A decadent, devout Passion Play

Released 19 April 1927, The King of Kings is one of Cecil B. DeMille’s great Biblical epics. While he was a devout Christian, he also loved his decadence, and brought the two together in some very interesting ways. How many other directors would impart moral lessons alongside orgies, pet leopards, and parties where everything is made of candy?

The immense cast includes H.B. Warner as Jesus, Dorothy Cumming as Mary, the awesome character actor Ernest Torrence as Peter, Jacqueline Logan as Mary Magdalene, Joseph Schildkraut as Judas, child actor Micky Moore as Mark, Victor Varconi as Pontius Pilate, and an uncredited Ayn Rand.

When it comes to such a well-known story, an original angle is key. It helps the story to stand out from all the other versions. DeMille did this quite well, not only in his trademark decadent touches, but also in how he handled the religious material.

Mary Magdalene is at a very hedonistic party which includes a pet monkey and leopard. When one of her boytoys sits in Judas’s chair, she pushes him out. This guy points out that Judas hasn’t come around for a few days, and Mary Magdalene thinks Judas must be with another woman.

Upon being told he’s hanging out with a band of beggars led by a carpenter, she hops on her zebra-drawn chariot (because why not?) and goes to find him.

We then shift to a large crowd outside of Jesus’s house, as people wait in line to get healed. One of the crowd is a little blind girl, who gives one of the film’s most touching performances. The future Gospel writer Mark runs across her, and takes her to a window. Our first sight of Jesus is through her eyes.

Shortly after this healing, Mary Magdalene arrives to confront Judas, whose ulterior motive in befriending Jesus is the possibility of being promoted to a high official. Before she can have it out with Judas, however, Jesus casts the Seven Deadly Sins out of her in a multiple-exposure sequence.

It’s fair to assume just about everyone is familiar with the Biblical account of Jesus’s ministry and life, so the rest of this review will focus on my own thoughts, and the things which make this film unique.

Some people feel H.B. Warner, in his early fifties, was far too old to play a convincing Jesus, though others feel his fatherly appearance is perfect for the role. It all depends on your perspective. As a student of world religions, I love how every culture depicts holy figures in their own image, in a way they can relate to. It’s the same person and message, only a little bit different than the one we’re used to seeing.

I absolutely love Ernest Torrence as Peter! He usually played heavies (villains), so this is quite a delightful departure from his usual forte. His Peter is such a sweet, big lug, just perfect for the role.

Torrence is on the far right in the group embrace

I also love the scenes of Jesus with children. Besides the blind girl, another sweet, lovely scene is with a child who tells Jesus Mark says he can heal broken legs, then presents a doll whose leg has fallen off. Jesus obligingly mends the doll.

That is such a believable child thing to do, or for anyone who has a soft spot for stuffed animals and dolls. Many adults send their precious old friends to doll and teddybear hospitals.

Almost all of the intertitles are from the Bible, with the book, chapter, and verse noted. They’re also rendered in Elizabethan English, which can be kind of distracting to the modern audience. These people spoke Aramaic, not any form of English! I tend to translate Elizabethan English in my head.

Nitpicker I am, I cringed to notice a typo in one intertitle, “sieze” instead of “seize.”

The above still comes from a scene where a woman is accused of adultery and Jesus famously challenges the crowd, “Let he who is among you without sin cast the first stone.” He proceeds to write various sins (in Hebrew) in sand that spilled out of a broken jug.

The mob scatters as their sins are revealed, until the last guy thanks God he’s not like other men. Then his sin is revealed as adultery, and he too leaves.

In a scene in the 155-minute grand première version (versus the 112-minute general release), Jesus steps into the carpentry shop of a couple whose son he just cast the Devil out of. Some of his disciples, including Peter, are fishing during this time. The piece of wood Jesus is working on is covered on top by a cloth, and it’s later revealed to be a cross.

Joseph Schildkraut is excellent as Judas. His body language conveys how conflicted and torn-up he is about his betrayal.

A dove flies onto the empty Last Supper table, which was apparently unplanned.

The Resurrection scene is in two-strip Technicolor, though not that vibrant.

