Tuesday, September 11, 2007
The First Science Fiction Film
Lang, Fritz (1890-1976), was an Austrian-American film director. He made more than 30 films in Germany and the United States, his first successful one being Der mude Tod (Weary Death, 1921), issued in the U.S. as Between Worlds. Lang's masterpieces include Metropolis (1927), (Kaplan 232) in which a magnificent futuristic city is maintained by workers enslaved underground; M (1931), his first sound film, a psychological thriller about a compulsive murderer; and two studies of the criminal mind, Dr. Mabuse (1922) and The Last Will of Dr. Mabuse (1933). (Kaplan 432) The latter won the approbation of Nazi officials who sought Lang's collaboration. Lang, who was half Jewish, fled Germany immediately; he became an American citizen in 1935. Among his films made in the U.S. were Fury (1936), about a lynch mob; You Only Live Once (1937); Rancho Notorious (1952); and Beyond a Reasonable Doubt (1956). (Kaplan 12)
Lang's early architectural and art training is evident in his visual approach; he developed narrative and created an atmosphere through expressionistic, symbolic sets and lighting, as well as through his editing. Just as conventional lines and shapes are distorted in traditional German expressionism, Lang’s futuristic cityscapes are distorted.
Even though Fritz was from Austria, his works are studied as German cinema. The striking and innovative German silent cinema drew much from expressionist art and classical theater techniques of the period . The most celebrated example of expressionist filmmaking of the time is The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919) by Robert Wiene, in which highly stylized costumes and settings were used to tell the story from a madman's point of view. A similar concern with the supernatural is evident in such films as The Golem (1920), by Paul Wegener, the vampire film Nosferatu (1922), by F. W. Murnau, and Fritz Lang's science fiction spectacle Metropolis (1926), which deals with a robot-like society controlled by an evil superindustrialist. (Kaplan 43)
By the mid-1920s, the technical proficiency of the German film surpassed any other in the world. Artists and directors were given almost limitless support from the state, which financed the largest and best-equipped studios in the world, the huge Universum-Film-Aktiengesellschaft—popularly known as UFA—near Berlin. (Kreimeier 32) Introspective, expressionist studies of lower-class life known as “street” films were marked by dignity, beauty, and length, displaying great strides in the effective use of lighting, sets, and photography. German directors freed the camera from the tripod and put it on wheels, achieving a mobility and grace never seen before. Films such as Murnau's The Last Laugh (1924), starring Emil Jannings, and The Joyless Street (1925), by G. W. Pabst, starring the Swedish-American actor Greta Garbo, were internationally acclaimed for their depth of feeling and technical innovation. Because of the immigration of the best German film talent to America, including the directors Murnau and Lang and the actor Jannings, German films declined quickly after 1925, becoming imitations of Hollywood productions.
Since Lang is a self-proclaimed, “visual person” German expressionism was the perfect style for him to work from for his epic science fiction film, Metropolis. (Atkins 19) This 1926 silent, tinted film relies on innovative visual imagery that was well ahead of its time. Metropolis was produced by UFA (Universum-Film-Aktiengesellschaft), directed by Fritz Lang, and his wife Thea Von Harbou. Cinematography was by Karl Fruend and Guenther Rittau. The Production Design was by Otto Hunte, Erich Kettelhut, and Karl Vollbrecht. The fantastically creative costume design was the work of Aenne Willkomm. Metropolis was produced by Erich Pommer. (Parish 225)
The story takes place in 2026, one-hundred years from when the movie was made. The world Von Harbou and Lang created was a cold, mechanical, industrial one. Since this movie was produced not long after the industrial revolution, it could be a foreshadowing of what the world would have been like if the industrial revolution had kept growing. The city of Metropolis is a crowded one where people are either of the privileged elite, or of the repressed, impoverished masses. Vast numbers of the lower class live underground to run the machines that keep the above ground Metropolis in working order. The workers run the machines, but the machines run the lives of the workers. The monotonous droves of workers are truly a, “mass of men leading lives of quiet desperation,” to quote Thoreau. Lang portrays this with a montage of cattle-like herds of people, grinding machinery, and clocks.
