Metropolis at 90, Part III (Reception and legacy)

Reports on the audience reception by the début of Metropolis are mixed. Some sources say the audience applauded the most impression scenes (including a film critic), while other sources claim muted applause was commingled with boos and hisses. Critical reception was also mixed, with some critics praising the technical merits while panning the actual story. H.G. Wells wrote a New York Times review ripping it apart.

One of the film’s fans was Joseph Goebbels. Many other Nazis also loved it, which possibly led to director Fritz Lang later expressing negative opinions about it. It’s debatable how much of this is urban legend vs. historical fact, but the story goes that Goebbels, in 1933, offered Lang the most prestigious position as head of production at UFA, Universum Film AG.

Lang claimed he left Germany that very evening, though he really left four months later, and made several visits home after moving to France. Whatever the truth, it’s a good thing he left, since his mother was born Jewish, which made him “half-Jewish” under Nazi racial laws in spite of his Catholic faith. The great scientist Niels Bohr was in the same boat in Denmark, and was among the people smuggled to Sweden.

The 153-minute film was drastically shortened for the U.S. and U.K. audience, with different title cards and some changed names. All references to Freder’s deceased mother Hel were also removed, since her name was too close to the word Hell. I wonder if they knew about the Old Norse mythological figure Hel (infamous trickster Loki’s daughter), who presides over an underworld location of the same name.

With the references to Hel gone, mad scientist Rotwang’s original impetus for creating his robot was gone. While it’s not a huge plot point, it’s pretty important as backstory and motivation.

The English-language cut ran 115 minutes, the product of playwright Channing Pollock. A 115-minute version also was distributed in Germany later in 1927. In 1936, a further shortened version came out in Germany, only 91 minutes. (See more on run times and projection speeds.)

In the decades since, Metropolis has come to have a much greater reputation, and can now be seen at a length much closer to the original. (More about that in Part IV.) It routinely ranks highly on those incessant “best-of” lists, both for the silent era and for all time.

The film has been referenced in popular culture many times over the years. Notable homages include:

C-3PO of Star Wars was directly inspired by the Maschinenmensch, Rotwang’s robot.

Madonna’s classic 1989 music video for “Express Yourself” has numerous depictions of scenes from the film. It also features an epigraph almost identical to the film’s, “Without the Heart, there can be no understanding between the hand and the mind.”

Queen’s 1984 music video for “Radio Ga Ga” features several scenes from the film.

Whitney Houston’s 1992 music video for “Queen of the Night” also features several film clips. The costume she wore also was modelled after the robot.

Isn’t it amazing how the cards can fall? Some films, books, artworks, and albums are totally panned or get a mixed, lukewarm initial reception, yet go on to become very revered classics, while many things which were wildly popular quickly date. Metropolis has that special something which has enabled it to remain popular and revered over many generations.

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!

The Weary Death

If you celebrate Sukkot, may you have a wonderful holiday!

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This week, it’s all about classic German horror films of the silent era. I’ll be covering Der Müde TodFaust, and Homunculus. Next week, I’ll showcase two short antique films (from 1901 and 1906), The Haunted Castle, and Dracula (which I found rather overrated). This year’s horror series will close with Frankenstein.

The common English name of Der Müde Tod is Destiny, though it was originally released as Behind the Wall. The German title, however, truly translates as The Weary Death.

Released 6 October 1921, this film originally bombed in its native Germany. Many critics felt it wasn’t German enough. Internationally, it was much more successful. Douglas Fairbanks, Sr., purchased the U.S. rights so he could delay the American release while copying some of the special effects for his 1924 film The Thief of Bagdad.

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We’re introduced to an unnamed young couple travelling in a carriage, and then the scene shifts to the Golden Unicorn Inn, where several important townspeople are heatedly discussing a strange newcomer. This oddball has waged a campaign to be allowed to purchase an annex by the graveyard, and finally succeeded with enough gold. He claims he wants to build a garden there, though his plot of land is soon surrounded by a wall with no windows or doors.

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The young couple runs into the stranger by the inn, where he shares their table. One of the barmaids insists they drink from the bridal cup, which turns into a terrifying vision of an hourglass. The young lady is so shaken-up, she runs away.

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When she returns, her fiancé has disappeared. She’s told he left with the mysterious stranger, and tries to track them down. By the foreboding wall near the graveyard, she sees a parade of phantoms passing through the wall, her fiancé among them. This sight so unrattles her, she faints.

The pharmacist finds her and takes her in until she comes back to herself. In the pharmacist’s home, she sees a book (which doesn’t necessarily seem to be the Bible) open to the Song of Solomon. She’s very inspired by the line “For love is as strong as Death,” and drinks a potion that opens up a door to a staircase leading to the stranger’s lair.

The room is full of candles, each one representing a life’s progress from birth to death.

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She begs him to restore her lover’s life to her, and he says it was just her fiancé’s time to go. He had no control over it, and had to do his job. Harvesting all these souls is so wearying, not at all a job he enjoys or does with gusto. Each soul is like a candle, and once it burns out, there’s no reprieve.

