Metropolis (1927)

★★★★★

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Metropolis PosterDirector: Fritz Lang

Release Date: March 13th, 1927 (US)

Genre: Drama; Science fiction

Starring: Gustav Fröhlich, Brigitte Helm, Rudolf Klein-Rogge, Alfred Abel

Lost for 80 years until its miraculous 2008 rediscovery in an Argentinian museum, Fritz Lang’s original version of Metropolis astonishes in both its visionary aesthetic and also its societal relevance almost a century after release. The film’s opening montage depicts brassy, metallic equipment chinking away as steam spurts out without prejudice, and it is clear from the off — the machines have taken over. Workers solemnly shuffle in and out of tunnels for their latest totalitarian inspired shift, shoulders hunched, heads drooped. “Deep below the surface lay the workers’ city,” a cue card informs us.

The ‘Club of the Sons’ lies above, hosting libraries and lecture halls and lush gardens. Inhabitants all wear bright, expensive garments that haven’t been dirtied by the plumes of ash below. They scurry around dazzling water fountains seemingly oblivious to burden, their nonchalance heightened by the fact that those doing all the hard graft underneath probably don’t see much in the way of H2O replenishment. Lang is introducing us to a clear class order, where those on the lower end of the scale are compelled to fund their loftier counterparts’ serene lifestyle.

The first literal clash of class occurs shortly thereafter: worn, muddled children seemingly escape into the land of luxury, leaving the socialites frozen in anger. Or perhaps it is fear. All except Freder (Gustav Fröhlich), offspring of the Master of Metropolis Joh Fredersen (Alfred Abel) — the latter resides in the even grander Tower of Babel, one of many religious references laced throughout. The film primarily follows Freder as he goes in search of Maria (Brigitte Helm), a young Mother Teresa-esque figure from the workers’ city.

He ventures into a world of capitalist mechanisation where everything is procedural and methodological, and where a single deviation from structure entails disaster; we see men fall, likely tragically, after a large machine providing power to the city above malfunctions. It is here that Freder realises these labourers are essentially slaves to the system, and that his father is complicit in promoting their hardships. “What if one day those in the depths rise up against you?” says son despondently to father as the film not-so-subtly anticipates events to come.

From the beginning, it is made apparent that our protagonist considers all humans to be his brothers and sisters. It could come across as forced characterisation, but Gustav Fröhlich subsequently spends two hours justifying his persona’s caring mentality through empathetic expression. Freder’s not the only aristocrat with a conscience; we also have Joh’s trusty-cum-not-so-trusty assistant Josaphat (Theodor Loos), whose job security anxieties capture in a nutshell the power his boss has over the city.

Joh’s other sidekick — you could say he is the devil to Josaphat’s angel — is known only as The Thin Man (Fritz Rasp): a slender-faced and baggy-eyed detective who is tasked with stalking Freder. He is pre-transformation Nosferatu. There is also Rotwang (Rudolf Klein-Rogge), an Einstein-like inventor who dwells in a Gothic house that looks distinctly out of place amongst the grandeur of Metropolis. At one point Rotwang ambles maniacally towards the camera, his outstretched arms poised to grapple. Werner Herzog would employ a similarly eerie shot in his interpretation of Nosferatu the Vampyre years later in 1979.

Towing frazzled hair and a forlorn gaze, the scientist reckons he can bring back his deceased ex-wife (Joh’s eventual partner and Freder’s mother) in machine form. The film plunders this intersection between life, currency and machinery for all it is worth, decrying the amalgamation of prosperity and power as something that’ll almost certainly lead to immorality. Rotwang claims nobody will be able to tell the difference between man and his Machine-Man creation. But the workers, the people, are already powerless machines.

By design silent films have a far-reaching interpretative wingspan and this can confuse viewers, or at the very least distract us from events actively playing out on screen. That is not the case here — you can translate the film as you please, and the more thematic mining you do the more fascinating it is. Thea von Harbou’s screenplay evolves into a game of pseudo-AI deception, where life’s more positive aspects (such as love) are warped and used against our central protagonist.

Even revolts, which are often stimulated by underdog collectives seeking to rise up against injustice, are inverted through artifice in Metropolis — the workers’ revolt is manufactured without their knowledge by Joh, another instance of the overseer using his influence to puppeteer society. Said uprising unveils some Titanic-esque disaster imagery involving, again, water, and you being to wonder if James Cameron was influenced by the class crisis on display here when writing his record-breaking flick.