In contrast, the other portion of this futuristic world plays and delights in the gardens and stadiums. The scene that illustrates this shows an orange stadium with blue sky drifting by as the privileged class enjoys Olympic-style races. This is when we meet one of the main characters, Freder Fredersen, played by Gustav Froehlich. Later we see Freder frolicking with a girl in the Eden-like Eternal Gardens of Pleasure. As Freder flirts with the girl at the fountain, he sees Maria emerge. Maria, who is played by Brigitte Helm, is dismissed as the daughter of “some worker” by others, but Freder is quite taken by her. Freder pursues her into the foreign Underground City.
In the Underground City, Freder sees an old worker struggling with the dials on a piece of clock-like machinery. The worker fails to keep up with the demands of the machine, and thus the machine blows up. Freder begins to hallucinate that the masses of workers are being shoved into the mouth of the monstrous machine. The imagery of Metropolis’ unquenchable hunger for more human lives is symbolically clear. Lang’s visual talents are apparent.
Freder, who is astonished by the horror of the Underground City, rushes to talk to his father. On his way there, the viewer gets a tour through Metropolis. Lang visually shows how cold, crowded, busy and yet beautiful Metropolis is. Futuristic paintings and models of the city show the unique architecture as well. The freedom science fiction lends to a visual director is limited only by the director’s imagination. Suspended streets, and zig-zagged building, only begin to exemplify the bustling city. It is obvious how influential Metropolis has been on later science fiction films when one looks at a movie like Blade Runner. The cityscapes created for Blade Runner look like an updated version of Metropolis.
When Freder reaches his destination, we see that his father is Joh Fredersen, the Master of Metropolis. Note how he is called the master, and not the leader of Metropolis. This says a great deal about the character even before we know much more about him. He rules and dominates the city, not directs it. Joh, who is played by Alfred Abel, is a frightening combination of (Shakespeare’s) Richard the III and Hitler. The Hitler allusion is particularly alarming considering the concentration camp-like imagery used in the Underground City scenes, and the fact that this film was produced in pre-Hitler and pre-World War II Germany. Joh’s character also has the biblical parallel of the Egyptian pharaoh enslaving the Jews to build pyramids. In fact, when Freder arrives, he asks his father,” Why do you treat the workers so badly?” Joh replies that it was, “their hands that built Metropolis!”(Lang)
Later on, Freder once again ventures down into the Underground City. Freder visualizes the worker struggling with the dials, and the image of a clock bleeds through in a dissolve. Hard work, machine-like efficiency, and time are expressed in this effective sequence of images. Freder remembers what happened to the last poor, struggling worker and goes to help this one. Freder volunteers to “trade clothes and identities” and work the machine for the man. Freder tells Georgy the worker to give a message to his friend Josephat. Georgy goes to deliver the message, but is side tracked by the red-light district of Metropolis, to a place called Yoshiwara. Josaphat does not receive his message.
The next scene introduces the viewer to an old, rickety house owned by Rotwang, an inventor and scientist. He is consumed by the memory of an old flame named Hel. It turns out that there was a bit of a love triangle between Rotwang, Hel, and Joh. Joh ended up marrying Hel, and she died while giving birth to Freder.
Joh wanted some secret worker plans deciphered by Rotwang, but Rotwang had something more significant to show Joh. Rotwang presents Joh with his new invention, a strikingly beautiful robot that is suppose to be Hel. Rotwang exclaimed, “All it is missing is a soul!”(Lang)
Meanwhile, Freder comes across a copy of the worker’s plans, and a co-worker comes over to confide in him that, “Maria is having another meeting.” In anticipation of seeing Maria again, Freder works away at the dial. Visual images of the dials on the machine and the clock merge back and forth. Fritz makes it clear that the work is painstaking, the shifts are long, and time does not seem to go fast enough when waiting for the shift to be over with.
Finally, the shift does end and the workers file down into the deep catacombs to see Maria speak. The biblical theme reoccurs again. Maria is named after the Virgin Mary, she is speaking at an alter with crosses on it, and the workers are in the catacombs with her. The catacombs are where the ancient Christians used to hide out and worship when seeking refuge from prosecution for their beliefs. Freder collapses to his knees as if worshipping Maria. Such visual analogies seem to be the simplest way for Fritz Lang to explain concepts without words.
