Fritz Lang’s screenwriting début

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The great Fritz Lang’s very first screenplay was for director and producer Joe May’s Hilde Warren und der Tod (Hilde Warren and Death), released 31 August 1917. They collaborated again on 1920’s Das Wandernde Bild (The Wandering Image) and 1921’s The Indian Tomb. All of these films featured the same leading lady, May’s wife Mia (née Hermine Pfleger), from whose stage name he took his own.

The Austrian-born Joe May, né Joseph Otto Mandel, was one of the pioneers of German cinema. He got started at Continental-Kunstfilm in Berlin, and later formed his own production company, Stuart Webbs-Film. His film career was briefly interrupted by WWI service.

By the time he collaborated with Lang, he’d founded another production company, May-Film. Sadly, his daughter Eva committed suicide in 1924, aged only 22.

In 1933, he and his wife escaped to the U.S., and he established himself as a B-movie director.

Unfortunately, at the present time, the only widely-available version of this film is cut down to 39 minutes (out of 80 minutes total), so I won’t be able to provide a complete review based entirely on my own impressions. I’ll do my best to fill in the blanks with the full synopses I’ve read, and drawing on the knowledge that Lang revisited the premise in 1921’s Der Müde Tod.

Not only is the publicly-available version so truncated, but it also has no intertitles. It’s very hard to figure out who’s who and what’s going on.

The film received glowing reviews, particularly in regards to Mia May and Georg John (Death)’s acting. Lang’s screenplay was also highly praised.

Sadly, Georg John was deported to the Łódź Ghetto in autumn 1941, and died there on 18 November, aged 62.

During rehearsals for The Master of Palmyra, Hilde Warren, a famous stage actor, gets involved in a conversation about Death. She tells her director Wengraf she doesn’t understand how anyone could lead her to Death before her time.

Wengraf is in love with Hilde, but she rejects all his attempts at wooing her. She’s not going to give up a successful career to get married and have kids.

Death appears and tries to tempt her, but Hilde refuses.

Hilde eventually marries Hector Roger, an elegant but wanted criminal. She has no idea what kind of double life he’s leading. When the cops try to arrest him, he shoots at them, and is killed in the resulting skirmish.

Shortly afterwards, Hilde discovers she’s pregnant. Death appears for a second time, but once again, she withstands temptation.

As her son Egon grows up, he’s pulled to the dark side like his father. Meanwhile, Wengraf is still in love with Hilde, but he gives her an impossible condition for marriage—abandon her child.

Death appears a third time, but Hilde once again refuses.

Egon gets more and more out of control, in spite of Hilde trying to reform him. She blames herself for his criminal lifestyle.

The next time Egon begs for money, after almost ruining her financially, Hilde stands her ground, orders him to get out, and threatens him with a revolver. She fights back when Egon attacks her, with shocking results.

When Death appears again, will she finally accept his offer?

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Love letter to a bygone Berlin

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Released 23 September 1927, Berlin: Die Sinfonie der Großstadt (Berlin: Symphony of a Great City) is a classic of the avant-garde city symphony, which was most popular in the Twenties and Thirties. These films documented the everyday life of major cities, and were highly influenced by modern art schools such as Cubism, Impressionism, and Constructivism.

As an avant-garde film documenting the people, events, and places of a city, there’s no true plot. The only real story trajectory is showing the passage of time through a day, from sunup to nightfall. Recurring, connecting motifs are streetcars and trains. Scenes and images are put together based upon thematic content, POV, motion, and images.

Urban audiences loved city symphonies, because they could recognize familiar landmarks, people they knew, and even themselves. This film is particularly precious because it documents Berlin as it used to be, before so much of it was destroyed during WWII.

Hotel Excelsior, once Europe’s largest and most luxurious hotel, and the Anhalter Bahnhof railway terminal are among the landmarks which didn’t survive the war.

Act I opens with calm waters, sunrise, and a train steaming into Berlin. We see the placid, empty streets before the city wakes up. Gradually, more and more people appear in the streets.

The pedestrians and commuters represent a wide range of Berliners—schoolchildren, the working-class, soldiers, businessmen, factory workers, housewives.

Act I closes with scenes of busily-working machinery in a factory—making lightbulbs, pouring steel, pushing and rotating glass bottles along assembly lines, cutting sheets of metal, belching smokestacks.

Act II opens with shutters, doors, windows, and gates opening. We also see kids going to school, people cleaning, fruit carts, shops opening, and people beginning the workday. Depending upon class, they walk or take the streetcar, bus, or private, chauffeured cars.

Office-workers set out writing instruments and paper, roll open desks, open books, and set up typewriters. The typists become a montage of a hypnotist’s spinning wheel, phone operators, monkeys biting one another, fighting dogs, machinery, and the other work in the office.

Act II ends with phones hanging up.

Act III shows shoppers and salespeople, construction workers, window displays, fights, industrial workers, cops, flirtations, a father and daughter arriving by a wedding, a diplomat, a coffin on a hearse, the Reich president, a protestor lecturing a crowd, a student organization marching with banners, trains, and newspapers.

Act III ends with many newspapers, held up to the camera, dissolving into one another.

Act IV begins with lunch break. A factory’s spinning wheels halt as 12:00 arrives, and workers go home or to cafés. Animals as well as humans eat and drink. Shots of a wealthy diner are interspersed with those of poor street children hugging their mother and a lion feeding on meat from a bone.

Some people and animals rest during the break, including poor people sleeping on benches and ledges, all while Berlin continues to bustle all around them. When a diner bangs his spoon on a bowl, the city springs back to life.

