Wednesday, May 22, 2024

First Contact: Metropolis

A dazzling window through which a century of science fiction can be glimpsed

Economic inequality is bad. It's unfair, cruel, bad, unfair, cruel, bad, unfair, cruel—there aren't many ways to say this basic fact. This is why it's so difficult to make a science fiction allegory of inequality with anything interesting to say beyond: bad, unfair, cruel. I've become very skeptical of this century's dystopias because, almost every time, the setting turns out to be yet another allegory of inequality that's going to parrot what I already know. As a topic for storytelling, greed doesn't lend itself to much complexity or depth; it's just a bad thing, and it ought to end, and that's pretty much all there is to say on the matter. Call it The Hunger Games or Altered Carbon or Elysium or the Black Mirror episodes "Fifteen Million Merits" and "Nosedive," they tend to replay the same arguments and impassioned pleas and end up sounding like they harbor the alarming suspicion that we need convincing that the sky is blue. Time after time, we're treated to the same fables of decadent leisure for the few and soul-draining toil for the rest like it's some world-shattering discovery. You have to look for the topmost of top-caliber stories, like the Doctor Who episodes "Oxygen" and "Boom," to find fresh creative angles on the age-old problem of human greed.

Despite the difficulty of saying anything new about inequality, science fiction has tried its hand at saying it many times, mainly because our genre is an heir of the Industrial Revolution, which made it a natural vehicle of expression for the dystopian living conditions of factory workers since the earliest science fiction. So it's no surprise that class conflict is the core conflict in Viennese director Fritz Lang's 1927 film Metropolis. Set in a city divided between luxury and drudgery, it tells the story of a workers' rebellion sparked by an undercover robot with dubious loyalties. Even if you don't follow science fiction, anyone interested in cinema is aware of Metropolis as one of the absolute biggest classics of all time.

My first impression is that this film's revered status is more due to its unparalleled visual inventiveness than to any insight gleanable from its script. The moral stance of Metropolis lands like a blow to the face, with all the shallow preachiness of the average Black Mirror and a textbook case of Madonna-whore complex that I'm sure made Freud yawn. Of course, I say this from the position of a 21st-century viewer who has had his fill of science fiction about rich, overemotional manchildren with mommy issues. By which I mean Ferengi. Surely these themes must have felt audacious and thought-provoking back then. But is it really possible that 1920s Weimar moviegoers didn't know that factory workers had harsh lives, and needed two hours of delirious psychosexual melodrama to open their eyes to the evils of class stratification? The question may sound silly in our hyperliterate 2020s, but let's not forget that there are still pockets of regressive ideology where it's asserted with a straight face that slaves didn't have it so bad. Even such a prominent literary figure (and prominent Fabian socialist) as H. G. Wells called Metropolis implausibly pessimistic in its depiction of the suffering of workers, although it must be noted that his analysis of the movie was so literal that he mistook its striking art design for a genuine attempt at predicting coming trends in industrial engineering.

To be fair to Mr. Wells, there are details in his essay that hint at the possibility that the version of Metropolis he watched must have been Channing Pollock's studio-mandated, intentionally mistranslated recut. But even so, to make such misjudged remarks about the look of the film, Wells must have been unfamiliar with the conventions of German Expressionism, the artistic tradition most in line with the key moviemaking principle that the function of images on a screen is not to be, but to represent.

German Expressionism works so well for the silent black-and-white format that I'm surprised it wasn't independently developed in other countries. When you can't record sound or color, the only tools you have for communicating a character's emotions are lighting and gesture. And when your only tools are lighting and gesture, overdramatic chiaroscuro is your friend.

While watching Metropolis, I was in awe of how few dialogue cards were really needed to tell the story. With the exaggerated way the actors waved their arms and performed their facial reactions, following the plot was effortless. As regards Freder, the young male protagonist, this style of acting hurts the reading of his character. He comes off as too mercurial, too easily influenceable. Actor Gustav Fröhlich was 24 when he worked in Metropolis, and I kept having the impression that his role would have felt more natural if it had been given to a teenager.

On the other hand, Brigitte Helm proved here that she was ONE HELL of an actress. As typical for this era of cinema, she also resorted to big, expressive movements for playing the two characters she had in the movie, but the result never feels like too much. She was in perfect control of exactly how much she needed to twist her neck or contort her face to nail a scene. With the spell she casts on the viewer, she singlehandedly saves Metropolis from the absurdities of its script.

The main antagonists of Metropolis are a businessman and an inventor. Their suitability as villains in a fable of industrial dystopia is clear; their motivations are anything but. The inventor claims to want revenge against the businessman over a decades-old romantic rivalry, but the rebellion his robot incites among the workers is exactly what the businessman wants, to the point that one middle manager is explicitly ordered to let rioting workers destroy the most important machine that keeps the city functioning. The disaster that ensues only lands for the businessman when he's told that his son is in the factory. And yet, somehow, the boss and the workers end up spontaneously willing to listen to each other, in a painfully saccharine scene that lingers for too long.

It is a testament to the movie's artistry that it became a must in any film studies curriculum despite being known primarily in mistranslation. It's hard for a shamelessly sanitized script to detract from the power of these images—the miniature sets depicting the shining city of the future; the iconic accident scene where a wall of machinery is transmuted into a demonic face that devours people; the no less iconic dance scene where the robotic impostor in womanly guise demonstrates its ability to enchant men; the frantic choreography of workers attached to buttons and levers; the secret tunnels buried beneath the city; the imposing architecture that feels oppressive just by looking at it. Even when depicting actions that on paper sound banal and boring, there is no scene that doesn't have a superabundance of emotion. Watching these actors shake and jump all over the screen has an oddly mesmerizing effect that took me by surprise. It's a happy marriage of medium and style.

And then there's the bonus satisfaction of identifying the elements of Metropolis that begat prosperous descendants across the 20th century: the robot design that looks like a great-grandmother to C3PO; the inventor's laboratory that helped codify the aesthetic conventions of mad science; the urban geometry that haunts the night in Batman: The Animated Series; the impostor wearing a human skin like one of Skynet's creations. I felt like I was participating in a reverential pilgrimage to the birthplace of my idols.

Only in one regard will I agree with Mr. Wells's otherwise narrow-minded criticism of Metropolis:

The film’s air of having something grave and wonderful to say is transparent pretence.

POSTED BY: Arturo Serrano, multiclass Trekkie/Whovian/Moonie/Miraculer, accumulating experience points for still more obsessions.