The piece’s appearance is something to behold, particularly given it is almost a century old. It is plain to see how other filmmakers were visually galvanised: Ridley Scott and Blade Runner’s neo-noir cityscape; Luc Besson and The Fifth Element’s futuristic allure; George Lucas and Star Wars’ hovercraft network. Utilising miniatures, effects master Eugen Schüfftan created an urban locale resembling New York (director Lang was inspired by the concrete jungle during a visit).

But the smaller details stand out as much as the larger ones — glowing science fiction spirals sit atop desks and hang beneath ceilings, their ascending-descending design mirroring Metropolis’ upper and lower class system. A wonderfully shot elevator scene sees Freder sink with hope gleaming from his eyes as the menacing Thin Man rises, the pair just missing each other. Silent movie performances are about body movements and facial expressions, and this sequence captures that imperative notion perhaps more than any other.

Time has afforded Metropolis even greater substance. Terrifyingly so, given its underlying message — that centralised sovereignty shouldn’t prevail — is still a widely problematic phenomenon at large in various parts of the world today. The movie is a bit long and some might find its war on capitalism too one-sided (Netflix is great after all), but this is pioneering filmmaking.

Metropolis - City

Images credit: IMP Awards, Film 110

Images copyright (©): UFA, Paramount Pictures

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

★★★★★

Director: Stanley Kubrick

Release Date: April 3rd, 1968 (US limited)

Genre: Adventure; Mystery; Science-fiction

Starring: Keir Dullea, Gary Lockwood, William Sylvester, Douglas Rain

Where to begin?

The beginning of time, apparently. A group of apes, shepherded by an apparent leader, are growled at and hounded from their waterhole having already lost a member via the scissor-like teeth of a leopard. It appears; seemingly from nowhere, from nothing: a large and brooding object, known as the monolith. The beasts shriek, cower and then gain strength in its presence. Shortly thereafter, the now tactical, abrasive early hominids have reclaimed their waterhole. Clutching a bone, envisioning a tool, the leader tosses his symbol of construction, destruction and all else into air.

We’re floating in space.

It truly is a remarkable opening sequence, Stanley Kubrick’s depiction of premature life dissolving into an achievement-driven existence, an existence embodied by the amazing feat of spatial prosperity. By squashing life’s inception all the way through to thriving humanity into only a few minutes, is Kubrick trivialising said time period? Is he playing down the importance of thousands of years in anticipation of what is to come next? Perhaps. Yet it is the black structure, the monolith that is most intriguing. So odd in its appearance, the edged object turns ominous; what of its instantly empowering effect on the apes? Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey is one of the most influential pieces of cinema, of art, to be born out of the last century, and in less than 10 minutes it pillages viewers with more questions than answers. Over a two hour and 40 minute run-time these questions double, treble, as Kubrick raises issue after issue including our reliance on machines, mechanical manipulation, the significance of alien existence, of shapes even. He does all of this whilst celebrating humankind and our limitless prerogative. It’s wonderful.

Zarathustra, speak. Cue the brass…

Across four far-reaching periods of time, each one linked existentially and thematically to the next, 2001: A Space Odyssey engages in a tale — the tale — of life. After encountering the early hominid creatures, we ascend over the horizon into space and join Dr. Heywood R. Floyd (William Sylvester) are he prepares for a mission to Clavius Base in the midst of some abnormal goings-on. The narrative sprints ahead thereafter, to the Jupiter Mission, doctors Frank Poole (Gary Lockwood) and David Bowman (Keir Dullea), and their increasingly claustrophobic relationship with ship computer HAL 9000 (Douglas Rain). Finally, Kubrick takes us on a peculiar and tantalising journey across, through and around the cosmos, blanketed in an array of magnificent cosmological phenomena.

This collection of chronological mini-movies, although odd at first glance, succeeds two-fold: in compounding the monumental story being told, and in detailing the development of mindful curiosity, technological prowess and emotional manipulation. The first strand — the only section to be located on land — portrays everything primitive. The ape, soon to become man. The waterhole, soon to become territory. The bone, soon to become a sword, and a sceptre, and a hammer. It’s smart, cunning almost, as the sequence sets your brain clogs in motion. And the viewer’s mind is certainly going to need to be switched on, as the black vacuum above plays host to everything that follows.

