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 

Blindspot 2017

blindspot-logo

Peer pressure strikes again, people. I’m doing a Blindspot list this year. That’s right. Twelve films, one reviewed per month. I’ve seen so many fascinating lists over the past several years and finally I think I’m ready to tackle one of my own. It’s an inspired idea, and someone should get a sticker or something for conceptualizing this popular blog trend. What a great way to discipline yourself into tackling that ever-growing list of Movies I Should Have Watched, Like, Yesterday. It’s also a good way of diversifying your tastes. I’m not sure if any title on this list is a real stretch for me, many of them fall under genres I’m predisposed to enjoying anyway, but the vast majority of this list is comprised of things I know I absolutely should have seen by now — barring one or two curios I’ve been interested in ticking off even knowing they are going to be, in all likelihood, somewhat forgettable. The goal wasn’t to create a list of potentially life-changing films. No matter their relevance or durability, I’m motivated to get started here! I hope you all will follow along with me.

I present to you my Blindspot list for 2017*:


January 

defiance-movie-poster

Release: Friday, January 16, 2009

Plot Synopsis: Jewish brothers in Nazi-occupied Eastern Europe escape into the Belarussian forests, where they join Russian resistance fighters and endeavor to build a village in order to protect themselves and about 1,000 Jewish non-combatants.  

Review now available here 


February

alive-movie-poster

Release: Friday, January 15, 1993

Plot Synopsis: A Uruguayan rugby team stranded in the snow swept Andes are forced to use desperate measures to survive after a plane crash.

Review now available here


March**

trainspotting-movie-poster

Release: Friday, August 9, 1996

Plot Synopsis: Renton, deeply immersed in the Edinburgh drug scene, tries to clean up and get out, despite the allure of the drugs and influence of friends.

Review now available here


April

metropolis-movie-poster

Release: Sunday, March 13, 1927

Plot Synopsis: In a futuristic city sharply divided between the working class and the city planners, the son of the city’s mastermind falls in love with a working class prophet who predicts the coming of a savior to mediate their differences.

Review now available here


May

what-about-bob-movie-poster

Release: Friday, May 17, 1991

Plot Synopsis: A successful psychotherapist loses his mind after one of his most dependent patients, an obsessive-compulsive neurotic, tracks him down during his family vacation.

Review now available here


June

once-upon-a-time-in-the-west-movie-poster

Release: Friday, July 4, 1969

Plot Synopsis: A mysterious stranger with a harmonica joins forces with a notorious desperado to protect a beautiful widow from a ruthless assassin working for the railroad.


July

swingers-movie-poster

Release: Friday, October 18, 1996

Plot Synopsis: Wannabe actors become regulars in the stylish neo-lounge scene; Trent teaches his friend Mike the unwritten rules of the scene.

Review now available here


August

Imprimer

Release: Friday, January 7, 2011

Plot Synopsis: A cop turns con man once he comes out of the closet. Once imprisoned, he meets the second love of his life, whom he’ll stop at nothing to be with.


September

reservoir-dogs-movie-poster

Release: Friday, October 23, 1992

Plot Synopsis: After a simple jewelry heist goes terribly wrong, the surviving criminals begin to suspect that one of them is a police informant.

Review now available here 


October

cujo-movie-poster

Release: Friday, August 12, 1983

Plot Synopsis: Cujo, a friendly St. Bernard, contracts rabies and conducts a reign of terror on a small American town.

Review now available here


November

the-usual-suspects-movie-poster

Release: Wednesday, August 16, 1995

Plot Synopsis: A sole survivor tells of the twisty events leading up to a horrific gun battle on a boat, which begin when five criminals meet at a seemingly random police lineup.

Review now available here


December

downfall-movie-poster

Release: Friday, December 31, 2004

Plot Synopsis: Traudl Junge, the final secretary for Adolf Hitler, tells of the Nazi dictator’s final days in his Berlin bunker at the end of WWII.

* subject to change based on availability 

** not original line-up; I have switched out March and May, in anticipation of the Trainspotting sequel  


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