The random witterings of Jonathan Morris, writer.

Sunday, 19 September 2010


Popped into Greenwich to see Metropolis, by Fritz Lang. It’s a buffed-up version, with footage lost for 80-odd years reinserted and the original score on the soundtrack.

Hadn’t seen the film, but of course many elements of it were familiar, from the titles of Tomorrow’s World, the pastiche of the machine-going-out-of-control scene in Doctor Who And The Sun Makers, and most of all, the Queen video for Radio Ga Ga, in which a scene from Metropolis where a guy is forced to spend a 10-hour shift moving dials towards glowing light bulbs is transformed into a camp dance routine. Top fact about the video for Radio Ga Ga – when it was filmed, the Queen boys hadn’t seen each other for a couple of months, and were having a who-can-grow-the-biggest-hair competition. Imagine everyone’s surprise when the winner turned out to be Roger Deacon, sporting the largest afro perm in the history of mankind. Freddie Mercury, of course, didn’t take part in the competition, though he did grow extensive armpit hair by way of a concession. Watching the video, there’s a bit where all the Queen boys are sitting in a flying car which looks like Freddie Mercury surrounded by three privet bushes.

Anyway, Fritz Lang’s Metropolis is an absolutely stunning, magnificent film. The special effects are awe-inspiring, but the most impressive effect of all are the choreography of scenes with a cast of hundreds of extras, as hunched workers dragging themselves to work, or working on the Moloch machine, or in Biblical flashbacks building the tower of Bable.

That was one of the surprises of the film. It’s very Christian. And the Biblical analogies aren’t really analogies, as we get them pointed out, with flashbacks to the Tower of Bable to illustrate just how similar the Metropolis situation is, and to the Whore of Babylon to illustrate just how similar the evil Maria robot is. And the Mediator between Head and Hand is like Jesus. There’s also a marvellously freaky bit with a skeletal death reaping the destruction of the city with a big scythe.

The plot is operatic with all the sensationalism and lack of plot logic that entails. It’s a big story, but one held together by coincidences and larger-than-life characters having extremely demonstrative emotional crises. The performances, as it’s a silent movie, are pure melodrama – the wild-haired wild-eyed scientist clenching his fingers, the willowy heroine always on the brink of a fainting fit – though to be honest they are nowhere near as distracting as the hero’s enormous trousers. The expressionism gives everything a sinister, gothic edge, and there’s a couple of dream sequences of Dali-esque surrealism.

Being a silent movie, the expectation is for something slow-moving, but – just as when we went to see Battleship Potemshopboys in Trafalgar Square – it turns out to be not the case. The climax in particular is gripping. What helps as well, though, is that a couple of sub-plots have been reinstated, which actually make the story more engrossing, as there are several threads to follow – whereas the truncated, simplified version of the film is paradoxically less fast-moving because you’re not as involved with the characters or the situations. The other thing that keeps the film exciting is the Wagner-esque soundtrack, amplifying each moment of drama to a point of unbearable armrest-clutching tension.

Of particular delight is the reinstated sub-plot featuring the incredibly sinister Thin Man, masterfully played by Ron Mael out of Sparks. Also of note is a young Gene Wilder in the dual role of good Maria and evil robot Maria. Except the word robot hadn’t caught on that point, so she’s a Man-Machine.

The visuals are stunning, though what’s interesting is that aside from a blink-and-you’ll-miss it shot of a rocket ship, the technology is very much of the 1920’s – the planes and cars seem incongruously old-fashioned. There is a form a Skype but it’s valve-based. The mad scientist’s lab is, of course, full of Tesla coils, and there’s an intriguing lamp based around a coiled fluorescent tube. But it’s not so much set in the future as an exaggerated – expressionist – version of the 1920’s, like the way Brazil is set ‘somewhere in the 20th century’. The architecture, though, is Futurist with a capital F.

One other fascinating thing about this film is it illustrates where Germany’s head was at this point in history (not to mention its hand, and its heart). On the one hand you have the decadence of the 20s and the Weimar Republic, all casinos, top hats and flappers in outrageously naughty clothes. And on the other you have the oppressed workers, in drab clothes, living drab, slave-like existences in the factories, a tinderbox awaiting the spark of Marxist Revolution. The film’s message is to find a way of reconciling the ruling and working classes, of peace through co-operation and responsibility, and the workers not allowing themselves to be roused up by a militant speaker preaching destruction. Which is ironic given that the film was co-opted by the Nazis as a fascist parable. And watching scenes where hundreds of children are caught in a flood, I can’t help thinking what became of those youngsters.

Click here for more info on the film.