An iconic image: the bone thrown and subsequently plummeting through the air, snappily followed by a space shuttle harnessed by gravity. Perhaps an indication of humankind’s selfishly perceived stability all these years later. Selfish in their control over nature, and negligence of mechanical reliance. Machines that seemingly have a “dependence on people,” at least that’s the view of Heywood, and later both Frank and David. Kubrick switches his line of questioning, batting that now aged-old ‘man versus machine’ adage that was gaining prominence around the film’s release in 1968. The internal AI system, HAL, is essentially the ticking heart of Discovery One, Frank and David’s space liner — HAL’s physical appearance burns a bright reddish-orange, symbolising the sun. Yet the system is almost secondary to the humans on board, simply a part of their routine; machinery assists in cooking food (unlike the raw meat off the slain bone eaten by apes), in steering the ship, providing entertainment (HAL wins at a game of chess), and almost all else.

This notion of machine-driven consumption prevails throughout the film, climaxing in HAL’s eventual devilishness and therefore implying both that machine has absolute rule over man, and that it is perhaps the next stage in the evolution of life. Douglas Rain is deadpan as the system’s voice, verbalising in an incredibly unassuming-turned-condescending manner (“Without your space helmet, Dave, you’re going to find that rather difficult”). Coincidentally, this converging relationship between man and machine has once again reared its societal hand recently, in Spike Jonze’s Her, a story about a man who falls in love with his AI system. The topic is an intriguing one, and Stanley Kubrick tackles it as well as anybody has done (or will do).

There are also other subtexts rummaging around, including our intrinsic attraction to the search for alien existence, conveyed by how characters interact with the menacing monoliths scattered throughout. Another irregular data byte comes by way of shapes — the sphere: HAL, the ship’s centre, and planet Earth indicating a form of coming full circle; the rectangle: those brooding and dangerous monoliths, offering no leeway; and the picturesque octagon: part of Discovery One’s walkway, an uncommon shape signalling strange happenings.

Interspersed within this ocean of thought-provoking query is a soundtrack as wide-ranging as the eon covered, yet one that maintains a common brassy undertone. Celebratory and grandiose, Richard Strauss’ “Thus Spoke Zarathustra” blares as a triumphant recognition of achievement. Conversely, scores of haunting, ghostly tones wail out like human souls in fear of extraterrestrials; it’s the ambience of the unknown. Geoffrey Unsworth has a whole universe to work with, and his cinematography is marvellous. The special effects, though obviously not up to present day standards, are admirable in their imagination — the influence of the camera work on show here can be seen propelling modern movies like Gravity. Performances from Keir Dullea, Gary Lockwood, and William Sylvester are by no means the centrepiece of proceedings, but Dullea in particularly stands out depicting of the authority-battling and bearings-losing Dr. David Bowman.

Stanley Kubrick films are renowned for offering more questions than answers. This potentially problematic mantra shows no sign of miss-deployment here, instead thriving in tandem with 2001: A Space Odyssey, a film that encompasses all of time and that debates the multitude of lives lived throughout.

Images copyright (©): Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

Citizen Kane (1941)

★★★★★

Director: Orson Welles

Release Date: January 24th, 1941 (UK); September 5th, 1941 (US)

Genre: Drama; Mystery

Starring: Orson Welles, Joseph Cotten, Dorothy Comingore, Everett Sloane

“Rosebud.”

Since the release of Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane all the way back in 1941, that term has been analysed and re-analysed. It has been torn apart and put back together again. It has been evaluated in reference to each individual scene in the film, regardless of significance. Rosebud, the word proclaimed by Kane at the very beginning of the movie and the very end of his life, has become something of a symbol of mystery and intrigue in the film industry throughout the 70-plus years since its first uttering. Orson Welles, by way of a single word articulated from the mouth of one of his characters amid his first feature film as a director, has helped revolutionise filmmaking and storytelling. Citizen Kane is a sublime piece of work, a masterpiece, driven by a simple phrase that encompasses so much, yet means very little at all.

Citizen Kane retells the life, career and legacy of wealthy newspaper magnate Charles Foster Kane (Orson Welles), doing so through a combination of flashbacks recounting significant events, along with divulging tales from those who knew him, told in the present. Shortly after the death of Kane, it becomes the utmost priority of newsreel reporter Jerry Thompson to find out the meaning behind the influential man’s last word in the hope that he will learn something subtle-yet-meaningful about the extraordinary life lived by Kane.

