Today’s post, in which I bestow a “filmmaker of the year” honor, is the first of three offering a highly personal round-up of the year in movies. It will be followed in the next two weeks by posts relating my ten favorite home video releases of 2010 and my ten favorite theatrically released movies of 2010. So stay tuned . . .
During the past calendar year, the single filmmaker whose work inspired me the most was not Abbas Kiarostami, Apichatpong Weerasethakul nor David Fincher, even though that esteemed trio was collectively responsible for directing the three best new films I saw in 2010. Instead, I’d like to bestow my first annual White City Cinema Filmmaker of the Year honor on a man who was born 120 years ago this month, died in 1975 and directed his last film in 1960. A pioneer of the German Expressionist movement who became a master of American film noir. A director of stunningly composed geometric images whose dispassionate view of the individual’s relationship to society made him, along with Shohei Imamura, cinema’s greatest entomologist. A man who habitually wore a monocle (but only for dramatic effect), told self-mythologizing tall tales about his filmmaking career in Weimar-era Berlin, had a reputation for being sadistic to actors, and included a shot of his own hands in every single one of his films. Of course I mean Fritz Lang.
Like all great film artists, Lang’s best work continues to look better over time and has remained relevant to generations of cinephiles in ways that Lang himself probably never could have anticipated. 2010 saw yet another restoration/re-release of Lang’s seminal Metropolis, one of the most famous of all science fiction movies, albeit in a new cut that restored the film to something closely approximating its original length for the first time since its 1927 premiere. (Now missing only about 5 minutes of footage, this is likely the most complete the film will ever be.) After a successful theatrical run, especially for a silent film, the “complete” Metropolis was released as a perfect Blu-ray disc by Kino in November. Additionally, 2010 saw the Criterion Collection release M, Lang’s first sound film and arguably the greatest German movie of all time, in a spiffy new Blu-ray edition that easily superseded all previous home video releases. If that weren’t enough, Lang’s Moonfleet from 1955, highly regarded in auteurist circles, received its U.S. DVD debut courtesy of the Warner Archives label and his final Hollywood film, the superb noir While the City Sleeps from 1956, received its world DVD debut from the UK label Exposure. (I didn’t buy these last two however; I’ve got to eat too, for God’s sake!) Revisiting Metropolis and M, arguably the twin peaks of Lang’s career, in their newest incarnations, was simply the most fun I had at the movies this year. For me, 2010 was truly the year of the Fritz.
The story of the many lives of Metropolis is by now familiar; after its disappointing German premiere, the film was drastically cut by UFA, the studio that had allowed Lang to realize his ambitious and expensive folly. Metropolis has seemingly been in a state of perpetual “restoration” ever since, including a misguided 1984 version supervised by composer Giorgio Moroder that featured an incongruous pop music soundtrack, and a much-ballyhooed 2001 “re-construction” that was thought to be definitive. Then, in 2008, a 16mm print of Metropolis was found in an archive in Buenos Aires that ran almost 30 minutes longer than any previously known version. This print, in admittedly poor condition and in a different aspect ratio than the original film, was sent to Berlin where the F.W. Murnau Foundation (the film’s official rights holder) performed a digital clean-up of the “missing scenes” and integrated them into the 2001 restoration. This Metropolis was given a rapturously received re-premiere at the Berlin International Film Festival in February and the rest, as they say, is history.
I hasten to add that I think the newly restored footage, which I first saw projected at the Music Box over the summer, made a world of difference in my estimation of Metropolis as a whole. While it still isn’t my personal favorite silent Lang (that would be the apocalyptic, two-part Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler from 1922 and the prototypical espionage thriller Spies from 1928), the “complete” Metropolis has fleshed out a couple of previously sketchy subplots that give the film a greater sense of harmony and balance. I also found that the film’s controversial ending, much derided even by some of Lang’s admirers, works for me in a way that it never did before. I can only concur with Roger Ebert when he called this new/old version the “film event of the year.”
The aspect of Metropolis that seems most prescient today may be its depiction of class warfare; the futuristic city of the title is only able to function because of a slave-labor system that keeps the working class confined to a world that is literally underground. While many other sci-fi movies have since come and gone that look dated in their attempts at allegorizing contemporary issues (the now long-gone Cold War, for instance), I think Metropolis still looks an awful lot like the world we’re living in. Specifically, it looks like Dubai. Lang brings this futuristic world to life through a pioneering use of special effects, all of which still have the ability to impress and charm (and which clearly exerted an influence on everything from Dr. Strangelove to Star Wars to Blade Runner to The Fifth Element to even the sci-fi sections of Wong Kar-Wai’s 2046). However, the most impressive “effect” in Metropolis for me remains the performance of nineteen year old Brigitte Helm, who positively dazzles as the wholesome and beautiful workers’ advocate Maria as well as the sensual, evil robot designed in her image. Eighty three years after the film’s premiere, it remains a real pleasure to watch Helm act the hell out of this dual role.
