Esoterica – Metropolis

Here, at the commencement of a New Year, is a time when so much new stuff lay ahead to look forward to. For many people, it is inevitably a time when we look back at what has been…if only to figure out exactly where it was in the past it all went so wrong.

Thus the New Year is simultaneously a time of reflection & anticipation – and if you’re the unfortunate soul who has little to anticipate, then it is the time make the Old things New again.

And so with that tenuous philosophical tether, allow me to take a New look at an Old film – something that perhaps you have anticipated watching at some point in your life; something that the title of “esoterica” was, quite simply, made for.

Simultaneously claimed as sacred by film-historians, foreign film enthusiasts, Beatniks, Mods, Students and Hipsters (each in their own time, and to their own exclusivity), artiste’s, geeks and nerds…this movie really deserves to be reviewed by someone who knows what they’re talking about.

Maybe, one day, that someone will come to us at Esoteric Fish. Until then, you get me. So my friends:

Fritz Lang’s Metropolis

Director: Fritz Lang

Writers: Fritz Lang & Thea Von Harbou

Starring: Brigitte Helm, Gustav Fröhlich, Alfred Abel and Rudolf Klein-Rogge

Year: 1927

I don’t think anyone could fairly accuse me of being a true student of “feelm” – the most you could say is that I’ve spent way too much time memorising the dialogue of Star Wars, The Blues Brothers and Superman II in the hope of those fleeting but glorious moments when I can stand before my church congregation at the appropriate cue and boldly proclaim…”KNEEL BEFORE ZOD!”

But my taste in movies is actually kind of eclectic, and I am invested in taking the time to watch all those flicks which have been claimed as true classics over the last 100 years…and Metropolis is the grandfather of them all. This flick has it’s pretty little fingerprints all over 20th Century cinema. It’s probably going to be all over 21st Century cinema as well, once studios stop giving sci-fi properties to Michael Bay, Ridley Scott stops tinkering with his own back catalogue and Brett Ratner… just stops.

One of the dizzying heights of German expressionism, Metropolis was created by renowned director Fritz Lang –  and subsequently lauded by the Nazi Party for his commentary on class warfare. You should know these accolades resulted in Lang’s long-held disdain for his own work. He practically divorced his movie, such was the extent to which he wanted to distance himself from it. For years following its’ release Lang would continually slam the film in interviews. Above all he hated the allusions to Nazism that his government claimed the movie supported – though Thea Von Harbou, to whom he was married when they made the movie, soon became an active member of the Nazi party. He actually did divorce her less than a year later.
But no matter how hard he tried, Lang is forever tied to Metropolis every bit as much as Lucas is tied to Star Wars (only Lang didn’t later go back and mess with…y’know what? It doesn’t matter – George has suffered enough).

The cityscape of the film (set in the dystopian 2026) was itself based on the city of New York, but has gone on to inspire the design of pretty much every science fiction film-based city in history. Blade Runner, Episode I, The Fifth Element, Brazil, Total Recall, Minority Report…they’re all right here in Black and White. And it’s more than just the city – other design aspects, elements of plot, characterisation and the blurring of genre have all transfused from Metropolis into much subsequent sci-fi cinema.

Is this a future purely born of technology, or is there something mystical at work here? Star Wars owes much to Metropolis for this question. The oppressed underclass struggling against the opulent overlords? 1984 tips its’ hat. And let’s not forget the Matriarch of mechanical minions (and doubtlessly the progenitor of DeviantArt), the maliciously magnificent Maria.

Full name: Maria-3PO Data’s Mum

But the important question is: How does the movie hold up, not far from 100 years since it was first released? (86 years for those with an unquenchable demand for the exact).

The answer: Come on guys, there’s a reason it’s a classic. But then again, so is Gone With The Wind. Whether you’ll like it depends on what you want from your film-going experience.

Clocking in at 153mins (depending on the version), Metropolis is not really the kind of easy night’s viewing that you just throw on because you’ve already seen this episode of Family Guy like, 50 times. It’s also a silent film, which is an experience that many may find off-putting. But in conjunction with a magnificent score from composer Gottfried Huppertz (which becomes a character in itself, since it is the only voice heard in the film), and cinematography that puts the makers of the Twilight saga to utter shame, Metropolis is different to the usual movie-watching experience and is more like an evening at the opera.

You can’t compare Metropolis with sci-fi classics such as Star Trek or Westworld (…that’s right, isn’t it?). This is more the kind of film you might compare with Apocalypse Now, in that watching the movie can be a pretty unique experience that is completely non-reliant on storytelling. Oh, the stories are there (in both cases), but only really as a frame in which we can watch these absolutely mesmerising things happen. The difference with Metropolis is that the film never really engages the viewer emotionally in the same way, instead choosing to immerse the viewer in a perpetual state of wonder.

In later years, Fritz Lang came to terms with the success and high regard of the flick, and considered it to be a valuable part of his efforts as a filmmaker. You see? Hitler didn’t completely ruin everything he touched.

How to Enjoy It

If you want to immerse yourself in “the Metropolis experience” (coming to the Powerhouse Museum in 2013), then you need to approach this like Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon. Leave yourself a full few hours, go to the bathroom so there are no interruptions, turn off the lights and don’t speak until it’s over (unlike Dark Side, smoking weed is not obligatory).

Other wise it might work well as the background music for your next cocktail party. Leave the movie running while you discuss Kierkegaard and Marx with a really thin guy in black wearing a red beret.

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