Went to see Metropolis last night…

…and when I say “went” I mean I sat in the refurbished Roxy theater in downtown Saskatoon to watch the film as twenty members of the Saskatoon Symphony Orchestra played the 1927 score for it. That was a very neat experience. The film was also a neat experience, as I’d never seen the whole thing before.

Michael Organ offers up a nice site about the film and its history and I’ll quote from that later.

The plot is simple enough. It takes place in a future world where a class division of labour has been taken to the extreme. Fredersen, the leader of the city, is a heartless man, feared by almost all who know him. His son, Freder, is happy and fun-loving and largely ignorant of the proletariat workforce toiling deep below the gardens and towers of the beautiful city who maintain all the machines that power the place. One day, his fun is interrupted by a strange woman with a passel of poorly dressed and dismal looking kids. He’s instantly love-struck by Maria and takes what she says to heart – that all men are brothers.

His desire to speak with her leads him to follow her into the depths below Metropolis and he arrives just in time to witness a terrible mechanical accident. He’s traumatized by the experience and scurries up to the highest tower to tell his father all about it. His father’s annoyed by the fact that he’s getting the news from his son rather than his aides, but Fredersen’s too worried about the possibility of revolt to really care what his son is going through.

Freder heads back down into the machines and trades clothes with a worker. After he finds a plan or map of some kind in the guy’s things, he gets invited to join the other men at a secret location where, lo and behold, Maria is there waiting to offer the solace of hope and dreams.

Meanwhile, Fredersen wanders over to the local mad scientist’s abode for reasons I didn’t really get. Maybe he was looking for suggestions on how to deal with the potential worker problem. Anyway, the scientist is excited about his own invention, a mechanical man, and proudly shows it off. I don’t know if they both loved the same woman, or what, but Rotwang figured he’d somehow make the machine take on the appearance of the dead woman, Freder’s mom. Fredersen gets a better idea – capture Maria and send the mechanical man back down to replace her and screw up whatever the workers are planning.

And that was where the show got interesting.

The Maria machine gets the workers into a tizzy and they’re driven so crazy with the desire to make the parable a reality that they wreck the machines. This causes the undercity to flood while all their kids are still down there, forgotten during the frenzy of payback. Fredersen later realizes that his own son is trapped down there, too. Freder and the real Maria get out with the kids, but by this time the workers have revolted against the machine Maria, thinking they were led astray by a witch. There’s some worry of mistaken identity, but it is the Maria machine that winds up on the pyre laughing as “she” burns, revealing the soulless metal core beneath that dumbfounds everyone.

The main point of the movie was to push the need for cooperation and a more fair society. Head and hands need a heart, Maria keeps saying. She tells the workers a parable related to the biblical tale of the tower of Babel but it’s told in such a way as to reflect and foreshadow the world she’s living in. Dreamers wished to build the highest tower possible but had no idea how to do it, so they hired thousands of men. The work was hard and what was a dream became a curse for the workers so the workers revolted and the tower fell to pieces. It was impossible for them to understand the big dream because of how things were organized. At the end of the film, the real Maria encourages Freder to become the intermediary between his father and the working class, the heart between the head and hands as it were.

In an interview for Focus on Film in 1975, Fritz Lang had this to say about the film’s message:

after I finished the film I personally didn’t much care for it, though I loved it while I was making it. When I looked at it after it was completed I said to myself, you can’t change the social climate of a country with a message like “The heart must be the go-between of the head (capital) and the hands (labour).” I was convinced that you cannot solve social problems by such a message. Many years later, in the Fifites [sic], an industrialist wrote in The Washington Post that he had seen the film and that he very much agreed with that statement about the heart as the go-between. But that didn’t change my mind about the picture.

It’s still a sentiment that plays out today in film and fiction and life – that industry and technology are just as heartless as they ever were and the world would be better off if more people cared about the people.

In the later years of my life I have made it a point to speak with a lot of young people in order to try to understand their point of view. They all hate the establishment and when I asked them what they dislike so intensely about our computerised society they said: “It has no heart.” So now I wonder if Mrs. von Harbou was not right all the time when she wrote that line in Metropolis a half century ago. Personally I still think the idea is too idealistic. How can a man who has everything really understand a man who has very little?

It’s a good question and the answer seems to always be, “Throw some money around.” But raising money for a cause doesn’t solve the problems that caused the need for fund raising in the first place. Rules are made that penalize the needy but don’t seem to apply to or affect anyone else. People are written off and given up on just on the basis of where they live, or whatever. The rich get more because they’ve grown accustomed to expecting more, even if it means less for everyone else. It’s a messed up world we’ve made for ourselves, but if changes can be made, who’s really prepared to make them? Who’s really fit to make them? Businessmen? Celebrities? Politicians? The Everyman? Who really decides what’s most important?

About 1minionsopinion

Canadian Atheist Basically ordinary Library employee Avid book lover Ditto for movies Wanna-be writer Procrastinator
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4 Responses to Went to see Metropolis last night…

  1. Cliff Burns says:

    I was at the Roxy for the Saturday night screening–learning of the benefit showing purely by accident. My wife and I drove in to the city and it was money well spent. Amazing seeing a film like “Metropolis” on the big screen. Now I can better understand the stature it holds among cinephiles. Thanks for the post and I’m sorry I didn’t come across it sooner…

  2. 1minionsopinion says:

    Well, I hardly advertise on a billboard. Heh. Feel free to pop by again.

    As much as I liked the film, I’m also impressed by the actions of those who desired to preserve it and find missing pieces. So many of those old films must be lost and forgotten by now, or damaged beyond saving.

  3. Cliff Burns says:

    Yes, I applaud the work of people like Kevin Brownlow, who are determined to preserve our cinematic past. His efforts with Abel Gance’s “Napoleon” were herculean.

    Candidly, I was annoyed by the reactions of some of the audience members who watched “Metropolis” that night–giggling at inappropriate spots, clearly completely unaware of the techniques and tropes of silent films. It showed a complete lack of knowledge re: cinema; no one watches silent films (even b/w movies) any more and the ignorance was evident on several occasions…

  4. 1minionsopinion says:

    Yeah! That laughing annoyed the crap out me, too. It was a serious picture at the time. I haven’t heard of the Napoleon one. I’ll have to look that up.

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