Monday, March 22, 2010

Matinee: Metropolis

It's been a while since I've posted a Matinee entry so I thought I'd dig something out of the vaults: a newspaper piece I wrote almost 10 years ago about Fritz Lang's Metropolis. This might qualify as filler depending on your familiarity with the film. I was writing for an audience that was, shall we say, unsophisticated when it came to their taste in movies.

Not that I'm a film scholar, mind you. The ability to memorize useless trivia doesn't make someone an automatic expert on a subject, but most of my readers preferred to swim in the Adam Sandler end of the pool. I'm convinced that most movies are the cinematic equivalent of Dr. Jack Kevorkian's suicide machines: tools to let you quietly bleed out a pointless life two hours at a time. Movies are supposed to remind you that you're alive, not help you forget.

The end result was that I learned to hate writing about movies. For a while I think I even learned to hate watching them, because my role as critic meant my readers had a constant seat inside my head. My own sense of self was consumed so slowly that it took years for me to notice it was gone.

But it wasn't the end of the world. I eventually changed jobs and put some distance between me and "red state" movie criticism and fell in like with movies again. Below is what I had to say about Fritz Lang's Metropolis back in 2002. Just so you know, the irony of bitching about class issues in journalism during an introduction to Metropolis is not lost on me.

SCIENCE FICTION certainly existed before Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, but it had never before been rendered with such finality of vision on the silver screen. The movie is something more than ground breaking ... it is ground making, a cinematic equivalent of the Rosetta Stone for fantasy films.

Based on a novel by Thea von Harbou, the story is a not-too-subtle criticism of the “realities” of labor. The movie is about a class-struggle between the two populations of a mythic city: a class of people that toil endlessly underground, and the “Masters of Metropolis” who live in the peaks of the city’s vast skyline.

The meat of the tale concerns Johhan Frederson, a young master of Metropolis who begins to doubt the merit of his lifestyle. After a mysterious woman named Maria shows him some of the wretched youth of the city, Frederson ventures below to get a better look at how the other 99 percent live. The children he sees are as different from Frederson’s people as the living are from the dead, and the world below comes across as an industrial-strength Hieronymus Bosch painting.

During his visit, he watches as workers struggle to keep up with the vague demands of the city’s machinery. Disaster strikes and, as workers begin to die, Frederson takes the place of one and learns first-hand the rigors of hard labor.

Frederson doesn’t operate the machine as much as battle it, and barely survives the experience.

After the disaster, the city’s elite learn that the workers are planning a revolt, and Frederson’s father puts a plan into motion that he thinks will weed out the malcontents. Rotwang, a wizard/inventor, supplies him with a robot that merges man with machine. “Now we have no further use for living workers,” he proclaims and unveils the real star of the show: a decidedly feminine robot seated at the base of a giant, inverted pentagram.

Rotwang eventually replaces Maria with a humanized version of his robot, who stirs the workers to violent revolt rather than peaceful resolution. Frederson gets caught up in the revolt, trying to establish peaceful change as the masses threaten his own father and family.

If the setting doesn’t make much sense, it’s with good reason. “Metropolis” isn’t as much a movie as a window into the dreams and anxieties of a long-passed and foreign world. While the method is dated, the message is not. The threat of Rotwang’s vision of inhuman humanity, as well as the need for a careful balance between society and industry, is possibly more relevant today than it was in 1927.

For mostly external reasons, it’s a very difficult movie to evaluate. So much of it’s grace may be found in the quaint nature of silent films, with its broad pantomimes and exaggerated gesturing. But Lang created a world with an endless landscape ... not many people ever question the location of the story. Where is Metropolis? How big is the city, and does it have any boundaries? How can the majority of a city’s population be employed by a single entity, and what exactly are they producing? None of these questions have ever really mattered because Lang knew the story — as do all stories — takes place entirely in the heads of his audience.

1 comment:

  1. If I'm not mistaken, Johhan is the father, the actual master of Metropolis, while his son is Freder Frederson, the protagonist. Other than that, many great points :)


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...