The first silent film I’ve watched in this little experiment, is the German Sci-Fi masterpiece Metropolis. I say “masterpiece” as that’s the prevailing wisdom, though the film isn’t perfect.
First the interesting thing about this movie is there are no original cuts remaining of the film. Between WWII and continual re-editing of the movie (which was not popular at the time) most of the versions we have today are missing large portions of the film. In 2008 A 16mm version of most of the film was found and used with higher resolution copies to created a version that’s considered to be 95% restored. This is the version you can see on Netflix currently. as the title card that the beginning explains, portions of the film look damaged because they’re from the Argentina reel and other portions which are still omitted are described by title cards.
The movie had a rather inauspicious start. Film critics at the time didn’t like it. (yes, hard to believe, but there were film critics in the 20s) One described it as “A visual masterpiece with feet of clay.” Others said that it was overly philosophical and self-important. Interesting that even this early in film history there was a dividing line between cinemaaah (pushes glasses up the bridge of nose) and movies for the masses. In my own opinion I do think this movie was cutting edge, which may have weirded some people out, but I don’t think it would be accurate to call it “ahead of it’s time.” Considering most of the special effect methods used had all been used in other films. However, one way it may arguably have been ahead of its time was its two-hour length. At a time when most “feature” films were only an hour and a half, this movie had the guts to go over two hours – which actually garnered much criticism at the time, but in all honesty two hours is pretty long for a silent film. Despite the bap press, one person who did like it was Hitler’s head of propaganda. Joseph Goebbles said thought it was a great social justice piece. So if you like it, just keep that in mind. (You win again Godwin!)
Nevertheless the film is a marvel. It’s a technical achievement that at least deserves respect due to its use of matte paintings and miniatures to create a fairly cohesive and visually impressive spectacle. The story is about the son of the futuristic City’s “master” who falls in love with a woman from “the depths” where the workers for the city all live. Because of her he hears the plight of the workers and tries to speak to his father. Later he goes to the machine halls himself and takes the place of a worker. Eventually the father has the woman Abducted and replaced with an evil robot version of herself that incites riots. As crazy as it sounds, I would actually love to see a modern reinterpretation of the same story.
Silent film is such a different medium than modern film. The reality is heightened in much the way it might be for a stage play. The acting is exaggerated to the point of appearing silly. Because so much depends on title cards there can’t be too much depth in the dialogue. While this doesn’t negate the achievement of these films at their time, I believe it is a little absurd to compare them to films of today which have the advantage of full sound, color, modern acting techniques, and greater visual sophistication provided by modern filming methods and effects. Yes, I dare say it: movies have gotten better since 1927. I say this not as much for the benefit of my readers, but more for those film snobs who will bring up Metropolis as the greatest Sci-Fi film of all time. It’s an achievement for its time, but it is crazy to act like we haven’t GREATLY improved upon it since then. I’m quite certain that the movie’s creators would agree if they could see even the original Star Wars, The Matrix, or even most of the comic book movies of the last fifteen years.
Having said all this I don’t want to take away from the impressive feat that Metropolis was at the time of its production. There was nothing quite like it and it took risks. It successfully Biblical passages (though some of it was more appropriating Biblical imagery than it was actually using real passages.) It’s plot is thought out, even having foreshadowing and symbols throughout. As a fan of sci-fi I respect it, if for no other reason than it helped pave the way for other speculative fiction in film.