Saturday, 18 November 2017


Attenborough Centre For the Creative Arts, Falmer, Sat 11th Nov

Before the review proper, two quite hefty caveats. Factory Floor found themselves unable to perform their soundtrack live as originally intended, through circumstances which may well have been unavoidable. But rather than offering ticket-holders either refund or discount, the venue instead promised a fiver off a future show. None of which I’ve any interest in seeing. I’d have probably still gone had a refund been offered, but that was the thing to do in the circumstances.

Then, only after the film began, did it become clear it was being shown without English subtitles. (Yes, I do know the story. Not the point.) I imagined at the time that must have been an affectation of the band’s, perhaps some notion of ‘authenticity’. But YouTube footage (clip below) shows them performing to a subtitled version. Such shoddy behaviour probably wouldn’t put me off something I really wanted to see, but I’ll be avoiding ACCA for impulse purchases. Fool me twice, shame on you.

Dan O'Bannon famously said “I didn’t steal ’Alien’ from anywhere, I stole it from everywhere”. Similarly, as an early classic of science fiction cinema ’Metropolis’ (1927) hasn’t influenced anything so much as everything. It would be harder to find something, film or visual art, which didn’t bear it’s imprint to some degree. The maschinenmensch (as it’s called without subtitles) isn’t just the poster girl of the film but an icon of science fiction in general. She unsurprisingly featured in the Barbican’s recent science fiction exhibition.

And it’s a film whose meaning is on the surface, residing in it’s images rather than the somewhat haphazard plot. Nevertheless, for the few who don’t know... protagonist Freder, despite being the son of the “Master”, resolves to explore the lower depths of the titular future city. In this way he’s quite an Orwellian figure, a toff who doesn’t plonk flags on distant lands but ventures into the parts of his own society he’d normally be kept away from. Certainly, he explains his motives with “I wanted to look into the faces of the people whose little children are my brothers, my sisters.” And by co-incidence, Orwell’s experiences which came to be written up as ‘Down and Out in Paris and London’, though not published till ‘33, were pretty much contemporary to this.

On the other hand he may just be mindful he’s talking to his father here, for he actually goes to the Lower City chasing a girl. In fact he’s something of an Alice, with Maria his ever-out-of-reach white rabbit. He spends much of his time wandering through a world incomprehensible to him. There’s a repeated motif of him staggering a few steps forwards, magnetised by some new sight, then stumbling to a bewildered halt. He’s beset by visions, which at one point leave him bed-ridden. Only in the third act does he switch into a more conventional heroic role. For most of the time he’s less do-er than witness. And in many ways our reaction, both to city and film, is his.

Let’s pull back slightly, to that much-celebrated opening montage. It’s largely effective because it makes clear ’Metropolis’ is primarily about Metropolis. To paraphrase the Red Queen, all the ways around the city belong to the city itself. The montage suggests it’s less architecture than mechanism, moving to a clockwork order. Later it seems that the cars that cross the high carriageways are themselves part of the machine, stopping as abruptly as it does, like it’s all some life-size diorama. Most of these workings are invisible to it’s population, or at least to the top-dwelling toffs, like the pipes and wires in our homes are hidden from our view. But it’s laid bare to the viewer from the start.

Like that earlier German silent classic ‘The Cabinet of Dr Caligari’, ‘Metropolis’ could be said to use the artifice of cinema to convey the alienation of the contemporary urban environment. The workers are shown as ancillary to their machines, shuffling to and from shifts as if on a production line themselves. Fredersen may be the city’s “Master”, his office holding a commanding view. But it’s so large, it’s doors not just oversize but with handles absurdly high, it’s as if he’s trying to sport a suit too big for him. He issues commands, but is more often taken by surprise by events.

As part of this machine motif clocks, dials, maps, diagrams and numbers are everywhere. And yet there’s also hallucinations, catacombs, cathedrals and an ending borrowed pretty much wholesale from ’The Hunchback of Notre Dame’ (1923). Freder’s frequent hallucinations, rather than being delineated as Hollywood flashbacks would, permeate their surroundings until the whole film becomes a phantasmagoria. The frequent montages enable their spread. Despite the setting characters don’t wear the futuristic tunics we now expect from science fiction but contemporary clothes. They even drive contemporary cars, as if in an achronic dream where realities are jumbled up.