Maria tells the workers the story of the Tower of Babel. The parallel is made between the slaves who built Babel, and the workers who built and maintain Metropolis. A image of thousands of chained, bald, slaves is presented. They are treated like livestock as they are herded off to work. The disturbing concentration camp images are alarmingly prophetic.
In Maria’s oration, she talks about how the conceivers of Babel did not care about the slaves. The conceivers of Metropolis do not care about the workers. Both places need a mediator between those who rule, and those who are ruled.
Meanwhile, Joh and Rotwang witness Maria’s sermon because the deciphered plans led them to her. Joh tells Rotwang to make the robot look like Maria. Joh believed that if he had a duplicate of Maria that he would have control over and could manipulate the workers. He would have a very powerful tool.
After the sermon, Freder and Maria kiss for the first time. Maria tells him to meet her in the cathedral tomorrow. Freder leaves, and Maria is alone in the catacomb. Rotwang comes out of his hiding place and pursues Maria. He chases her with a flashlight, corners her, and captures her. Freder never met Maria at the cathedral. Freder finds out where Maria is when she shouts through a grate in the street while trying to escape Rotwang. Freder tries to save her, but she is swiftly taken away to the laboratory.
Maria is hooked up to a myriad of machines and contraptions, and so is the female robot. This scene is a visual cacophony of special effects. It a showcase of creativity for Fritz Lang. Glowing rings and lightning effects flash as the robots face dissolves into Maria’s face. This is a creation scene right out of Frankenstein. (Menville 34) The new robot Maria is an evil, lusty character unlike the pure, angelic real Maria. Brigitte Helm makes this apparent by portraying the robot with one eye more open than the other to give her a devilish look.
Rotwang brings robot Maria to a party at Yoshiwara’s to show Joh how real she is to everyone else. The robot gets up on stage and does a tempting, nude, Salome style dance. At which point, Lang cuts to a montage of lecherous male eyes.
The feverishly sick Freder senses this dance in a hallucination and is distraught. He then hallucinates about the Seven Deadly Sins statues he saw in the cathedral. In the vision he sees the Grim Reaper swing his scythe. Once out of his fever induced haze, Freder finds out where Maria is and sees her out. He goes to Yoshiwara’s and finds the robot Maria.
Eventually, the robot Maria gives a diluted sermon to the workers. It ill advises her followers to take up violence, not peace. Freder realizes that this is not the real Maria. Maria leads the masses to the machines in the Underground City and orders them to be destroyed. The workers did not know that destroying the machines would flood the area and drown their children. The machines are bound by the people, and the people are bound by the machines.
In the meantime, the real Maria escaped Rotwang and witnessed the failure of all the machines. The water ruptured through and flooded the Underground City. Maria worked with the machinery to try and stop the flooding, and gathered the children in an attempt to keep them safe. Eventually Freder finds Maria, and together they stop the flooding.
At one point Joh watched the city of Metropolis from his high-rise office. All one sees is Joh sitting at his seat, looking at something out of the shot. The wall behind him shows the reflection of lights blinking. The light is coming from the city which we cannot. When the office goes still and dark, it is implied that Metropolis is “broken.” This is a very effective visual effect of Fritz Lang’s. There is no need to see the city, we know it is there.
In the Underground City, the workers think that Maria has tried to drown their children. They workers go on a witch hunt after Maria. The workers think she is at Yoshiwara’s, and there they find the robot Maria celebrating the fiasco she has created. They capture the robot who is laughing wickedly, and they tie her up to burn her at the stake. In the confusion, Freder thinks the real Maria is being burned. The workers eventually see the robot beneath the burned away flesh. Freder realized that he must find the real Maria again, and he finds her trying to escape Rotwang who is chasing her. Rotwang and Freder fight on the roof top of the cathedral. Rotwang ends up falling to his death.
The masses march into the church, and they realize that Freder is the mediator they where seeking. They found the midway point between Joh and the workers; the ruler and the ruled.
Since the initial spark of Melies Trip to the Moon, science fiction has been welcomed by cinema. Yet Trip to the Moon was just 1800’s spectacle stage, it was not a full-fledged science fiction masterpiece like Metropolis.(Menville 18-20) The pioneering effort that Lang took on has and will affect science fiction film for generations.