The Silent Treatment is a column that spotlights different silent films throughout history. It will run on the last Monday of every month.
I'm not ashamed (well maybe I'm a little ashamed) to admit that despite my status as an avid movie geek, there are a few gaps in my knowledge. The largest of these gaps is that of the silent film. Given that silent movies provide a connection to the dawn of the motion picture, it is important that all cinephiles acquaint themselves with as many as possible -- if for no other reason than to understand the roots of our beloved art form. I will be watching as many silent films as I possibly can and, each month, will spotlight the titles that really standout.
This week we give "The Silent Treatment" to a true early classic: 'Metropolis'
The Basic Story
Metropolis is the ultimate city of the tomorrow. It utilizes the most advanced technologies, it boasts sleek, impressive architecture, and it provides a life of privilege and comfort ... for those citizens who are fortunate enough to have been born into the upper class, that is. The underside of Metropolis is the domain of the working class; of oppressed laborers whose plight is hidden from the world above. A man from the surface world of the elite travels down to the so called City of Workers where he is appalled by what he sees and, somewhat unwillingly, becomes involved in a grand revolution to balance the two worlds forever.
'Metropolis' was directed by Fritz Lang who, in addition to being brilliant, was also a legendary bastard. Various biographies and accounts weave tales of him fleeing Nazi persecution without his wife but not before pawning her jewelry, causing the suicide of his first wife, and treating his actors much like the oppressed workers in 'Metropolis.' All that being said, the man was a fantastic director who is said to be a major influence on both Hitchcock and Orson Welles. The powerful performances he gets from his actors is all the more impressive given the medium in which he worked. Without the benefit of sound, and given the sparseness of text cards, much of the story is communicated through their faces.
I was fortunate enough to view the recent Kino Blu-ray release of 'Metropolis' for this month's piece. Not only is the picture quality absolutely gorgeous, but the film features 25 minutes of never-before-seen footage. The original film was said to have been cut down after its premiere and the vast majority of the excised footage was assumed lost. Then in 2008, a nearly complete print of the film was found in, of all places, Argentina. This release is not only the best-looking version of the film, but is a triumph of film preservation and bears great historical significance. Bear in mind this was a film made over 80 years ago and they are still finding new bits and pieces of it.
What Makes It Special?
'Metropolis' is arguably the first great science-fiction film ever made. It is also a great example of films depicting dystopian societies which happens to be something I am insatiably interested in. The scientific achievements of the modern age, then expanded and forecast into a futuristic civilization, paint a picture of a society that is absolutely perfect ... on paper. Many such societies, as depicted in literature and film, show us a world in which many of the larger problems faced by society are solved at the expense of individual rights and freedoms. But 'Metropolis' paints this picture visually using robots, grand machines, and mad scientists in a way that, for the first time, brought the sci-fi elements of dystopian fiction to life.
What Makes It Timeless?
The themes explored by 'Metropolis' are not only alive and well today, but thriving. The oppressive nature of class structure, the perversion of science, the loss of individualism to a faceless societal force, and the mindless worship of materialism have been covered in films across the short history of the motion picture. 'Frankenstein,' 'THX 1138,' 'Equilibrium,' 'The Matrix,' -- the list is virtually endless. While the film's effects may feel a bit dated by today's standards, they were also ahead of their own time, and the story at the core of 'Metropolis' is what makes it so timeless.
I won't argue that parts of the film are a bit tedious and can seem like a chore to sit through, but overall I find 'Metropolis' compelling even now. The fact that the protagonist is someone who, while he comes from the stratum of society that benefits from all the work of the laborers without having to work themselves, gives completely of himself to try and affect major change ... Freder is truly one of the great heroes of cinema. There's also the grandeur of the 'Metropolis' score that really drives home, along with the massive sets and matte backgrounds, the spectacle that movies once were. It's difficult tot imagine how audiences must have reacted to this film in 1927, but I would highly recommend picking up the Kino Blu-ray if you are a fan of this film or simply a novice, like me, who wishes to see the film in as close to its entirety as possible.