Decades Blogathon — Berlin: Symphony of a Metropolis (1927)

Here we are in the penultimate day in the 2017 edition of the Decades Blogathon. It’s been a really fun one to co-host yet again with the sterling Mark from Three Rows Back. With any luck this is a trend that will continue, it’s just so great having the contributions we’ve had three years in a row. So with that, I’d like to clear the floor for the featured reviewer of today — Charles from the wonderful blog, Cinematic. Please do check out his site if you have some time. 


Although cinema has always been continuously evolving since its inception, 1927 is perhaps the critical turning point in film. That year saw the debut of The Jazz Singer, the first major “talkie” that led to silent cinema’s decline and introduced the concept of spoken dialogue to the screen. 1927 also greeted audiences with the inceptions of F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise and Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, two films that epitomized the power of silent era of cinema within the medium’s final years.

Walter Ruttmann’s Berlin: Symphony of a Metropolis is of equal note to the above- mentioned films. An example of the burgeoning “city symphony” genre, Berlin is a quasi-documentary capturing the vibrant life and activity within a single day of the eponymous German capital. Alongside Robert Siodmak and Edgar Ulmer’s People on Sunday, Berlin details German society’s naivety and supposed innocence before the rise of the Third Reich and the horrors of World War II.

Translating the theory of Soviet montage to German cinema, Ruttmann sought to utilize Eisenstein-esque editing to capture the breath of movement and action throughout Berlin. Ruttman opens his picture with a series of abstract images replicating a sunrise, before abruptly cutting from two animated bars dropping across the screen to railroad gates closing. The director utilizes an array of similar graphic and spatial match cuts linking the many objects of Berlin together. Like the Soviets, Ruttmann appears fascinated by the connection between man and machine, combining the motions of city dwellers and bystanders to that of cars, trains, and bicycles. Through such juxtaposition, Ruttmann appears to be noting that urbanites, like technology itself, are becoming increasingly organized and mechanical within the modern world due to the demanding schedule they are enslaved to.

A brief scene displays a Berlin audience eagerly watching The Tramp.

While Ruttmann well replicates the excitement of the Soviet montage to Berlin, the film isn’t able to quite sustain the level of exhilaration throughout its duration, and too often it feels that the director has stymied his work through repetitive shots of bystanders that lose their thrills after a while. The ending too feels abrupt, lacking a climactic conclusion that rivals a film like Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin. Although Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera may have opened two years after Berlin, it better captures the fury and elation of the Soviet montage within the city symphony genre; in that comparison, Movie Camera is Berlin on steroids.

Yet despite its shortcomings juxtaposed to Man with a Movie Camera, Berlin: Symphony of a Metropolis is a remarkable landmark in cinematic history that introduced the Soviet montage to the western world. Like Sunrise and Metropolis, Berlin symbolized the massive changes cinema would embark throughout the rest of the 20th century and encapsulates silent film just as the medium began to disappear.


April Blindspot: Metropolis (1927)

Release: Sunday, March 13, 1927

[Netflix]

Written by: Thea von Harbou

Directed by: Fritz Lang

Austrian-German filmmaker Fritz Lang’s critique of capitalism and class structure in his classic silent epic Metropolis is a sight to behold, even if it is far from graceful. He imagines a dystopian city in the year 2026, a self-contained universe starkly divided between the weak and the powerful, the have’s and the have-not’s. When the son of the city’s visionary planner crosses the threshold into the world of the machine workers after being lured there by a beautiful woman, he learns the terrible truth about the city and his position within it and seeks to change the status quo.

Despite universal praise for its technical prowess, most notably a sprawling and immersive visual aesthetic, Metropolis was far from being embraced as an instant classic upon its release, some 90 years ago. The now famous line “The Mediator between Head and Hands must be the Heart!” was a particular bone of contention for critics of the late 1920s and early ’30s who viewed the sentiment as an oversimplification of existent tensions between the working class proletariat and the privileged bourgeoisie.

The very idea that such disparate groups could ever find common ground was deemed unrealistic, even naïve. Among the most notable dissenters was English writer H.G. Wells, who dismissed it as “quite the silliest film.” But the most damning criticisms were lodged against the film’s alleged pro-fascist stance, the thrust of the narrative seemingly drawing parallels between the revolt against the aforementioned visionary Joh Fredersen (Alfred Abel) and the rise of the National Socialist German Workers’ Party.

