M is for...

Metropolis, modernism, montage.  I recently got around to watching the 2010 restoration of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927) on Blu-ray, a cut of the film that restored some twenty-five minutes of footage, long thought to be lost forever, which was discovered in Buenos Aires in 2008.  Even in its earlier form the film was already a modernist masterpiece, a science-fiction parable set in a dystopian city-as-world: above ground millionaire businessmen and their sons lead lives of indolent luxury while faceless masses toil in subterranean factories.  The film both glamorizes the modern city and reflects anxieties about how it runs.  It opens with an arresting montage sequence of chugging pistons and spinning wheels, and it ends with images of urban pandemonium—exploding machines and flooded streets.  The gleam and power of modern urban space are rendered sublime in Metropolis—awesome and terrifying.  The film could be called a sublime piece of modernist architecture in itself, a towering achievement built out of massive sets and cutting-edge special effects.

Marxism, machines, mass revolution.  The politics of Metropolis are fascinating and notoriously convoluted.  It indiscriminately mixes socialist and religious ideology (the saintlike Maria preaches the gospel of Marxism and Christianity from a makeshift sanctuary in an underground catacomb), never minding Marx’s quip about religion being the opiate of the masses.  And even as the figures of bourgeois capitalism are villainized, there’s more than a little of Nietzsche in the film’s idea that society can only be saved by an enlightened member of the upper classes (namely, the liberal humanist Freder Frederson); left to their own devices, the proletariat is nothing but a mass of rowdy, self-destructive children.  Lang himself would later blame the film’s reductive and sentimental catchphrase—“the heart must act as a mediator between the head and the hands”—on his wife and screenwriter, Thea von Harbou. 

Mad scientist.  The “Machine Man” Rotwang has crazy hair and bug eyes, lives in a witch’s hut, toils to create a female cyborg in the image of his lost love.  In his laboratory, with its foaming beakers and glowing electric coils, are the seeds of a million sci-fi derivations, from Bride of Frankenstein and Re-Animator to Weird Science and Ex Machina.    

Maria, misogyny.  The figure of Maria demonstrates the film’s overlaying of Christian ideology, Marxist philosophy, and the conventions of a romantic adventure plot.  She is a religious figure, a revolutionary, and a love interest for Freder.  She is also a figure for the dual nature of woman as seen through the distorting lens of patriarchy: good girl/bad girl, virgin/whore, damsel and distress/witch.  The film ends with a clinch between the “true” Maria and Freder while the “false” Maria burns at a stake.  And there are fewer sequences in film more clear-eyed about the patriarchal unconscious than the one in which the false Maria—performing in Metropolis’ Orientalized red-light district, Yoshiwara—gyrates before an audience of men as they pant and seethe with lust and rage.


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