Thursday, February 22, 2007

Metropolis (1927)

The Verdict: This is the template, the source and the inspiration, but it also happens to be a great movie.
The Rating: 9/10

PCMR was privileged to partake in a rare movie experience last night. 'Metropolis', Fritz Lang’s 1927 masterpiece was shown in the National Gallery of Ireland, with a new soundtrack commissioned specially for the Dublin International Film Festival, and performed live by eight-piece mini-orchestra 3epkano. Picture, if you will, the setting of a salubrious ballroom, replete with chandeliers and candelabras, expensive oil paintings hanging from the walls betwixt elegant marble pillars, with two sets of immense winding stairs flanking a large cinema screen at the top of the high-ceilinged chamber, and you have an idea of the theatre we attended yesterday evening.

Not entirely familiar with all things classical-music related, PCMR awkwardly applauded the band along with the rest of the crowd as they arrived, and they themselves looked a little nervous, reinforcing the nagging feeling that this experience was a little out of the normal cinematic comfort zone for everyone involved.

Then the movie started, silently at first, instructing us through frames that up to a quarter of the original print has now been lost, and that occasionally there would be gaps in the movie, but these gaps would be filled by explanatory frames. Then, the opening credits ran, and the band began playing…

If you haven’t seen Metropolis, you will have undoubtedly been exposed to images from it over the course of your lifetime, whether or not you are aware of it. Fritz Lang toiled and travailed for years over his labour of love like the mad artist he was, eager to create a lasting masterpiece. The results, strangely, look futuristic even today. Fritz Lang succeeded in demonstrating the wild possibilities offered by this medium, fresh and new at the time.

The movie itself is set in a non-specific future, and man has built a sprawling Metropolis, replete even with a new Tower of Babel. This world has two levels, the thinkers who live above ground level, and the workers who live underground. The workers operate heavy machinery in two ten hour shifts every day, while the thinkers relax in gardens and sport halls above, basking in the fresh air.

Freder (Gustav Fröhlich) is the son of the president and one of the thinkers, but one day, he witnesses Maria (Brigitte Helm) emerge from the lower level with some of the workers’ children. She is showing them the thinkers, and telling the children that these people are their brothers. Freder is immediately smitten, and when Maria and the children are unceremoniously shooed back down to the lower level, Freder pursues her. His journey to the lower level exposes him to the workers’ daily rituals, and in his first minutes there he witnesses a terrible accident and has a kind of manic vision. He also visits Maria, who acts as a kind of prophet on the lower level, speaking to the workers of the coming of a Mediator who will act as a bridge between the two levels of Metropolis and bring peace to the two peoples.

The main message of Metropolis is that the head (the thinkers) cannot work with the hands (the workers) unless the heart acts as a bridge. This simple parable runs through the heart of the story, and is the last line in the script. However, before this message is fully explained, the epic visual feast that is Metropolis unfolds before our eyes. The scale of this movie is still breathtaking today, and it is difficult to imagine just what kind of impact Metropolis might have had on audiences in 1927. It is at the same time a love story, a dystopic vision of the future, and a contemporary interpretation of a biblical story. It is also a frightening view of mob mentality, ominously warning of the dangers of acting without thinking, some ten years before the rise of the German far right. This movie was brave for its time, and still has much contemporary relevance today.

Although by today’s standards, certain scenes are drawn out and the acting perhaps a little hammy, (Watch out for the brilliantly lusty men toward the end – Ed) the audience can have nothing but respect and admiration for the movie by the time the closing credits roll.

I can’t help thinking that the soundtrack to this movie will have a big impact on the audience’s enjoyment of it, and 3epkano’s interpretation complemented the action brilliantly, especially in the last act of the movie, where the industrial grind of the workers’ routines gave way to dramatic drum rolls, as the workers rise to the upper level and confront the thinkers in a devastating climax. I haven’t been exposed to the other interpretations of the score, which include a version by Giorgio Moroder that sounds interesting enough, but this version worked very well indeed.

Metropolis is more than iconic, and as Roger Ebert pointed out, the images in the movie have achieved an even further elevated status than that of iconic, entering our collective consciousness to be used as a means of interpreting the modern world. The stories told in Metropolis are universal, both grand in their epic scale, and emotive at a human level. This movie may be flawed, but it is undoubtedly a masterpiece.

As a movie experience, nothing PCMR has experienced in recent memory has come close to the setting, soundtrack and visual feast provided by this showing of Metropolis. It has taken great restraint on my part not to give this one a ten out of ten rating. I would recommend you seek out a copy of Metropolis at your earliest convenience, and bask in its glory. Near every Hollywood movie of recent years owes it a grand debt, and Fritz Lang managed to demonstrate in 1927 what the cinematic medium was capable of. Many celebrated directors working today will never come close to achieving something like 'Metropolis', and to be honest, few would be capable.

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