early-cinema

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I went to see Metropolis at the Arclight yesterday. I’m a fan of Fritz Lang’s films, but I’d never seen Metropolis because I wanted to see it for the first time on the big screen, and while cinema showings aren’t uncommon, this was the first time I’d ever been able to get to one. I saw the 2010 restoration, which is complete except for, I believe, just the one scene in the Cathedral, and comes with the original score. 

It’s a really strange movie to watch from ninety years on (today is the ninetieth anniversary of its first screening), especially since the film is set in about ten years’ time, and strange to watch from a culture that is both similar and wildly different. Metropolis was made in Weimar Germany in 1927, a little past the midpoint between the end of the first World War and the rise of Hitler. There’s a lot to take in – not just the art design, which is a really crazy mix of early-cinema camp and gorgeous art deco and gothic influences, but the politics of the story, which from the point of view of a hard lefty in the twenty first century is a little tough to grasp at first. (Workers rioting for their rights and smashing machines that literally and figuratively devour them is a bad thing in this movie.) Brigitte Helm, who plays the saint Maria and her wicked double, is particularly outstanding. 

And then there’s this scene, which is honestly one of the most chilling moments of any movie I’ve ever seen. Watching the Machine rise smoothly from the chair without any apparent effort or human-like leverage of the muscles is really incredible, and the Machine’s costume is literally baffling – there’s parts where I genuinely don’t understand how they built them. The special effects, for their time, hold up really well, and I spent a lot of time thinking about how I’d have liked to have seen behind-the-scenes in the costume and model shops. 

Also I almost laughed out loud at the Shift Change scene, not because it’s funny but because the rote, rhythmic movement of the end-of-shift workers is a little spoiled by the one guy in the front row who is SO OBVIOUSLY nodding along to the beat they’re playing to keep them all in rhythm offscreen. 

Anyway. If you get the chance to see Metropolis on the big screen, I’d go for it. It’s two and a half hours long, and there are definitely some scenes that could have been trimmed a little, but the film runs pretty fast and I think it’s worth it.