Monday, June 7, 2010

Is Metropolis racist? Or just sexist?

Hands off, Rotwang - and that goes for the mechanical one, too!

That got your attention, didn't it. But seriously, such questions did occur to me as I settled down to watch the restored Metropolis at the Coolidge Corner this weekend. The audience was a typical Cambridge/Brookline crowd - gray as an average symphony audience, slightly disheveled, full of the kind of people who wear socks with sandals, have a degree in Sociology, and shop at a food co-op but somehow always miss the grooming aisle.

And they were all white. Every last one of them.

So as I surveyed this aging sea of Caucasians, I wondered to myself - what if I began to insinuate the same things about Fritz Lang and Metropolis that, say, Isaac Butler or J. Holtham - not to mention a raft of others - are always insinuating about Shakespeare? How would old Fritz hold up to the Parabasis treatment?

The answer is: not all that well. Metropolis is, indeed, a little bit racist. And a whole lot more sexist. Cinematically it may be a teacher's pet of the professoriat, but it traffics in hilariously bigoted, reactionary imagery. The local fleshpot in the eponymous Metropolis, for instance, is some kind of nightclub/den-of-sin called "Yoshiwara" - named after a notorious red light district in Edo-period Japan - and Lang introduces it with a kaleidoscopic dissolve through images of leering Asians and Africans. Eek! The OTHER! The movie all but screams.

Not that there are any people of color at "Yoshiwara" - far from it; the crowd (at left) looks like they just came from a Skull and Bones initiation, actually, as they ogle Brigitte Helm in her "Whore of Babylon" get-up (I could have sworn I spotted a Bush scion in drooling close-up!). This is a little odd, given that Metropolis is supposed to be a futuristic vision of cosmopolitan sprawl; still, it's good to know to whom, precisely, Lang's honest Germans can turn for their sex and drugs in the future: blacks and "Orientals" - just like in Weimar!

As for the sexism - uh, where to begin? Metropolis may be futuristic in its décor, but in its sexual politics, it's positively medieval. Lang's mom was Jewish, but he was raised a Catholic, and boy, can you ever tell. His movie's heroine, "Maria" - that's "Mary" to those of you who don't speaken zee Deutsch - is given an evil, robotic doppelgänger by the mad inventor "Rotwang" (we won't go into that etymology). Thus one of the movie's Marias is a holy virgin who prays at a giant altar studded with more crosses than Golgotha; the other's a mechanical whore - whom we first spy lounging beneath a satanic star (at top)! That's right - she's the virgin and the whore. Golly - can you guess which one wins in the end? In a cathedral, no less?

Ok, ok, enough - but it's good to remember exactly what you're watching (that is, Cecil B. DeMille with droids) when faced with the elaborate snow job the film nerds have mounted for this re-re-re-release of the grand-daddy of cinematic SF.

I'm not kidding with that "re-re-re" bit, btw; I think this marks the third or fourth "restoration" of Metropolis I've caught over the years. My appreciation of it, you'd think, should have grown by leaps and bounds by now. But remarkably, the film always makes the same impression: visually, it's stunning - really more than stunning, as within its imagery lie coiled the tropes of most of the science fiction films ever made. It's the ur-text of big screen SF - plus it's the ur-text of pop Marxism, too, with its olympian capitalists camping it up in their penthouses while "the workers" toil to their deaths underground. Plus it's got Brigitte Helm in pasties - what's not to like, Herr Professor?

Wall Street as Babel, by way of Breughel.

Well, since you asked - in dramatic terms Metropolis is a snooze. And its big set-pieces - a riot, then a flood, then another riot, then a burning at the stake (it's climax after climax!) - are about as thrilling as a round of after-dinner mints. This is because a) we don't care about any of its characters, and b) Lang hadn't yet learned how to film action - or, to be honest, how to really shape a complicated cinematic sequence (M, by far his best film, marked a huge leap forward in that regard). Metropolis isn't as dull as, say, Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler, or The Spiders, which hail from the same period of Lang's oeuvre. But trust me, you'll still be checking your watch.

But wait! you may say. Didn't the restored material - discovered in Argentina two years ago - a least partially change your assessment?

I hate to say it, but not really. The film nerds want you to believe that now the picture "makes sense" - only it still doesn't, not all the time; several narrative lacunae still dot the "plot," even with added title cards. The new footage does clear up Rotwang's motivation in building, and then re-programming, "Bad Maria," which is somewhat interesting. But it also adds minutes to a subplot that we don't really care about - then leaves that plot hanging anyway.

And worst of all, it includes no new visions. And that's what you go to Metropolis for. Indeed, I'm tempted to say that the less this picture makes sense, the better it is; the more fragmented and impacted its weird sexual hysteria is, for instance, the more it can be excused as semaphore from the subconscious rather than considered artistic statement. And the more chaotic the car crash between technology and the Old Testament seems, the more the pagan ziggurats and reptilian robots pop as visual artifacts. For make no mistake, Metropolis is full of wonders that have oft been repeated, but never really topped, with the sick sexual vibe of the robot Maria topping the list. This famous "costume" (which uncomfortably encased the real Brigitte Helm) remains one of the most psychologically resonant props ever constructed, nearly a century after its creation.

And to be fair, in the new print at the Coolidge, the robot Maria, and most everything else, look terrific. (And the movie sounds great too - don't worry if you missed the live performance, the Wagner-lite score by Gottfried Huppertz was almost as influential as the rest of the picture.) So if you've never seen the gigantic sets or the clever in-camera illusions, or the bizarre octagonal architectural motifs (or Brigitte Helms's boobs, for that matter), by all means go.

Just don't be surprised if you check your watch.