The image of Rotwang’s machine-man – hooked to countless wires, rings of electricity pulsating all around it – is one that I remember seeing long before I ever knew to what it belonged. It’s as iconic as any image in popular culture and in just that one frame, that one little disembodied moment, completely free of context, it still manages to be evocative enough to sear itself into your memory.
But there comes a point when you realize that evocative little disembodied moments without any context are all well and fine but they‘re not worth a whole lot on their own. So…
Metropolis (1927) – Buy it from CHUD
There are a lot of different ways to look at Fritz Lang’s masterpiece of a film. Made in 1927, it feels very much “of its time” and like a movie that’s in between two eras. Which isn’t to say that cinema can be broken down into “pre and post Metropolis,” but when you watch it you get the distinct impression that you’re watching a language slowly being developed. Maybe not necessarily invented, but certainly matured. Coming in at the tail-end of German expressionist cinema, Fritz Lang was able to blend the artistic merits and sensibilities of the movement with a relatively astronomical budget (the largest of its time) and make a movie that not only has meaning and resonance thematically, but that also looked phenomenal.
I mentioned earlier that this is a lot like watching a language being developed and there’s a lot here that showcases that. When the Expressionist movement migrated to America after the rise of the Third Reich in Germany, it had its own tangential influences (see Hitchcock’s work on The Blackguard), the ripples from Metropolis veered off into another direction. The amazing thing about it is that you really don’t need a ton of context to know, at least to some degree, just how seminal this movie was. But, it’s not necessarily in terms of cinema itself. I don’t need to tell you that cinema was in its infancy and go into digressions about frame rates and lighting and silent films in general. The image of the machine-man I mentioned earlier? That image virtually single-handedly visualized, created and jumpstarted what we now know as the “mad scientist” aesthetic. Were it not for Dr. Rotwang, there’s every possibility that we wouldn’t have had a Dr. Frankenstein. At least, not as we commonly know him. And that’s just one example – the things Lang created for can be found in practically everything we see today. All you have to do is watch it once and you can immediately draw parallels from it straight through cinema‘s history and into today.
But again, it’s not just the whiz-bang effects – it’s the way that Lang used his big-budget bells and whistles to serve the expressionist sensibilities that made it so special. It’s the combination of those two elements to serve an idea and making that idea the primary focus. It’s taking an abstract view of something that doesn’t exist and making it real, building a world, giving it a palpable mood and making it and its inhabitants components in a much deeper commentary. It’s science fiction. It’s what Sci-fi as a genre still does (to varying degrees of quality) to this day. And everything that we see, everything that’s being made, can be traced back to Metropolis. When you get right down to it, Metropolis (or, more specifically Fritz Lang) is the godfather of the modern sci-fi movie. Sure, others have expounded on what was started here and advanced the genre and the language (while others have failed miserably in their attempts), but every sci-fi movie you know and love started here. Metropolis is The Beatles, so to speak.
And on top of all of that? Fritz Lang wasn’t just the Godfather of the modern sci-fi movie, he’s also one of the most important socio-political directors of all time. The overall themes in Metropolis are timeless and eerily relevant in today’s social climate. I got the same feeling watching this that I did with M. There’s a combination of slack-jawed incredulity that comes with seeing something so old be so on the nose in today’s culture and a little bit of sadness that after all this time we’re still fighting these same battles. The man has a knack for exploring the fragility and inherent fallibility of society itself and seems to have a preoccupation for not only watching it crumble, but be reborn. There’s certainly a lot of bleak in Lang’s films, but there’s always a trace of hope. He’s a lot like Kurosawa in that way (at least in the ways that I’ve always interpreted Kurosawa).
I’ve gotten a little bit of flack for watching the current version on Netflix Instant and not waiting for the special, newly restored Blu-ray that has the extra footage and the new transfer. And while I do want to get my hands on that (very badly), in the end those are trivial things that only serve the, for lack of a better word, superficial elements of the film. Not to downplay the importance of narrative and picture quality, but the power…the heart, if you will…of Metropolis can be seen in any format and on any platform. I don’t need a 1080p Blu-ray transfer to be able to see the importance of this film. I just needed to watch it.
You do too, if you haven’t already.
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