Thursday, October 21, 2010

METROPOLIS and Fritz Lang's Legacy; or, Robot Doppelgangers: Kitsch or Classic?

By Meredith Slifkin, BMFI Intern

On Monday, October 25, Bryn Mawr Film Institute is hosting both a screening of the sci-fi epic Metropolis and a Cinema Classics Seminar, a one-session class that focuses on this classic film and includes the in-theater screening. Why is this a must-see film? Long before James Cameron was out there sinking giant ships and painting people blue, trying to tackle tough issues of class and race while offering up a big budget Hollywood extravaganza, Fritz Lang was making groundbreaking cinema.

Metropolis is the most expensive silent film ever made—that's money well spent on the breathtaking sets and visuals that create this dystopian futuristic setting. The production of this film was executed on a grand scale and the result is far ahead of its time. In the industrial society depicted in Metropolis, the citizens are either “thinkers” or “workers”; the exaggerated gap between them serves as Lang’s commentary on Capitalistic society. The plot combines social commentary, science-fiction, and even a love story, making Metropolis a classic of epic proportions.

Metropolis director Fritz Lang is a titan of early cinema and has had an enduring influence on film. He was born in Vienna in 1890 and fought for Austria during the First World War, an experience that he cited as being influential to his work. After years of military service, travel, and education all over Europe, Lang became involved in acting and then filmmaking. Eventually he landed in Germany, where he thrived as part of the German Expressionist movement. Lang made a name for himself by combining art with entertainment, making classic films such as Metropolis (1927) and M (1931), which are both technically spectacular and thoroughly enjoyable to watch.

In 1934 Lang fled the ever-strengthening Nazi regime in Germany for Paris, though the circumstances of his exodus remain controversial. It is speculated that Lang actually met with the infamous Joseph Goebbels before leaving, though it is unclear whether this meeting was called because Goebbels wished to interrogate Lang about his arguably anti-Nazi film, The Testament of Dr. Mabuse, or whether Goebbels was in fact so impressed with Lang’s ability as a filmmaker that he offered him a post as head of the German film studio, UFA. To further complicate the situation, Lang worried that he would be persecuted for being half-Jewish (despite being raised Catholic). At the same time his marriage to Thea Von Harbou was falling apart because of her increased identification with the Nazi party. Amidst all of this controversy it is unclear exactly why Lang left Germany, but it is known for certain that by 1934 he had fled to Paris, where he worked briefly before coming to the United States in 1936. Lang brought his talents to Hollywood where he continued to make acclaimed films into the 1960s. He is credited with introducing the German Expressionist style to American cinema, which was especially influential to the emerging film noir genre.

What is German Expressionism? Well, it’s a film genre that began in Germany in the 1920s, and has heavily influenced probably all cinema to follow. It is highly stylistic, with plots and characters that are often steeped in madness or psychological distress. German Expressionism toes the line between the real and the surreal, while often crossing over into the realms of paranormal and science-fiction. Equally important is the visual style of German Expressionism—the stark lights and darks, dramatic shadows, exaggerated make-up, and constructed sets. The result is a disorienting exaggeration of reality, and an overwhelming sense of creepiness. German Expressionist influences are clearly visible in film noir, horror, psychological thrillers, and of course science-fiction films. If you were to have a conversation with say, Alfred Hitchcock, Tim Burton, or even Mr. Cameron, I’m sure they’d have a lot to say on the matter.

Metropolis is a true cinema classic. Now you can enjoy Fritz Lang’s masterpiece on the big screen as he intended, restored to its original glory--this new version includes 25 minutes of recently discovered footage that had been lost since 1927! If that’s not enough, I’ll leave you with two words: robot doppelganger!

Metropolis screening - Monday, October 25, 7:00pm

Cinema Classics Seminar: Metropolis (registration required) - Monday, October 25, 6:30-10:00pm
Seminar includes in-theater screening, lecture, discussion, readings, and popcorn and a drink.