Both versions are good, though the longer original adds so much extra depth. It makes it seem like the general release is missing lots of chapters! I highly recommend this film, to people of all faiths.

An ahistorical slap in the face

Many people feel it’s sacrilegious to criticise any book or film about the Shoah, as though it’s an untouchable sacred cow. But as I’ve explained before, accuracy, quality research, and vetting sources in this subgenre of historical fiction are extremely crucial to prevent adding fuel to deniers’ fire.

While I can concede Roberto Benigni’s heart seems to have been in the right place when he made the highly inaccurate Life Is Beautiful, I can’t say the same thing about John Boyne’s dreadful The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas. That’s not a book or film I’d recommend to anyone who cares about historical accuracy.

I’m not some pedant who insists every single minute detail be a million percent accurate. Most people who live in the real world expect even the best-researched story to have some elements which weren’t necessarily so common or accurate. It can create greater dramatic intensity, or a protagonist who’s a bit more relatable.

However, a good story gives us a reason to go along with them, as well as making clear this wasn’t typical. E.g., a woman in 1800 who wants to become a doctor, or an entire family surviving the Shoah. The writer may also include an explanatory note.

Why this story fails most spectacularly:

1. How in the hell does a kid who was born in 1934, the son of a high-ranking Nazi no less, not know who Hitler is?! Sure, I don’t expect any 9-year-old, no matter how advanced, to understand political complexities or have mature political opinions, but it’s not possible he wouldn’t know the name and face of his country’s dictator!

Though I was born during the Carter Administration, the first president I remember is Reagan. I certainly knew his name and face very well as a child, though I don’t think I knew anything about his politics. I still remember how shocked I was to find out just how old he really was, and that he dyed his hair!

2. You can’t claim a story is “just a fable” and not meant to be taken seriously when it involves one of the most well-documented historical events of the 20th century! It’s really offensive and tasteless, like a certain 1997 movie using one of history’s worst maritime disasters as a minor backdrop for a beyond-implausible MTV-era “love story.”

3. Very, very, VERY few children were allowed to live at Auschwitz. They were overwhelmingly “Dr.” Mengele’s test subjects and in the Czech and Gypsy Family Camps. Once in a very rare while, a child was picked for something like a messenger boy or girl, admitted to the camp due to a rare gas malfunction, or arrived after gassing operations stopped. Shmuel fits in none of those categories.

4. Just like the clownish Guido in Life Is Beautiful, Bruno too is allowed to wander around the camp at ease. More than that, he’s able to regularly meet Shmuel by the same unguarded spot at the fence, with a freaking hole underneath it.

5. The fences were electrified, so powerful they vibrated and made noises. You couldn’t touch or crawl under one and live!

6. Is Bruno supposed to be mentally slow? Even after he’s been corrected numerous times and seen Auschwitz written out, he keeps calling it “Out-With.”

7. Speaking of, the “puns” don’t work in German. Bruno also calls Hitler “the Fury,” as a play on Führer, but Furie is only one of a number of German translations. The others are Zorn, Wut, Rage, Raserel, and Grimm. As for “Out-With” (gag), that would be Aus Mit.

8. Kids of 9 and 12 written like overgrown babies! If you’re going to write from a child’s POV, be familiar with how real kids talk and act!

9. How has Bruno never heard of Jews until 1942? Any child born in 1934 would’ve been drenched in state-sponsored anti-Semitism and racial theories. Maybe he didn’t meet any (which is still pretty far-fetched), but he certainly would’ve heard about them!

10. “Heil Hitler” is a fancy way of saying hello?! Are we supposed to believe this kid is either mentally slow or were locked in a closet until 1942?

11. Garbage like this only serves to bolster Shoah deniers’ claims! They point to BS like this and Irene Zisblatt’s The Fifth Diamond to claim it wasn’t that bad, or that if one person made something up, everyone’s a liar.

12. A beyond-implausible, ridiculous ending that would NEVER have happened in real life, or even fiction with realistic dramatic license!

13. Bruno doesn’t know the word “Fatherland”? What, again? Really?!

14. If Bruno were as mentally slow as he’s depicted, he would’ve been murdered years before, under Nazi eugenics policies.