The symmetry that’s brought into focus with the restored footage is Lang’s doppelganger motif, which previously encompassed the divide between underground/above ground, workers/bourgeoisie and human Maria/robot Maria. The new restoration fully fleshes out Lang’s schema so that similar doublings occur between the film’s other major characters: Georgy 11811, a member of the slave-like proletariat trades places with Freder, the aristocratic son of Fredersen, Metropolis’ autocratic ruler. Georgy 11811 explores Metropolis’ seamier side (such as the delightfully decadent Yoshiwara club where the robot Maria performs an outrageous production number designed to inspire impure thoughts); for his part, Freder discovers the hard way, through monotonous, back-breaking labor, what exactly makes his father’s city run. But the most crucial doubling seen in the restored footage is one of the most fleeting sequences: Fredersen and Dr. Rotwang, the mad scientist who creates the robot Maria, commiserate at the foot of a monument to Hel, the woman whom both men loved and lost.
The doppelganger motif, a favorite device of German Expressionism in general and Lang in particular, also rears its head in M. Thanks to Criterion’s Blu-ray, the dichotomy drawn by Lang between the police and the criminal underworld in 1931 Berlin is thrown into sharper relief than ever before. But where Metropolis comes much closer to “pure” Expressionism, M mixes Expressionist techniques with elements of the police procedural and the serial killer thriller (both of which it can be seen as having written the playbook on) in a way that anticipates film noir; suspense is built not only through the film’s plotting but through the tension that arises between its stylized, abstract qualities (high contrast lighting, overhead angles, recurring images of a spiral) and its more conventional narrative elements.
What was ultimately being “expressed” in the German Expressionism movement were the innermost thoughts and feelings of a film’s characters, which Expressionist filmmakers attempted to externalize through a distorted and exaggerated mise-en-scene. Sci-fi, fantasy and horror were popular Expressionist genres precisely because they were the most conducive to extreme stylization of cinematography, lighting and set design. When M was released, the Expressionist movement was effectively over and yet stylistic traces remain; the film’s Expressionist qualities mainly concern the subjective experiences of Hans Beckert (the serial killer expertly played by bug-eyed Peter Lorre) as he stalks the streets of Berlin, but they co-exist with narrative qualities that occasionally achieve a documentary-like realism: the film begins with the sound of a gong like that heard before radio news reports in Germany at the time. Many of the scenes involving both the police and criminal underworlds contain “inventory shots,” in which Lang’s camera objectively surveys the tools of the trade of each group. Some early montage scenes, in which we see a police dragnet widening day-by-day as the search for the heinous child killer expands, come across like something out of a police training film.
My favorite aspect of M though is the film’s innovative sound design, which is saying a lot given Lang’s visual mastery. In 1931, Hollywood films had taken a huge step backwards in terms of visual sophistication due to the difficulties of early sound recording. Additionally, even the best Hollywood directors of the time were frequently saddled with “dialogue directors” brought in from the world of theater by untrusting studio executives. As a result, most American films of the early sound era look static, theatrical and uncinematic. Fritz Lang, on the other hand, saw creative possibilities for the use of sound while simultaneously refusing to allow his camerawork to suffer. Instead, sound and image work together in M in a kind of relay; indeed, it was the first film in which the sound of a character’s voice from one scene was carried over into another scene set in a different location. Intercutting between two groups of people in two different locations (the police and the criminals), Lang reinforces the parallel between them by having them seemingly finish each other’s sentences. At other times, Lang shuts the soundtrack off entirely to convey a feeling of eerie quiet. And, finally, there is the absence of a traditional musical score. Instead, the only music heard in the film is Beckert’s whistling of “In the Hall of the Mountain King,” which allows the audience to identify the killer even when he is not onscreen.
One of the welcome supplements on Criterion’s M Blu-ray is M le maudit, a short film tribute/remake by the late, great Claude Chabrol. This is fitting as no other director in the history of cinema proved to be as astute a student of Lang as did Chabrol. However, as masterful as Chabrol at his best could undoubtedly be, even this tribute underscores the idea that Lang is a cinematic giant precisely because he did it all first. Lang’s best movies deserve to be re-discovered by each new generation of film buffs, as Metropolis and M continually have been, whether by theatrical revival or in new transfers on the latest home video technology. And if that final missing five minutes of Metropolis ever does turn up, I’ll be first in line to see it again.