There is a certain pleasure I get from watching old movies, especially silent films. The suspenseful, edge-of-your-seat crosscutting of Griffith; the explosive juxtaposition of shots by Eisenstein; the exquisite timing of Chaplin; the delightful inventiveness of Keaton. I am witnessing the language of cinema as it is being invented, improved and refined.
In Fritz Lang's grand Metropolis the year is 2026. The city of Metropolis is a dystopia defined by its dichotomy. The rich and powerful live above ground. Their life of privilege allows them to be carefree, athletic and happy. The poor--the workers--live underground. They toil in the sunless depths of an industrial wasteland, the factories that enable the city to thrive.
Until, one day, the workers attempt a revolt. And Freder, the son of the "Master of Metropolis," Fredersen, falls in love with Maria, the charismatic leader from the Underground. Fredersen is willing to let Metropolis collapse if it will crush the rebelling workers and put an end to their revolt. His plan backfires when he learns his son has gone below to join the workers.
The many facets of design
One of the most striking elements in Metropolis is the design, the overall look, of the film. This includes not only the sets, but the costumes and the choice of actors. The physical setting harkens the early efforts of the German Expressionists when the sets helped to convey the mood of the story, the relationships and even the mental state of the characters. Below ground, where the workers live and work, the setting is oppressive. Space is cramped and people are inundated by steam, smoke and noise (even in a silent movie you can "hear" that noise). Above ground it is light and airy; in some places, organic). There is movement and space. One man's office is the size of half a football field.
Clothes define the man
The design of the costumes is another notable contribution to mood and story. Nearly all the workers are in the same black or gray coveralls, offering no chance to express individuality. I would not be surprised if the uniforms were a size or two larger to give the actors their emaciated look. The people above, of course, are nicely frocked in tailored suits.
Physiognomy by design (or "get a load of that mug")
Design even had a hand in the choice of actors. Most of the workers have a gaunt and weathered look about them (with a little help from the make-up department) while the rich look healthy and active. Ironically, there are some from above--Fredersen and one of his henchmen, for example--who also have a gaunt look; they just happen to be in better fitting clothes. But that is a choice by the filmmakers as well, a comment on those who dedicate their lives to the oppression others.
Bearing in mind this is long before CGI, Metropolis is truly an impressive undertaking. And as I stated earlier, it allows us a chance to witness the evolution of the language of cinema. Every element of a movie is thought through and meticulously planned before a single frame of film is shot. Consider the facets we haven't addressed: camera (placement and movement); lighting; editing; story and theme. An awareness of the myriad choices, technical and artistic, can only deepen our understanding and heighten our appreciation for the art and history of cinema.
Turner Classic Movies is going to air Metropolis this Friday, at 5 PM, Pacific, and 8 PM, Eastern.
Those of us in the Long Beach and Orange County area will have a chance to see it on the big screen with an original score that will be performed live. This Saturday, September 7th, Metropolis is going to be screened at the OC Film Fiesta, at 8PM, in Santa Ana. It is a joint presentation of the film fiesta, Long Beach Cinematheque, and Frida Cinema. Proceeds will go toward the new Frida Cinema arthouse movie theater.
Come early. At 5PM there will be a panel discussion on the importance of film festivals and arthouse cinemas to a community. On the panel will be OC Film Fiesta Director Pocha Peña, Frida Cinema Director Logan Crow, OC Film Fiesta Development Director Victor Payan and special guests.
For more information about the OC Film Fiesta, CLICK HERE.
To purchase tickets to the Metropolis screening, CLICK HERE.
Enjoy this review? Receive e-mail alerts when new reviews and articles are available. Just click on the "Subscribe" button above.
To read more reviews and articles by Michael Ballard, CLICK HERE.