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!

“One word destroys thy pact!”

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Released 14 October 1926 in Germany, and 5 December in the U.S., F.W. Murnau’s Faust is an absolute classic of German Expressionist cinema, German silent cinema, silent film, German film, and film overall.

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Faust (legendary Swedish actor Gösta Ekman) is a venerable scholar who believes the most wonderful thing in creation is our ability to choose between good and evil. As the film opens, he’s the subject of a bet between Mephisto (i.e., the Devil, played by Emil Jannings) and an archangel.

Mephisto claims Faust is as rotten as anyone else, by preaching good while doing evil (alchemy). He offers a wager to wrest Faust’s soul away from God. The archangel says if Mephisto can destroy the Divine spark in Faust, the Earth will be his. Mephisto gloats that no one can resist evil.

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Mephisto descends, bringing the Plague. Within a few days, half the town is dying. Faust, desperate to find a cure, spends all his time praying.

A young lady takes him to her dying mother, but Faust’s potion fails to save her. In despair, he throws his vial onto the floor, and it shatters.

Faust is so overcome by helplessness, he throws all his books into a fire. As they’re burning, a book about the dark arts flutters open. Intrigued, Faust takes note of the instructions for calling up the Lord of Darkness to come to one’s aid and give one all the world’s might and glory.

He grabs it from the fire and continues reading.

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Faust freaks out when Mephisto actually appears, and he runs home. Mephisto, one step ahead of him, is already waiting there, and offers Faust a contract:

“I renounce God and the heavenly legion, and so shall be mine the power and glory of the world.”

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Faust orders him to get away, but the Plague compels him to wish for the power to help for one day only. Mephisto immediately jumps on this, and offers Faust a one-day trial.

Faust waffles a bit, but is convinced when Mephisto says he’ll be able to help the hungry and sick. Whatever Faust wishes, Mephisto will perform. Faust will be the master, and Mephisto the servant.

Mephisto makes Faust sign with his own blood, saying a blood signature is more binding. After Faust makes sure it’s only one day, he finally signs.

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The locals come to Faust, begging for his help. He successfully heals the first patient, but the second patient is holding a crucifix, which he’s unable to look upon or get his hands past. The people realize he’s in league with the Devil, and begin stoning him.

Faust flees home, and tries to end it by drinking poison. Mephisto stops him, reminding him the trial day isn’t over yet. Faust fires back that Death makes everyone free, but before he can drink, Mephisto gives him a tempting image of his youth.

Another battle of the wills ensues, before Faust finally begs for youth.

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Not only is Faust transformed back to youth, but Mephisto also assumes a more youthful appearance.

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Mephisto shows him an apparition of a pretty woman, and Faust demands to be taken to her. They set off an a spectacular journey over the world, on Mephisto’s flying cloak. They arrive at the wedding of the Duchess of Parma, Italy’s most beautiful woman, and make a lot of trouble by the reception.

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Faust is getting it on with the bride when Mephisto alerts him to the fact that the sand in the hourglass has run out, and with it the trial day. The image of his returning old age terrifies Faust, and he demands to keep his youth. Mephisto agrees, and says their pact stands for eternity.

Some time later, Mephisto comments that nothing seems to satisfy Faust, no matter how many hedonistic pleasures he partakes of. Whatever Faust wishes, he must grant.

Faust most wants to go home.

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They arrive on Easter, and Faust almost immediately falls in instalove with Gretchen (Camilla Horn). Mephisto doesn’t think this kind of innocent maiden is his type, and offers to introduce him to some more obliging wenches.

Faust is adamant Gretchen is the only one for him, and keeps pursuing her until finally she gives in and goes from resisting his advances to being in love herself. This part of the storyline really unsettles me, particularly since too many people still believe “No really means yes!”

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While Faust pursues Gretchen with Mephisto’s reluctant help, Mephisto flirts with Gretchen’s aunt Marthe. Some critics feel these scenes are unnecessary, and that it’s out of character for Mephisto to ham it up.

Also out of character is one of the intertitles which was originally altered for the U.S. release. When Marthe offers Mephisto alcohol, he claims he doesn’t drink. Can anyone really imagine the Devil as a teetotaler? In the German original, he says his stomach is too weak for such a fiery drink.

The plot thickens when Gretchen’s brother Valentin comes home.

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Though Mephisto is Faust’s servant, he causes a lot of trouble with devastating consequences. It all starts when Faust is discovered in Gretchen’s bed. From that point on, things only get worse and worse, particularly for poor Gretchen.

Though there’s still a sexual double standard, and while I feel the pendulum has swung way too far in the other direction, seeing old films like this makes me so, so, so glad women who have sex and children outside of marriage are no longer treated like pariahs and condemned as whores, while men suffer no consequences.

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The last half-hour is full of drama and emotion. It all leads up to three final, unforgettable intertitles:

The Word that rings joyfully throughout the Universe,
The Word that appeases every pain and grief,
The Word that expiates all human guilt,
The Eternal Word…dost thou not know it?

Tell me the word!

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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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