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Yesterday’s Tomorrow: Metropolis, by Fritz Lang (1927/2010)

by Chris Randle

Last week, I watched the almost-fully-restored new print of Metropolis. It was my first exposure to Fritz Lang’s monumental spectacle, but in truth I had seen large chunks of the film already, filtered through the homages, reinterpretations and outright swipes of eight decades. If you can sample people, these are sampled images.

The sinuously designed, poorly named Machine-Man, iconic after five minutes of screentime; a vast cityscape filling the sky while machines churn below; the precise clockwork movements of those hellbound proles, both anticipating music-video choreography and recalling Marx’s words: “It is not the workman that employs the instruments of labour, but the instruments of labour that employ the workman.” Even the final showdown atop a cathedral seemed familiar, because Tim Burton borrowed it for Batman. As we left the theatre, my friend Catherine said: “That movie had everything!”

Squint for meticulous order in a horn of plenty and you’ll be disappointed. Those aforementioned workers, for example, are shown toiling on one machine with a massive wall of dials and no apparent purpose. For its ludicrous dream that enough coaxing could move labour and capital to literally shake hands and make peace, Metropolis is sometimes called proto-fascist, but it’s hard to picture Mussolini bellowing Lang’s epigram: “The mediator between brain and hands must be the heart.” The film wedges religious allegory and industrial-relations homilies into the structure of a fairy tale, rebellious heir and all; I’m grateful for what little coherence it has.

Some of the politics are so confused that it begins to seem intentional. Brigitte Helm, just 18 years old during filming, plays both saintly Maria (champion of the downtrodden, love interest) and her android doppelganger. The plutocrat Joh Fredersen has the former’s likeness grafted onto the latter, scheming to incite a rebellious prole-frenzy with her jerky gyrations. (When the sexy psy-ops plan actually works, he sends in the security forces does nothing.)

The movie’s juxtaposition of demure protector and Evil Robot Slut is not subtle. But Helm is so obviously delighted by the sheer carnality of her character, vamping it up in Babylonian drag, that I started to think of the original as “False Maria.” She urges the revolution to devour its children with lip-smacking glee. No wonder that android keeps winking.

The new restoration job is impressive – the print’s only missing one major scene. I can’t imagine how earlier versions hung together, though I still have a perverse desire to see the Giorgio Moroder/Freddie Mercury/Pat Benatar cut. The new/old footage is projected at a smaller scale than the rest, and its flickering scratches are a humbling reminder that even radical modernist artworks can become worn and fragile.

Much of the rescued material involves various subplots. One features Fredersen’s creepily fastidious underling, the Thin Man, his face as sharp and toothy as a shark’s. Another fleshes out the mad scientist Rotwang, explaining why he plots to betray his hated master (there was a girl). I was struck by the fact that, in a city split between heavenly towers and industrial caverns, his lair seems far older than either, a snug little church for your next black mass. If the film has a great sight gag, it’s the shot of him fidgeting in a tuxedo at False Maria’s debauched unveiling. Rotwang is on neither side of the class struggle; maybe that’s why he turns out to be the real villain? (In this and other ways, he reminds me of a more oblique Bat-parallel: “I am the hole in things, the piece that can never fit.”)

After nearly a century of allusive references and unconscious transmission, Metropolis retains a strange power. Restored or not, the film can still inspire longing; Owen Hatherley once argued that its soaring skywalks are an example of the better tomorrow we’ve been denied. Though there are minor consolations. On the walk home post-screening I realized that my first glimpse of the movie wasn’t its famous expressionist poster, or a particular filmmaker’s tribute, or even some knockoff robot – it was this animated GIF. (Scions of capital all like to watch, apparently.) I’m not sure the monocled Mr. Lang would approve, but it’s the future we got.

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Tea With Chris: Everyday Tastes

Tea With Chris is a roundup of recommended links, posted every Friday. Here are a few of our favourite things from the Internet this week:

Chris: Margaux is still swamped, so it’s two for Tea today. This telling chart of “EVERYDAY TASTES FROM HIGH-BROW TO LOW-BROW” comes from Eric Harvey and a 1949 issue of Life:

Upper middlebrow reading: “Solid nonfiction, the better novels, quality magazines.” Lowbrow reading: “Pulps, comic books.” There are heavier crosses to bear. I also like that highbrows apparently wear the same outfit in town and country. Those cosmopolitan elites!

Carl’s allusion to accidents of fame below reminded me of this article about an aging, iconoclastic Syrian actress: “As for Igraa, who still uses that name, she now lives mostly nocturnally, rising in midafternoon. Her apartment is a decaying museum of her own career, with dozens of pictures of her alongside bizarre collections of cheap trinkets and stuffed animals. In her late 60s, she still dresses like the precocious teenager she once was, with tight jeans, pancake makeup and a spectacularly bouffant wig hiding her gray hair.” Liz Taylor, you are not alone.

Carl: This is just a movie review on Salon. This is just how an average review in your newspaper or website ought to be. But in our culture of criticism, it’s not. So it’s worth reading. Andrew O’Hehir on Secretariat, speaking truth to (horse)power (and manure): “Big Red himself is a big, handsome MacGuffin, symbolic window dressing for a quasi-inspirational fantasia of American whiteness and power.”

Our friend Sheila Heti’s new book has just come out this week, and to mark the occasion she had a chat with another writer friend, Lee Henderson and, well, this is the kind of conversation you wish you could have every day. “I don’t think there’s a single person in the world who deserves the level of fame they have today. Who deserves to have their name passed down through the ages? That would be great if we all, everyone today, agreed to it – shook hands over that: None of our names will outlast our bodies. Agreed. What freedom! It would be a much more friendly world. We should be the first generation to say, Forget it. We should all, collectively, opt out of posterity.” Also, the part about Henry Miller as Heidi Montag. (Sheila’s book, How Should a Person Be?, launches in Toronto with Margaux’s movie and our friend Ryan’s band’s album next week.)

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Filed under carl wilson, chris randle, linkblogging, margaux williamson