17 June

Finally got around to watching the restored version of Metropolis. It certainly is very long indeed.

I felt I was having to re-learn how to watch a silent movie. It took me a long while to get my head around the fact that what I was watching was much more like a comic-book than a filum: each individual scene is static, and without development; a sequence of images which collectively make up a story. There were a few exceptions, for example, the very very final scene in which the workers boss and the man who runs the town spend an inordinate amount of time deciding whether to shake hands or not.

SPOILER ALERT: The mediator between the hand and the head must be the heart, whatever that means.

Everyone scorns the 1980s colorized version with a soundtrack by the likes of Freddie Mercury and Adam Ant, but it occurs to me that it would be an interesting film-school project to re-edit the movie, reducing the length of each scene from say, 10 seconds to 5, and thus halving the overall length. Would that make it less of a slog? Or is it important to the pacing that we look at “John Fredersen sitting at his desk for 10 seconds” before we see “Freder opening door of his father’s office” for a further 10 seconds?

I don’t know if the music for the restored version had anything to do with Fritz Lang, but it sounded pretty Wagnerian and gave me the sense that I was watching something more like a concert or an opera than a film.

How was it presented in Olden Times? Did people see Metropolis at their local pleasure palace, in a triple bill with Charlie Chaplain and Rudolph Valentino, or were there silent arts-houses where serious minded Marxists watched in cerebral appreciation? Come to that, did people watch it all the way through, or was it a vast, impressive spectacle that you drifted in and out of? The final few centuries certainly turn into a Perils of Pauline melodrama in which Freder and Maria rescue the workers childen from a very impressive flood, which makes one think that it was trying to appeal to the plebians as well as the cognoscenti.

Some of the imagery is very impressive. The “machine man” (the word “robot” wasn’t quite current) is still a striking creation, and would be so even if George Lucas hadn’t swiped the design for C3P0. The cityscapes still look pretty breathtaking: I suppose because we still use art deco imagery to represent “the future”. But of course the futuristic flyovers are populated with what look to us like old-fashioned, vintage motor cars. Buildings may literally scrape the sky, but everyone uses fountain pens and box files; offices and apartments haven’t changed since the 1920s.

I enjoyed the vast crowd scenes. I quite like the idea of a science fiction movie which can veer off into a. retelling of the Tower of Babel or show the seven deadly sins performing a literal dans macabre. (I think that would have improved Blade Runner no end.) Fashions change: but what was then presumably a “classically good looking bloke” now comes across as “comically camp”; particularly when he appears to be wearing lederhosen.

Art is created by technology. If there had been better colour printing facilities in the 1960s, no-one would have created superheroes. Microphone technology has to reach a certain level before a singer can start to croon. The fact that it took us thirty years to work out how to lip-sync sound to moving pictures forced this strange, visual style of storytelling into being. We can feel that a four hunded year old Shakespeare text is fresh and contemporary; but after barely a hundred years, the silent movie seems almost unintelligible.

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