Before diving into all of that, an interrogation of the narrative itself might be helpful. The story concerns itself primarily with the relationship between the good-hearted but privileged Feder (Gustav Fröhlich in his breakout role) and the poor prophet Maria (Brigitte Helm), who find themselves caught up in a bitter revolt inspired by a robot built in the likeness of the latter — the result of a scientific experiment carried out by the inventor Rotwang (Rudolf Klein-Rogge). The robot, originally designed to replicate his beloved, is brought to life after Maria falls into Rotwang’s clutches at the behest of Joh, who senses growing unrest in the subterranean realm.

Of course, Joh is unaware of the inventor’s ulterior motives, as he actually plans to use the replicated Maria to destroy Metropolis. He plans to have her lead the workers in a violent uprising that will see the destruction of many machines, including The Heart Machine, which . . . well, you can probably guess why it’s important. In the heat of passion, the outraged leave their children behind in the wreckage for Feder and Maria to save before the city floods in the ensuing chaos.

Throughout the two-and-a-half hour running time (Metropolis manifests as one of cinema’s earliest full-length features and is indeed sizable even by today’s standards) we are bombarded with Biblical references and homages to Mary Shelley’s seminal science fiction Frankenstein. This seemingly incongruous mixture of elements, as set against the backdrop of the German expressionist movement, combines to form a uniquely visual tapestry that tends to obscure, rather than enhance, the beating heart of humanity at the film’s core.

Given this, Metropolis can hardly be deemed a film of subtlety. In fact it’s massively unsubtle. Lang’s suggestion of the apocalypse is a prime example. Feder’s vision of Maria riding a seven-headed beast confesses to the unfettered nature of period expressionism, and provides Lang’s most solid alibi for taking the film to so many different extremes. It’s altogether too much clutter. In a film where so many other dynamics are to be considered, heavy-handed interpretations of scripture seem, at best, superfluous.

I don’t view Metropolis as being overtly one thing or another. It’s a veritable amalgam of thematic material and visual spectacle. It’s about communism. No, it’s not — it’s about fascists. No it’s not, it’s about artificial intelligence. No wait, it’s about sinning and the second coming of Christ. I can’t fathom having to process all of this in a time where film reviews could only be found in the paper. At a time when the mobilization of the Nazis was an event taking place in the present. And while we’re on the subject, I also don’t subscribe to the notion that Metropolis supports Nazism. Perhaps there’s a reading here that the inevitable uprising in the lower ranks is a metaphor for the eventual birth and spread of fascism in Europe, but I don’t want to give that too much credit.

The fact that the film fails to shift its emotional weight convincingly proved most problematic for me. I was never convinced by Joh’s sudden concern for his son when violence took hold of society. Remorse for his oppressive leadership was never palpable during the hand-shake — the mediation, as it were, between the head of the city and its tired hands, here represented by the foreman of the Heart Machine, Grot (Heinrich George). Because Joh remained a fundamentally unchanged man come the end, I wasn’t able to buy the denouement as anything other than a physical commitment to honor the film’s thematic contract: Show that love can conquer all. (Even the most bitter ideological divides like class warfare.)

In the end, I liken Lang’s optimism to John Lennon’s insistence that all you need is love. In the context of the world in which we live, their idealism does seem naïve but for whatever reason it almost seems in poor taste to describe visionaries like them in such a way.

Curious about what’s next? Check out my Blindspot List here.

Feder, holding down the fort. For now.

Recommendation: Mightily ambitious and to a fault, Metropolis I find a film with much to praise and almost as much to criticize. And yet, considering the times in which it was released, I can’t do anything but admire it. A rare silent film viewing experience for me, one I’m glad I have finally had. Do I really need to recommend this movie to anyone . . . ?

Rated: NR

Running Time: 148 mins.

What the hell: Unemployment and inflation were so bad in Germany at the time that the producers had no trouble finding 500 malnourished children to film the flooding sequences.

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

Bridge of Spies

Release: Friday, October 16, 2015

[Theater]

Written by: Matt Charman; Joel Coen; Ethan Coen

Directed by: Steven Spielberg

The Red Scare may be long since over but in Steven Spielberg’s 29th feature (!) we’re thrown right back into the thick of it as Tom Hanks is tapped to negotiate the swapping of two major (human) pawns caught in a protracted and ugly chess match of intel gathering, fear mongering and society dividing.

Bridge of Spies, the collaborative effort of almost too many Academy Award winners (is there such a thing?) — directed by Spielberg, brought to life by Hanks and penned by the Coens in conjunction with relative unknown Matt Charman — has all the makings of another Spielberg classic. While it certainly does no harm to anyone’s reputation — to state the obvious, this is a thoroughly enjoyable picture — it falls just shy of greatness. Then again, that’s a bar set so high it becomes paradoxical: not even Spielberg can top Spielberg at his finest.

