A blog formerly known as Bookishness

By Charles Matthews

"Dazzled by so many and such marvelous inventions, the people of Macondo ... became indignant over the living images that the prosperous merchant Bruno Crespi projected in the theater with the lion-head ticket windows, for a character who had died and was buried in one film and for whose misfortune tears had been shed would reappear alive and transformed into an Arab in the next one. The audience, who had paid two cents apiece to share the difficulties of the actors, would not tolerate that outlandish fraud and they broke up the seats. The mayor, at the urging of Bruno Crespi, explained in a proclamation that the cinema was a machine of illusions that did not merit the emotional outbursts of the audience. With that discouraging explanation many ... decided not to return to the movies, considering that they already had too many troubles of their own to weep over the acted-out misfortunes of imaginary beings."
--Gabriel García Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Metropolis (Fritz Lang, 1927)

Metropolis strikes me as the most balletic movie ever made. I'm not referring just to Brigitte Helm's fabulous hoochie-coochie as the False Maria, which so thrills the goggling, slavering gentlemen of Metropolis, but to the fact that as one of the great silent films it brilliantly substitutes movement for the speech and song the medium denies it. In addition to Helm's terrific performance as both Marias, we also have Gustav Fröhlich's wildly over-the-top Freder, who flings himself frenziedly about the sets. We may find the performance laughable today, but it's best to watch the film with the understanding that subtlety just wouldn't work in Fritz Lang's fever-dream of a city. Certainly that's also true of the always emotive Rudolf Klein-Rogge, whose Rotwang is pretty much indistinguishable from his Dr. Mabuse. But even the stillest of the characters in the film -- Alfred Abel's Joh Frederson, Fritz Rasp's superbly creepy Thin Man -- are there to provide a sinister contrast to the hyperactivity going on around them.  And then there are the crowds, a corps de ballet if ever there was one, whether stiffly marching to and from their jobs, or celebrating the fall of the Heart Machine with a riotous ring-around-the-rosy. There are times when Lang's manipulation of crowds reminds me of Busby Berkeley's. Lang's choreographic approach to the film is essential to its success as a portrayal of the subsuming of the human into the mechanical. Is there a more brilliant depiction of the alienation of work than that of the man who must shift the hands around a gigantic clock face to keep up with randomly illuminated light bulbs? Metropolis is usually cited as a triumph of design, and it probably wouldn't have the hold over us that it does without the sets of Otto Hunte, Erich Kettelhut, and Karl Vollbrecht, whose influence over our visions of the future seems indelible. Would we have the decor of the Star Wars movies or any of today's superhero epics without their work? There are those who would argue that the film is long on visual excitement but short on intellectual content -- the moral banality, that the Heart must mediate between the Head and the Hand, hardly seems to suffice as a justification for the film's Sturm und Drang -- which weakens its reputation as a masterpiece. But that seems to me to ask more of movies than they were ever designed to provide. So much in Metropolis reverberates with history -- from the French Revolution to the Bolsheviks to the Nazis -- that it's a film we can never get out of our heads, and probably shouldn't.