There’s a montage of trains, roller coasters, revolving doors, wind, rain, leaf cyclones, churning water, fighting dogs, crowds, people looking over a rail into water, eyes, and a splash. The city then returns to calm, as the workday ends and fun begins.

Act IV ends with kids playing in a lake, racing boats, games and races, and couples on park benches at nightfall.

Act V is all about nightlife. House lights and electric signs come on, people go to the theatre, and curtains rise on many types of shows—burlesque, trapeze, juggling, dancing, singing. In a movie theatre, Charlie Chaplin’s feet and cane are at the bottom of a screen.

Other nightlife includes skating, indoor racing, sledding, skiing, hockey, boxing, dance contests, ice shows, beer halls, card games, cocktail lounges. However, the workday isn’t over for the transportation industry.

It all ends with a spinning montage of fireworks and light from an electric tower.

One of the reasons I love old films so much is because they’re a time capsule of a long-vanished world. With this film, there’s also the haunting wonder about how many of these people survived the war, and who might’ve become hardcore Nazis, garden variety Nazis, or people who resisted.

This is a great way to explore avant-garde. There also aren’t any intertitles. It’s a portrait of a living, breathing city, in a language that transcends words.

Vintage soldier photos with a twist

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Due to my move and the upcoming holiday of Shavuot, I’ll once again only be posting on Sunday and Monday of this week. To mark Memorial Day, here are some vintage photos of soldiers you may not have seen before.

A U.S. Army medic in WWII takes some time to help civilian children.

A U.S. Army medic (45th Infantry Division) and a captured Wehrmacht medic work together on a wounded Wehrmacht soldier, Anzio, Italy, 6 February 1944

U.S. Army medic treating a wounded Waffen SS soldier, 1944

1 July 1944, U.S. Army medics helping a wounded dog found in the rubble of Carentan, France

Some medics (like my character Yuriy Yeltsin-Tsvetkov of the Canadian Army) were trained as vets instead of people doctors, so why shouldn’t some human doctors sometimes switch their focus too?

1944, medics’ station

1943, wounded soldiers being evacuated sans ambulance

A Wehrmacht soldier with a soft spot for kittens

A cat hissing at a Wehrmacht soldier

A little boy saying goodbye to his father during WWII

WWI medics helping a wounded dog

He was caught and relieved of his post shortly afterwards, his ultimate fate unknown. It’s hard to believe the Berlin Wall really existed in my own lifetime and that there used to be two Germanys, since there’s been one unified Germany for 75% of my life so far!

Metropolis at 90, Part IV (Home media and restorations)

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The U.S. copyright for Metropolis expired in 1953, which created a veritable bonanza of film and, later, VHS versions. As with many public domain films (both silent and sound), the quality varied wildly. I’ve seen some DVD and VHS versions with terrible, fuzzy images, a logo in the bottom corner, a monotonous, wheezing organ, and/or a soundtrack which is extremely mismatched to the action (e.g., cheerful music as a murder is being committed).

In 1996, the U.S. copyright was restored. There was some legal wrangling disputing it, but the decision was upheld in 2012. However, the film and its images remain copyrighted both in its native Germany and the rest of the European Union. This copyright will remain in effect until the end of 2046, 70 years after director Fritz Lang’s death.

The version I was introduced to circa 1991 or 1992 may have been Giorgio Moroder’s well-known 1984 restoration and edit, though after so many years, I can’t remember the exact details. All I remember is that I was so captivated by this film, however truncated, and no matter what soundtrack. More on that in my concluding Part V.

This 1984 version ran 83 minutes, and had new special effects, a popular music soundtrack in lieu of the traditional instrumentation accompanying silents, tinting, and replacement of the intertitles with subtitles. Though this version was nominated for two Raspberry Awards, Worst Musical Score and Worst Original Song (“Love Kills,” by Freddie Mercury as a solo artist), it was nevertheless the first real restoration.

Decide for yourself!

In 1986, German film historian and preservationist Enno Patalas began the most painstaking process of properly restoring the film. His version was the most complete, accurate restoration to date, and was based upon the original score and script. He worked from a copy in the Museum of Modern Art. Perhaps this, and not the Moroder version, was my first exposure to the film.

After 1986, previously lost and unknown parts began showing up in archives and museums all around the world. With all this great new material with which to work, the awesome Kino was able to release an even better restoration on DVD in 2002. It ran 118 minutes, much closer to the original 153.

On 1 July 2008, film experts in Berlin had some very wonderful news to announce. A 16 mm reduction negative of the original cut had been found in the archives of Museo del Cine in Buenos Aires. This copy had been circulating since 1928, going from a film distributor, to a private collector, to an art foundation, and finally to the museum.

Not only that, but in 2005, Australian historian and politician Michael Organ had looked at a print in the National Film Archive of New Zealand, and found it to have scenes missing from other prints. When he went to compare it against the 2008 discovery, he found the New Zealand print had eleven scenes missing from the Argentinian print, and some snippets used to restore damaged sections of the Argentinian print.

Being nitrate, the film was in poor condition and needed some very delicate repair operations. Sadly, there were still two short scenes damaged beyond repair—a fight between Rotwang and Frederson, and a monk preaching. New intertitles were inserted to describe the missing scenes.

This restoration made its début in 2010, and considerably lengthened the film and gave the story much deeper complexity. It runs 147 minutes, probably the closest we’ll ever get to the original, barring another miraculous rediscovery.

While many silents are lost forever, it’s such a beautiful blessing and miracle we’ve found as many as we have over the years. That’s why I hold out hope for films like Theda Bara’s Cleopatra (1917) and Hats Off (1927), Laurel and Hardy’s only remaining lost film.

Metropolis at 90, Part III (Reception and legacy)

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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.