In 1957 Brooklyn, suspected Soviet spy Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance) is arrested at his apartment and taken into custody. The American public, having been rattled by the recent Rosenberg conspiracy in which an American husband and wife had been found guilty of selling secrets to the USSR about the Americans’ development of an atomic bomb, demands Abel be sentenced to death. Insurance lawyer James B. Donovan (Hanks) is called upon to represent Abel for reasons that are still bewildering to this critic. I suppose it’s enough that Donovan’s firm knows how seriously he is committed to his duties, or maybe it’s because everyone else who was asked said no. It’s not exactly clear either way, though fortunately his meteoric rise to national prominence isn’t clumsily handled.

Of course no one, not even Donovan’s family — most notably his wife Mary (Amy Ryan) — expects Donovan to seek Abel’s acquittal; the assumption is Donovan would facilitate a fair trial as a kind of courtesy to the currently most-hated man in the country. The atmosphere is such that Abel’s fate is all but a foregone conclusion, yet Donovan seeks a lighter sentence, a 30 year stretch in prison, which would all but ensure Abel’s death anyway. He finds himself at the mercy of the Supreme Court after trying to argue evidence gathered against the Soviet (whom Donovan has curiously been sympathetic to from day one) has been tainted by an invalid search warrant. He loses the case, 5-4.

Meanwhile, an American pilot by the name of Francis Powers (Austin Stowell) has been shot down over Russian soil while on a reconnaissance mission, captured, convicted and imprisoned by a somehow less empathetic government who subjects him to torture as they similarly assume him to be a spy. Following his perhaps predictable defeat, Donovan is asked to negotiate the release of Powers in exchange for Abel, putting him at even greater odds with his fellow Americans. To further complicate matters, Frederic Pryor (Will Rogers), an American graduate student studying German economics in East Germany, is captured when he finds himself on the wrong side of the newly constructed Berlin Wall.

As we shift into the middle third of the film the environment becomes decidedly more chilly, and tension begins to build in earnest. What was supposed to be a simple, though by no means easy, exchange of one American for one Soviet, devolves into a circus of lies and misdirection, with Donovan receiving none of the hospitality overseas that he extended to Abel back home. It’s against a backdrop of post-World War II devastation and the bitter European winter our embattled lawyer has to have the toughest conversations yet. After much deliberation and with his patience wearing thin, he bluntly tells Wolfgang Vogel (Sebastian Koch), Donovan’s German equivalent, there will be no deal between the U.S. and the Soviets if they can’t negotiate the release of both Powers and Pryor for Abel. If there’s anything to be gained from such a hugely risky request, it’s our appreciation for why he is the man for this job — I don’t even think Hanks, the person, is quite this principled.

To reiterate, Spies isn’t vintage Spielberg and because it isn’t, it’s all too easy to dismiss as a minor entry. There’s nothing minor about a private citizen brokering this historic deal, though. There’s nothing forgettable about the way the Coens and Charman manage to create a clear dichotomy between Russian and American sentiments, even if the Coens have to censor themselves more than usual here. Spies could have been a truly dark picture, yet it understands that often violence is more potent when suggested rather than demonstrated. That’s not to say the film isn’t a sobering reminder of the state of the world in the late ’40s through the ’50s. The rampant paranoia is best captured in an early scene in which Donovan’s school-aged son is preparing for the inevitable dropping of the atomic bomb, while struggling to understand why his father is trying to protect “one of them.”

As per usual, the Spielbergian approach encompasses several different genres — historical drama, loosely-defined biopic, espionage thriller — and it’s compelling in each capacity, combining historical elements while exploring the many layers that make human beings what they are, regardless of nationality. Once more he delivers a wholesome product that’s equal parts entertaining and informative. It’s a quietly powerful picture and one well worth visiting.

Recommendation: Reliably strong work from Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg makes Bridge of Spies an unexpectedly warm and enjoyable outing. Though not quite top-shelf stuff, this Cold War-set thriller should please fans of either camp and American/European history buffs. Perhaps its biggest shortcoming (maybe it’s more of a disappointment than a flat-out failure) is that the Coen brothers’ signature quirky, dark humor gets lost in the shuffle here. There’s comedy to be found, sure, but this doesn’t really feel like a product of their writing. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 141 mins.

Quoted: “The next mistake our governments make could be the last one.”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com