after Samantha was born.  An intolerant fanatic wouldn’t have had a child out of wedlock, let alone gotten in the family way at just fifteen.”

“You can say ‘pregnant’ around me, Mr. Smart.  I ain’t some little glass flower who’s never heard that word before.  No matter what my mom thinks, I don’t consider words like ‘pregnant’ and ‘uterus’ dirty.  There are some words I refuse to say or write, but I don’t mind the milder, more basic words for adult things.”

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Mortez stared at her. “Aren’t you a young spitfire.  You remind me a bit of what Urma was like before that damned Minister Hodges corrupted her mind against reality and normalcy.  By the way, you don’t have to call me Mr. Smart.  My wife and I prefer to be called by our first names, even if it’s not considered proper etiquette.  It just feels so strange to go by titles when we’re not even thirty yet.  My father is Mr. Smart, but I’m just Mortez.”

“So, can I ask where your first name came from?  I’ve never heard that name before.  It sounds a little Spanish, but you can’t be Spanish with a last name like Smart.”

“My parents are of German descent, but not completely knowledgeable about the language.  They wanted to call me Moritz, but misremembered the name.  It was too late by the time they realized they’d made an embarrassing mistake.”

“That’s kinda like my name.  I know my name isn’t spelt properly, but I’m so used to the way my mom spelt it, the so-called real spelling looks odd to me.  The pronunciation is a lot more obvious with my so-called misspelling.  I’m glad my daddy’s mom didn’t get her way and name me Alexa, ‘cause that’d be too confusing in my circle of friends.  We already have an Alexandria Kate, and we couldn’t both have the same nicknames.” Cinni leapt up at the sound of the doorbell.

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To Cinni’s great delight, Barry was the first person behind the door.  He looked just as beautiful in the suit of lights as she suspected he would.  Best of all, he had a big smile for her, and what she almost thought were a special look in his eyes.

“This is yours,” Barry said, extending a large basket. “I’ve never given mishloach manot to Gentiles before, but everyone in your family deserves one for being so good to us.  Without your father, we’d still be in Europe, with God knows what kind of future.”

Cinni returned the smile and eagerly took the basket.  She headed back to the davenport with it, and delightedly discovered oranges, hamentaschen, saltwater taffy, gumdrops, chocolate-covered peanuts, a bottle of grape pop, and five silver dollars.

“I packed that one just for you,” Barry said, smiling at her again. “I know what a sweet tooth you have.  You’d never be happy with the mishloach manot we made for your parents and siblings.”

“Thank you very much.  You’re really swell to be so nice to someone your kid sister’s age.  I still can’t believe you let me be a guest of honor at your bar mitzvah.”

“I don’t care how young you are.  You’re a nice girl, and that’s all that matters.”

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Cinni looked through the contents of the basket over and over again, daydreaming about being old enough for a boyfriend in a few years and doing boy-girl things with Barry.  Forget about her fantasy crush on John.  Almost every girl in town had a crush on John, and at eighteen, he was far too old for her.  Even if Cinni were eighteen herself, she’d still think the age difference were too large, never mind that her belovèd father had been twenty-five to her mother’s eighteen at their wedding.  That was different and special, and had happened in another generation besides.  But Barry wasn’t that much older than she was.  Their age difference was large enough to be exciting, but not so large it would be inappropriate once their ages leveled out a bit more.  Only time could tell if her dream would come true someday.

“Happy Purim, Barry,” she said with a smile.

The original It Girl

Released 19 February 1927, with its grand première on 14 January, It is Clara Bow’s best-known film (with Wings in second place). The story is based upon an eponymous novella by spicy writer Elinor Glyn, who was hugely popular in the 1920s. Though her books are pretty tame by modern standards, they were really hot stuff in her era.

It is such a fun, cute, charming film, perfectly showcasing why Clara had “It” and what a good actor she was. Like many other films from a bygone era, it’s also a microcosm of society as it was. Clara grew up very poor, which enabled her to play working-class characters very believably. Her class origins were such a big influence on her, as was her traumatic, dysfunctional childhood.

Cyrus Waltham, Jr. (Antonio Moreno, né Antonio Garrido Monteagudo) has just become manager of Waltham’s department store. On his first day in his new office, Cyrus’s awesome office boy Monty (character actor William Austin) is reading Elinor Glyn’s “It” in Cosmopolitan (back when the magazine had a much different nature than it does today).

Monty looks in the mirror and proclaims he’s got “It,” then concludes Cyrus doesn’t have “It.” (I agree!) After this, Monty goes into the store to inspect all the “lady employees,” and declares none of them have “It” either. Everything changes, however, when he sets eyes on feisty shopgirl Betty Lou Spence.

Betty falls in instalove with Cyrus, and dismisses her mocking co-workers. At the end of the day, Monty catches up to her outside and offers her a ride home. Betty agrees, but only if he rides her “car,” the two-story bus pulling up.

The bus drops Betty off on the poor side of town. By her front stoop, Monty asks if she’d like to dine, and Betty says she’ll dine by the Ritz. Monty promises to bring his car by at eight. Though Betty doesn’t have formal evening wear, she and her roommate Molly transform her working dress into a fancy evening gown. They also use some other props to gussy her up even more.

Molly’s doctor has forbidden her from returning to work for at least a month due to some unnamed sickness. (I wonder if it were postpartum depression before the condition had a name.) This is a very difficult situation because the landlady and a friend of hers are trying to take Molly’s baby away.

By the Ritz, Betty demands a table in the middle of the action instead of a private booth. She sees Cyrus dining with his boring long-time girlfriend, Adela van Norman, and her mother. When Monty tells Betty whom Adela is, Betty determines to prove herself as the better woman.

During dinner, who else should show up but Elinor Glyn herself, just as the characters are discussing “It”!

Later, Betty gets Cyrus’s attention in the hall, and he’s quite taken with her. She bets he won’t recognize her next time he sees her.

Sure enough, next day at work, Betty schemes to get called into Cyrus’s office, and he’s blown away when he realizes whom she is. At first, Betty doesn’t want to claim her wager for winning the bet, but when Adela calls, she changes her tune. Betty asks Cyrus to take her on a date to Coney Island.

I love seeing Coney Island as it was in old films. All those rides, booths, and eateries now live only in memory.

The plot thickens when the landlady and her friend try to take Molly’s baby. She opens the window and screams into the street for help, and Betty rushes up. Betty pretends it’s her baby, thus making her an unwed mother. She’s got a job, unlike Molly. During this scene, a newspaper reporter (a very young Gary Cooper) is taking notes for a story. I won’t spoil what happens after this.

This isn’t great cinematic art, but it’s awfully fun, and it’s a great vehicle for being introduced to Clara Bow. William Austin as Monty is also awesome. He has far more personality than Cyrus, and is more sympathetic! The film is also packed with fun intertitles.