On April 19, Metropolis, the famous 1927 silent film by Fritz Lang, was screened for The William & Mary Art House Film Club, and on Friday, Professor Charles W. Haxthausen of Williams College spoke on the film in his lecture “The Cathedral of Cinema: Fritz Lang’s Metropolis,” at the Muscarelle.
To begin with who here has heard of Metropolis? Yes, but how many of you have actually seen the film? I had heard of the film, but probably like most of you, had never actually seen it, mainly because friends had warned me to stay clear of the nearly three hour silent monster. But on this warm spring evening, I ventured into Washington Hall with two other friends, and mentally prepared myself to face the behemoth. There were causalities in the viewing experience, as one friend left partway through the film, but on the whole I left pleasantly surprised, and quite frankly with a sense of awe at the scope of the filmmaker’s vision.
Metropolis, in its basest form, is the story of a son, Freder, who sees the corrupt conditions of the world in which his father’s company controls, and he tries to change it. Along the way Freder meets Maria, who he believes is a prophet like figure, a “mediator,” who will be the key to creating harmony between the workers and the owner. The film uses religious imagery and biblical stories, like “The Tower of Babel,” and this bizarre antichrist plot, to give the film its distinct apocalyptic and dystopic feel. It is particularly interesting to watch this 1920’s film in the 21st century and marvel at how Lang portrayed the erosion of humanity through mankind’s obsession with technology and machines.
The main problems that modern viewers will have with the film is that the story can drag on and on, the special effects are outdated by nearly one hundred years, and most importantly, there is no speaking. These are all valid concerns, but I found that as the plot unfolded, the story picked up pace and by the end reached a fever pitch which made me almost forget that I was watching a silent film. As for the technology, yes it’s no Avatar, but for the 1920’s, it must have seemed completely astounding, and I am sure that there are many science fiction movies that are forever indebted to Lang’s vision.
The lecture by Professor Haxthausen spoke on the importance of the “Gothic Cathedral,” the numerous “Tower of Babel” references, and the film’s lasting final image of “the mediator between head and hands.” The lecture’s attendance seemed mostly to be a mix of art and film scholars, which definitely added to the sentiment that Metropolis represented a unification of art and film. Professor Haxthausen’s lecture greatly increased my appreciation for the film and also made me realize that a repeated viewing was in order.
Although at times, viewing this film can be quite difficult for an audience spoiled with CGI and voice, the fact that scholars continue to analyze Metropolis, and that we are still talking about it today, is a testament to its impact and reach.