Tag Archives: lost & found films

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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“Hauntings,” by Guy Maddin (1912-2010)

by Chris Randle

I have a minor obsession with lost artworks. The potential psychological motivations for this are almost embarrassingly transparent, but there’s also the increasing scarcity of vanished masterpieces as a concept. Though unfinished or abandoned creations will always tantalize – no one’s ever going to read the ending of Big Numbers, Alan Moore’s fractal opus – mass digitization should save a future Cardenio or London After Midnight from erasure. I think that’s one cause of the current vogue for ultra-limited cassette releases: when almost any work is instantly accessible, willful obscurity becomes a source of cultural capital.

My own little fixation isn’t quite as covetous, or so I’d prefer to believe: it’s a desire for obliterated possibilities to be made manifest again. To see a major-key version of the obsession, look at Guy Maddin. The director of such weird and wonderful fabrications as Brand Upon the Brain, My Winnipeg and The Heart of the World was already defined by his love of the archaic. Ethereal cinematography, strict monochrome, silent typographic dialogue – if a technique has been absent from conventional filmmaking for 50 years or more, he’ll cherish it. But the September opening of the Toronto International Film Festival’s new Lightbox headquarters allowed Maddin to spoil his artistic parents rotten. Hauntings is an installation of 11 short pieces essaying “unrealized, half-finished or abandoned films by otherwise successful directors,” a “ghostly collage” licked together with glowing ectoplasm.

The film fragments are arranged in two horizontal rows along the Lightbox’s diminutive gallery space; the tumour-shaped, slit-eyed helmet from Videodrome is sitting behind glass nearby. They’re staggered, hiding a couple of the projections behind other ones, and vary widely in length. Playing and overlapping simultaneously, they give the installation an effect of constant distraction. Memory is messy here. Several Maddin hallmarks are obvious: every clip is silent, most are in black and white, swooping closeups abound, and the very Germanic list of “otherwise successful directors” (Murnau, Lang and von Sternberg all appear) is filled with people he’s already cited as favourites.

But Hauntings never succumbs to reverent imitation. Its realization of Mizoguchi’s Out of College, which centres on a young aviator torn between his fiancee and oily cockpits, does channel the master’s painterly attention to light…but it also features Udo Kier as the eager airborne graduate. No tragic geishas, either. Fiancee Teruko is much more Maddin’s type: beautiful, bewitching, flickering between “dangerous” and “maybe just totally inscrutable.” He should collaborate with Dan Bejar.

A couple of the notional films don’t name an inspiration at all, enigmas among enigmas. In “Bing & Bela,” the husband of another mystery woman has been transmogrified into an inexplicably bloody white wolf, and she can’t decide whether to leave his corpse on the grave of Bing Crosby or Bela Lugosi (who are indeed buried right next to each other in Holy Cross Cemetery, Culver City). I know Kenneth Anger still technically walks our plane, but I pictured his spectral hand spelling out EROS and THANATOS during a tinsel-strewn séance. As one intertitle puts it: “REDDEST OF LIPS! WHITEST OF WOLVES!”

The feverish ardour of Maddin’s deadpan text narrations is another habit untempered by his ghostwriting. (My favourite title card in Hauntings is probably “WOOED TO THE LAND OF NOD,” from an allegorical Hollis Frampton tribute where camera-headed Kino is literally seduced by passing clouds.) The director has mastered a tricky contortion: embracing the phantoms he admires while tweaking their tics at the same time. So his version of Murnau’s lost Satanas shows revolution gone wrong from the atmospheric perspective of various toes: “Hopeful feet…On their way to join the surging masses! The lumpen cheer!” Part fetish reel, part Marxist sight gag, and funny as hell, it’s the kind of joke that could only be played on a friend.

A few years ago, I saw Maddin in discussion onstage with Toronto film critic Jason Anderson. The idea was that they’d each take turns constructing a fantasy life with scenes from favourite movies. The director’s first choice was an old British film, seemingly dating back to the 1930s. In his clip, a little girl was moving in with her relative for reasons I can’t remember; the benefactor is a chauvinist cad who immediately reels off all the rules she’ll be obliged to follow. (“I don’t like having…women around.”) Maddin, beaming, told us he wanted to relive childhood as that stunned moppet, because hers had precious “structure.” I understood where he was coming from, if not where he was going. I just wish I could remember the film’s title. What if I’m only imagining it?

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