15. He also doesn’t know what an air-raid is?! In the middle of a war with plenty of them?

16. It’s emotionally manipulative pathos for those without much grounding in Shoah history.

17. He doesn’t know what an Aryan is either?!

18. How is Bruno’s older sister Gretel not in the League of German Girls? The daughter of a high-ranking Nazi certainly would’ve been.

19. Why aren’t Germans using the metric system?

20. Bruno lives in the camp for a year and still doesn’t understand what’s really going on?

This story is absolute garbage. Writers of historical fiction set during the Shoah have a huge moral obligation to represent it accurately, not as a warm, fuzzy fairytale. Mr. Boyne’s lack of proper research and complete disconnect from the Shoah shows in spades. It’s best-seller bait for the masses, not deep, intelligent, honest writing for the ages.

Metropolis at 90, Part V (What it means to me)

I can’t remember exactly when I first saw Metropolis (at least that I was consciously aware of), but I’m pretty sure it was 1991 or 1992. My local PBS station frequently played it in those years, and I watched it on the small black and white TV my family had in the kitchen. Yes, I grew up before all TVs were in color! Our bigger TV in the living room was color, but we also had that smaller set. It also didn’t get all the channels the other TV did.

My entire life, I’d watched old films with my paternal grandma, or took my pick of the old films and historical dramas she had on VHS. I already loved history, so I never thought to dismiss these films as old and musty, unhip, boring. Even today, most of the contemporary films I watch are historical dramas, foreign, or indie.

So many years later, I honestly couldn’t tell you exactly when I learnt films used to be silent. I don’t recall ever watching any silents with my grandma, since she was born in 1927 and grew up with sound films. I don’t mean to stereotype, but let’s be honest, she wasn’t from a generation that tended to like and appreciate silent cinema. It was out with the old, in with the new. The reawakening of interest only really started in the 1950s.

So when I discovered Metropolis as a preteen, I was fascinated. Even with a much-truncated version, years before the near-complete restoration, I thought it was awesome. Unfortunately, I didn’t have a chance to see many silents until 2004, when I finally began actively pursuing my longtime passion.

The initial spark (for anything) is different for every person. While most silent fans recommend comedies as the ideal starting-place, this sci-fi film did it for me. A silent film was so different, new, fascinating. It also helped that I’ve always been different from the crowd, born in the wrong generation on several fronts.

I’ve never been interested in most things from modern pop culture. I love films from my great-grandparents’ and grandparents’ generations; I prefer music from my parents’ generation (along with my childhood decade the Eighties); and I just love history in general. It took years for my parents, esp. my father, to accept this is a genuine passion, not a phase to be mocked.

When I saw this film after my political awakening at age fifteen, in 1995, it took on a whole new personal meaning for me. I realised it was about class struggle and the exploitation of the proletariat by the ruling classes. My political views aren’t something I like to get into here, but this is the kind of post where they’re very pertinent.

I grew up poor and working-class, with deep proletarian roots on both sides of my family. I’ve honestly never aspired to be bourgeois, and would be very happy being respectably working-class for the rest of my life. I just can’t relate to the typical bourgeois lifestyle. I’m 100% NOT some spoilt limousine liberal.

My political views are shaped by my life experiences as a have-not. I’ve never forgotten how awful it was to grow up without a lot of money, denied certain toys my parents wanted to get me but couldn’t afford. My parents didn’t have $10,000 in the bank at one time until I was about fifteen, and we didn’t own our own home till I was a legal adult. At one point, we lived in the ghetto.

While I’m no longer as super-far-Left as I was in my teens and very early Twenties, I’m still much further Left than probably most of my readers (though there are some issues I take a more conservative view on, and my personal beliefs are rather old-fashioned). It’s too complicated to get into here, but I have nothing in common with modern-day neoliberals. I’m a real Leftist, not some regressive neoliberal.

Not only did Metropolis introduce me to silent cinema, but it also took on a whole new meaning, deeper and more personal, after I began coming of age and developing my political views. I doubt a simple comedy could’ve done that!

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

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)

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.