After enough begging and pleading, Death agrees to give her three chances, represented by three candles. Each candle is a life she can save. If she saves even one of the three young lovers, Death will give her back her fiancé. But once each candle burns out, there can be no do-over.

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The Story of the First Light is set in Persia; the Story of the Second Light is set in Renaissance Venice; and the Story of the Third Light is set in Ancient China. Though these are all historical settings, they’re more the realm of historical fantasy than straight historical. Of the three stories, I most enjoyed the Chinese one. It has so much charm, innocence, and sweetness, together with my longtime interest in Chinese history.

In each of the three stories, the young lovers are played by the same couple as in the establishing German frame story, Lil Dagover (who played Jane in Dr. Caligari) and Walter Janssen. In each story, however, it’s the young lady who plays the starring role.

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Though she fails to save any of the three lives, Death takes pity on her, and gives her one final chance to prove herself. If, within one hour, she can bring him the soul of anyone who only has a short time left in the world, he’ll take that life in exchange for her lover’s and restore life to the young man.

I won’t spoil what happens after this, but I will say it’s a very powerful final reel, with an unforgettable, very emotional ending.

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Fritz Lang’s triumphant talkie début (Part II)

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M – Eine Stadt Sucht einen Mörder (M – A City Looks for a Murderer) was released 11 May 1931, and is widely regarded as one of Fritz Lang’s very best. Hr. Lang himself considered it his greatest film. Like many folks who waited a few years to make their first talkies, Hr. Lang too ended up with a much better product than those who jumped right in to play with the shiny new toy. This film uses sound and silence in just the right way.

Many early talkies are notoriously creaky, stilted, and overly stagey, with way too much constant dialogue (including many embarrassing “As you know, Bob” lines). M, however, doesn’t suffer from such problems. There are several scenes where everything goes quiet, and the sound returns as the drama hits. There are also moments when sound effects carry the job of dialogue.

In short, it’s the kind of film that wouldn’t have worked very well as a silent. The advent of sound made possible stories which rely upon a lot of dialogue and can’t be entirely conveyed through body language and well-chosen intertitles.

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This film was Peter Lorre (né László Löwenstein)’s starring début and his big breakthrough role. Prior to this, he’d mostly done comedic roles, but as a result of playing a child-murderer, he was typecast as a villain for a very long time after this. Fritz Lang had him in mind while writing the script, and didn’t bother with a screen test, so convinced Lorre would be perfect for the role.

Lorre’s acting is a bit reminiscent of silent cinema, and stage acting, what with all his great body language and facial expressions. This is particularly a good fit for the role because he doesn’t immediately speak, and doesn’t begin regularly speaking until probably over halfway through the film.

Thankfully, Lorre (who was Jewish) was one of the relative few who saw the writing on the wall and got the hell out of Germany in 1933. Director Lang also fled Germany in 1933. Though Lang was baptised Catholic and took his faith very seriously, he was also halachically Jewish, since his mother was Jewish by birth. I’m really proud he was a member of the tribe, even if he never did anything with his roots.

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M was one of the earliest sound films to use a leitmotif, the association between a character and a piece of music. Murderer Hans Beckert frequently whistles “In the Hall of the Mountain King,” so much so we know to expect him to soon appear when we hear that tune. However, Lorre couldn’t whistle in real life, so Lang’s then-wife (and co-writer) Thea von Harbou did the whistling.

When Lang placed a newspaper ad about his new film in 1930, he got a lot of threatening letters, and Staaken Studios refused to provide space for filming. When Lang asked the head of the studio why, the fellow admitted to being a member of the Nazi Party, and said the party believed the film was supposed to depict Nazis. They finally relented when the actual plot was explained.

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Though the film isn’t explicitly about Nazis or totalitarianism, it’s easy to see parallels. It’s just like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, exploring themes of blindly following authority and the crowd, rushing to judgment, powerful leaders, criminal goings-on, and who the real criminals are. As I discussed in my Caligari posts last October, the authoritarian, totalitarian streak runs deep in German history, culture, and society, and didn’t just appear out of nowhere with the advent of the Nazis.

I’m super-proud to be over half German (on both sides of my family), but I have to be honest and admit Germans aren’t exactly known for being free-thinkers, laid-back, or radical reformers. Those aspects of my personality definitely don’t come from the German branches of my family tree!

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“This time, I really am innocent.”

As part of his research for the film, Lang spent eight days in a mental hospital and met several child-murderers. Though it was widely reported the film was based on the story of Peter Kürten (one of the murderers whom Lang met), it’s drawn from many different sources and all expertly woven together. Several real criminals served as extras.

During shooting, 25 cast members were arrested.

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Like many films from this era, M too was later redone as an English-language version. Subtitled films weren’t very popular, so actors either went back and did the films with their lines in other languages (which they usually didn’t understand), or native speakers were dubbed over the original actors.

In addition to a dubbed version, M was also later partially reshot in various languages. The English version from 1932 was Lorre’s very first English-speaking role. Though Lorre did speak French, the French version was dubbed with another actor.

A Hollywood remake was shot in 1951, set in L.A. instead of Berlin, and with a killer renamed Martin W. Harrow.