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Ah, Metropolis, how I love this film.  And it only took the first time seeing it too.

Yes, my credibility as a film snob has dropped considerably since there are a lot of classics that I’ve yet to see, though there are certainly a few I’ve seen this year.  Citizen Kane (which I still need to write about), Breathless, and now this.  Plus, there’s a new 35-mm print of Orlando due out in August, so I’ll be catching that as well.

But, more importantly now, Metropolis.

I only had a basic understanding of the story over the years, mostly from my viewing of the anime version, which I learned at some point was only a loose adaptation of the original film.  The same underlying premise applied – the elites lived above ground in the city, the workers lived underground – though that being futuristic science fiction, humans lived above ground and robots toiled underneath.  Everything else was suitably changed, though there was a robot girl as well.

In Fritz Lang’s classic, this robot girl was undeniably crazy.  And she’s hardly the central figure in this thing too!

The plot, as I shall get around to at this point, centers around the city Metropolis, thought of by Joh Fredersen, and built and maintained by the working class citizens.  The elites live above and in luxury, while Fredersen and his son Freder (yes, Freder Fredersen is his full name) live in the Tower of Babel, the central structure of Metropolis – and marvelously introduced by Gottfried Huppertz bombastic score.  Freder, while chasing around women in a secluded garden, encounters Maria, a woman from the workers’ city with a host of young children.  He is immediately smitten, and rushes off into the city, where he sees the squalid conditions of the factories and also the deaths of several of the workers as a machine they work on explodes.  Freder, deeply upset by this, decides to try to improve their conditions.  He eventually learns from Maria, whom he encounters later, that he is the chosen mediator, who is destined to bring together the head and the hands by being the heart.

Being the first time I saw this (compared to probably other people who’ve seen it multiple times), I was completely riveted from start to finish, which was honestly a surprise.  My only experience before with a silent film was the Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, and while I was intrigued by the expressionist art in the film, I quickly grew bored and impatient and wondered when it would end.  The fact that the film was only 70 minutes long made it even worse (thinking now, I’ll probably have to watch it again, just to try and make sure any A.D.D. doesn’t kick in).  Metropolis, at least this cut, was twice as long, being the most complete cut ever found (only two, maybe three sequences, are still missing, guessing by how Kino placed the title cards in the film).

But I was genuinely surprised.  Being a silent film, there has to be a certain degree of over acting and dramatization to get the point across while waiting for the next dialogue exchange to occur, and the music has to be suitable and expansive enough to not get repetitive and boring.  Suffice to say, Metropolis accomplished that task.  Everyone was rather distinctive, with enough personality to care for just about everyone (including Dr. Rotwang, whom is somewhat humanized in his constant insanity).  I may have been on the end of my seat for the final showdown between Freder and Rotwang; I was that much into the film and was hoping that Freder would succeed in the end.

The real treat is the design of the movie.  This is full on German Expressionism (towards the latter end of the period anyway in the 1920s), though Lang apparently was influenced by the Art Deco movement as well with some of the designs.  Look at the Tower of Babel in the trailer (0:13 in).  Actually, check the trailer up until the reveal of the tower.  The look is fantastic, both in a futuristic way and a modernist (at least for that time period) way.  Even the set designs are inspired: the workers’ city is understandably dull (a reflection of their personality), but the factories is something else, being a curious mix of levers, pulleys, buttons, and pendulums all designed to keep the elites above comfortable, and the workers busy.  The clock like machine that Freder uses at one point is perhaps most curious of all: keep the arms on the lights, or else you don’t want to see what happens when that second hand winds up.  Its function doesn’t make sense, but its not supposed to, as even the workers don’t have a clue.  Everything needs to be continually operated.  The point is to make them look like their something important, which is done through the expressionist design.

There’s much more to talk about – the allegories, the multiple plot lines, the music – but I’ll leave it for you to see it all.  It’s not playing in Philadelphia any more (it only played for one week), but Kino is releasing it onto DVD in November.  Check it out, no matter how many times you’ve seen it, whether it’s the first time (like me), or the tenth time.

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So this was the film that launched the modern film movie?  Delightful.

The reason, as it is written, is that Godard created the “jump-cut” that is heavily prominent in just about every movie today.  Today, though, it’s mostly for the wrong reason: watch an action movie, and you have no idea what’s going on because there’s a cut once every 0.5-1.5 seconds.  Godard did it mainly to cut out the boring parts of the film, as he called them.  The original cut of the film was thought to be too long, so instead of cutting out entire scenes, he cut out parts of scenes, and really did nothing to hide the fact that he was cutting parts of the film out.  It was an extremely gutsy move, and it got a really decisive reaction when it originally came out in 1960.

Even today, this film would probably get a decisive reaction.  It’s completely absurd.  The plot, if there is one, involves Michel, a car thief, who happens to kill a cop about five minutes into the film complaining to the camera about everything and nothing, then spends the rest of the film avoiding the cops coming after him.  Much of the time is spent with his American girlfriend of sorts, Patricia.

But none of that matters.  Nothing really matters in this film; it’s all nonsense.  It’s all gleeful nonsense, and me being the absurdist that I am, I enjoyed it.  For instance, take a look at the scene in Patricia’s apartment.  It’s a thirty minute sequence of nonsense: Patricia has a poster she wants to hang up; Michel continually asks her to take off her top; there’s a nude magazine in there somewhere; they listen to music, but not really; they have sex; Michel makes several phone calls trying to get money that’s he’s owned; and they just talk about anything, and none of it matters.  They do this for thirty minutes.

Who, in their right mind today, would get away with thirty minutes of nonsense?  This is downright ballsy.  The rest of the film is like this too, with more nonsense and abstract ramblings (the interview with the poet is probably the one that’ll drive everyone out of the theater).

So, evidently, this isn’t a film for everyone.  You have to be patient, and a silly sense of humor, and to just go with it.

The film was beautifully shot in Paris, and the locales used – the countryside, the Eiffel Tower, and other parts of Paris – look wonderful.  The restored cut of the film looks good; I never saw the original, but the new 35mm pressing looks clean and crisp.  It’s easy to watch, and the cuts aren’t distracting at all.  They add more to the personal feel that Godard was trying to accomplish, and I think he did.  I had watched Citizen Kane a couple weeks ago, and the differences in film styles is staggering.  Watch them both back to back: one, arguably the greatest film of all time, places the camera in a single spot and lets the actors do their thing; the other, the launch of the modern film movement, breathes in the actors, and dances around them while they interact with the world.  It’s amazing really.

But, yes, get through that nonsense, and you may enjoy it as I did.

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