Thoughts on books and other assorted topics.
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My name: Brian Martin
"How do you solve a problem like Maria?" If the nuns thought they had trouble with Julie Andrews in The Sound of Music, they should have at least been thankful not to have to deal with the Maria in Fritz Lang's Metropolis. Not that this Maria is bad, but through no fault of her own she acquires a robot double that is exquisitely bad.
The real Maria is the inspirational leader of the working class in a future world where huge underground machines power an entire city for the comfort and pleasure of the elite. The machines must be manned 24/7, leaving the work force exhausted and frustrated and angry. But Maria doesn't want rebellion, she wants compromise. And she finds an unexpected ally in Freder, son of the owner of the machines.
What neither Maria nor Freder knows is that Freder's father has contracted a brilliant scientist, Rotwang, to create a humanoid machine that can take the form of any human being. And when Freder's father finds out what his son has been up to, he orders Rotwang to give it Maria's form so that it can destroy Maria's reputation with the workers. Which, as it happens, turns out to be a spectacularly bad decision, when Robot Maria somewhat exceeds her mandate.
Having said all that, I'm not sure that it makes much difference. The reason to see this movie isn't the plot, which is more complicated than I've suggested and which doesn't always make complete sense. The reason to see it is because it is the first great science fiction movie.
I saw the 2010 restored version (not the Giorgio Moroder tinted version, the one with the pop soundtrack).
This is a movie with vision -- a singularly a propos term in this case because Lang uses very few intertitles in the course of this stunningly visual silent film. Above ground we see the vast city, with its tall buildings, busy streets, and airplanes. Below ground are the machines, monstrous and devouring. Indeed, when one breaks, Freder imagines it as an enormous beast feeding on the workers.
If you've seen Bride of Frankenstein, look here for the inspiration for the mad doctor's lab, only better. (The Frankenstein connection was so evocative, I kept waiting for Rotwang to scream, "It's alive!" when he animated the robot.) The special effects are remarkable and exciting, but not all are so grand. One creepy/funny sequence has Freder being led through Rotwang's house by doors which open and close by themselves. Lang also throws in a lot of post-production effects -- flashes, spinning lights, and so on -- that ought to be corny, but aren't. Maybe it's the timing, but they fit the mood of the movie very well.
And then, of course, there's Maria the Robot, about which I can think of only one negative thing to say: we don't see enough of her. Rotwang's process turns robots into human doppelgangers, so her role -- as a robot -- is disappointingly brief.
One of cinema's all-time greatest achievements, Metropolis was panned by none other than H. G. Wells. Wells didn't like the story, and he firmly denounced the science fiction. Referring to the film's cost of production, Wells said, "Six million marks! The waste of it!" (Talk about a one-star review!)
But Wells seems to believe there's only one kind of science fiction, the hard variety. He criticizes Lang for depicting a city of machines that require "drudge" labor to run them. That's not the way it works, he points out, and certainly not 100 years in the future. What he fails to see is that the movie is less about the hard science of machines and more about the soft science of class. It makes little difference if the workers are laboring to run machines or using them to produce masses of data of dubious value: workers are still workers and they are still, relatively and figuratively, underground. He also fails to recognize that hard science fiction has a tendency to date itself very quickly. Metropolis, now almost 90 years old, remains remarkably relevant. And what utterly escapes Wells (not unexpectedly, since he was a novelist) is that the machines are strikingly visual, and therefore perfect for Lang's film.