Sunday, 28 November 2010


27/11/10, BFI Southbank (NFT as was)

2 hrs 25 mins. Newly-restored and extended print of Fritz Lang's 1927 masterpiece, thanks to the discovery of an exceedingly grainy 16mm print in Buenos Aires containing large amounts of material cut from the original, ranging from the odd cut-away shot to entire scenes. Will and I saw it in the BFI Southbank studio, which is a very small box-like cinema with an enormous screen: almost too big, from where I was sitting in the second row.

I've never seen it, though one has of course seen a good many stills and the odd clip: the robot, the "Frankenstein's monster" scene in which Maria is strapped naked into some sort of transparent box for the transfer of her mind to the robot's, the top shots of the huge city with its trains and cars and biplanes flying between the buildings, the opening sequence of the ranks of identically-clad workers trudging wearily in step to and from their shifts and the nightmare machine halls where they work until they drop.

Visually it's staggering. All subsequent makers of science fiction movies and cinematic dystopias are in Lang's debt, as are the Frankenstein films. The visual effects are remarkable and I'm not clear how he achieved them: the tiny figures running around in the vast city (the city clearly a model, the people apparently real), the lightning bolts and circular rings of energy which pulsate around the model and Maria in the transfer scene.

Plot-wise it's deeply implausible though, even with some of the missing scenes put back in. For instance the motivation of Rotwang, the mad inventor, is never entirely clear. This may be a lack of inter-titles; it may be that Lang was less interested in constructing a plot without holes than simply in getting from one set-piece to another.

Politically it's a curious mish-mash as well. The scenes of the workers' suffering and dehumanisation seem to come straight out of Marx (this was made, of course, just ten years after the October revolution in Russia) and the villain in the first part of the film is the heartless capitalist Joh Fredersen. In their images of hundreds of uniformed figures all marching to the same beat those early scenes also hark forward to the iconography of the Nazis. On the other hand, violent revolution is deprecated, and appears to be deliberately engineered by the villain of the second part of the film, the Jewish Rotwang (we know he's Jewish because his house is liberally decorated with Stars of David), a combination of anti-Semitism and anti-Communism with which Hitler would presumably have agreed.

Some of the bits one hadn't seen were striking too. Early on there's a scene of scantily-clad lovelies in the Garden of Pleasure one of whom is all but topless, a fact we are invited to linger on as she twirls slowly and seductively around for us: pretty daring for 1927. And then there's the orgiastic dance performed by the false Maria, who is topless, except for elaborate pasties. Towards the end there's a scene in which the underground workers' city is flooded and the children (the only ones left after the parents have all gone up to wreck the machines) wade through the rising waters towards their saviour, the (real) Maria: lots of top shots of the crowd converging on her as she wrestles with some kind of alarm bell, intercut with lots of low-level shots of her silhouetted. And then there's a "lost" sequence among the Buenos Aires material of the children trying to escape up a ventilation shaft and finding their way blocked by a grille at the top, with the staircase behind them filling up with panicking kids, which is probably the most genuinely gripping in the film.

Reservations. The plot and the anti-Semitism I've mentioned. Also film-makers were still developing the grammar of the medium, so there are one or two moments that jar, in particular some occasions when the camera crosses the line. The acting is standard-issue silent movie, every emotion telegraphed endlessly in the mime artist's equivalent of CAPITAL LETTERS. And I'm not sure about the music, credited to Gottfried Huppertz, and by the sound if it re-recorded for this reconstruction: what would the film be like without it?

The Wikipedia article here as some interesting material on the special effects, the pioneering architectural styles, Fritz Lang's dislike of the film and the fact that his wife, who co-wrote it, went on to become a fervent Nazi!

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