There is not much to be said about Citizen Kane that has not already been said, and said far more eloquently than anything which is about to be written by myself. From the innovative cinematography delivered by Gregg Toland, to the trend-setting diversion from linear storytelling by director Orson Welles, to the array of impeccably delivered performances at the hands of the main cast members and all those in between, Citizen Kane truly is the Mona Lisa of cinema. The film works on every level, be it as a narrative about unknowingly losing grasp of innocence, or a compelling drama about finding out the significance of a single phrase. Welles is as much a stalwart behind the camera as he is in-front, achieving as close to perfection in both fields as cinematic history has to offer.

At the centre of events is the curious and mysterious word uttered by Kane at the very cusp of his existence: Rosebud. Just as soon as the snow globe exits Kane’s ailing grasp and the echoes of his secretive phrase have finished, news reporters around the world set their sights on becoming the first to uncover the true meaning behind Kane’s life, and in turn, Kane himself. “It is not enough to tell us what a man did. You have to tell us who a man was,” says one newspaper editor. The bustling nature of proceedings is in full flow, as smoky rooms concealing the faces of such media-men play host to many a conversation about who, where and how the true meaning behind Rosebud will be discovered. From the get-go this highlights the importance of Charles Forster Kane and the impact the newspaper magnate had on society — the period 1895 to 1941 is described in reference to Kane: “All of these years he covered, many of these he was.”

Shortly afterwards sees the introduction of the non-linear aspect of the film, as flashbacks stretching as far back as Kane’s early years begin. His childhood is primarily spent in a cold, wealth-deprived area of Colorado, where Kane is upbeat as a youngster and enjoys sledging in the snow. The positive attitude he boasts is maintained throughout his early adult years as Kane defies the wishes of his business-driven guardian Mr Thatcher and chooses a “fun” career in the newspaper industry rather than a money-focused empirical reign. It is clear that Charles Foster Kane is a beacon of intuition and enthusiasm in his younger years, with Orson Welles oozing confidence, intelligence and initiative as the title character. The quick-witted performance adopted by Welles is perfect for Kane, who maintains his perceptiveness as his life thunders on.

It is this innocence that Kane evokes as a child, and even to an extent as a youthful business entrepreneur, that plays a key role in the underlying Rosebud saga. As the newspaper magnate’s existence wears on, his ideas become more and more exuberant (turning an average singer into a stage star) and his relationships increasingly flail (entailing both his family and friends). His life is consumed by the news, both internally and externally, and the once composed, progressive entrepreneur begins to evolve into the brash and bold character that the opening title credits suggest. Kane never dreamt of money, only to be loved, as attested to by his closest friend. Perhaps this is a direct result of his relocation away from his parents as a child. When the love and admiration dwindles, so too does Kane’s predicament. Again, Welles is magnificent as he unveils a completely contradictory side of Charles Foster Kane to that seen at the beginning of the film. Only at the very conclusion does the implication of Rosebud take hold, as Citizen Kane comes full circle in telling the story of a once happy individual whose security has become overwrought with pressure and who seeks one final glimpse at what he once had.

Orson Welles embodies Charles Foster Kane like nobody else could, and delivers two impeccable performances (or three, if you count his role as director). Not only is Welles focused and driven as the lead, he is also very funny on occasion, which is in no small part down to the quick-witted nature of the character and performance. Alongside Welles, the likes of Joseph Cotton and Everett Sloane stand out as Kane’s best friend Jedediah Leland and loyal employee Mr. Bernstein, respectively. Dorothy Comingore gives a bubbly performance as Kane’s second wife and aspiring opera star Susan. Another outstanding contribution nod must go the way of cinematographer Gregg Toland, whose innovative camera work allows the audience to see what they themselves want to see, and whose inventive techniques back in 1941 have helped to pave the way for modern filmmaking as it is prescribed today.

At one point during the film Kane says, “I don’t think there’s one word that can describe a man’s life”. In essence, this is true. Although the driving force behind Citizen Kane is the grand search to discover what Rosebud means, the true story of the film is simply in retelling the incredible life of a man subconsciously pursuing that what he once had a long time ago.

Credit: The Film Stage
Credit: The Film Stage