In the famous sequence where Freder takes over a worker’s shift the task (pointing clock arms at alternately lit bulbs) seems less purposeful labour and more fairground game. On release, no less than HG Wells accused it of “muddleness about mechanical progress and progress in general.” But he was forcing his own expectations on the film, then lambasting it for his failure to make them stick.

For, and again like ‘Dr Caligari’, beneath the futuristic surface it’s a self-consciously Gothic story. The workers have their own city “deep below the earth’s surface”. (No, not quarters. Their own underground city.) But beneath those lie the catacombs. And Metropolis is portrayed as but the reprise of Babylon, doomed to relive it’s doom. (The film evokes then plays fast and loose with the Biblical Babylon, but then that tale had become a folk meme long before.) All of which enables the Gothic tropes of the present never truly overwriting the past and the ego never truly overcoming the id, made manifest by the rising waters which flood the workers’ city.

The two collide most clearly in Rotwang, deranged inventor and villain of the piece. He’s the most pro-active character in the film, certainly more than the witness Freder, the so-called Master or the counsellor of inaction Maria. Yet, in a typical paradox, he hasn’t built this city but instead plans to destroy it. His activity he uses disruptively. His house isn’t at all futuristic but like a cottage from a folk tale, complete with pentagram on the door. When Freder is trapped there, it seems to happen more by magic than science. The trapdoor it contains, allowing him to pass between the levels of the city, make him quite a shamanic figure. In some ways his role is similar to the Joker’s in ’Dark Knight’, he arrives late to the film and seems set on systematically wrecking anything and everything around him.

He plans to achieve this, naturally enough, by building a robot duplicate of the saintly Maria – in order to lead the workers astray. The sheer bizarreness of the machine Maria being the sexy one is played up as she dances at the Yoshiwara club, actor Brigitte Helm giving her exaggerated hyper-sexualised movements at the same time as strange jerks of the head. These seem at the same time deeply weird and uncannily prophetic of modern pop videos. (Wikipedia lists videos by Madonna, Kylie Minogue and Lady Gaga as directly influenced by her.) 
The strangeness is perhaps exceeded only by the burning of a bad robot at the stake.

‘Metropolis’ is very much an industrial era film, it’s mighty mechanical parts issuing great flurries of steam stemming from a time where machinery genuinely risked exploding. Whereas the score is provided by electronica outfit Factory Floor, described by Wikipedia as post-industrial. Even their name recalls Factory Records which, as every post-punk trainspotter knows, was named after all the contemporary “factory closing down” signs.

Yet that becomes precisely what makes the soundtrack so effective. It’s a cliché of course to claim electronic music is “about alienation”, but then cliches are often like coins made grubby from too much handling - a little polishing can bring back their shine. But more importantly its ‘haunted machine’ aesthetic contains hints of human voices and traces of more conventional instruments, violins from Venus.

Hollywood devices, such as giving each character their motif, would be worse that useless here. If this soundtrack was a character from the film it would either be the city itself or Rotwang, with his one human and one robot hand. It’s also quite unperformative, frequently unafraid to be repetitive when that’s enough to evoke the required mood. At the end, rather than finish on a flourish it slowly ebbs away, in fact lasting longer than many in the audience.

Alas, however, there’s times where it falls into disco beats. Which are not only intrusive but way too rock video, making the film appear some Gothic dystopian version of ‘Jailhouse Rock’. The end of the second act particularly suffered from these. At which point I feared for the finale, though happily that worked much better.

(Admittedly, I may have baggage here. I endured the period where it was only possible to see this film via the 1984 Giorgio Moroder version, with Freddie Mercury and Bonnie Tyler warbling away over it. Which seemed a worse fate than not being able to see it at all.)

It’s possibly a mark of the effectiveness of the soundtrack that I saw the film so much through it’s filter. (Seeing it un-subtitled may also hold a sway, pushing you away from the plot to see the film as a cascade of images. Even if it’s pretty much like that anyway.) And, perhaps unsurprisingly for our times, that filter filters out much of its political implications.

...and there we might have left it. Yet the film continued to marinate around in my brain. So please consider the rest of this review an optional extra after Factory Floor left the building...

On release, it was not just re-cut but, by altering the inter-titles, rescripted to remove allegedly communist sympathies. While Goebbles lauded the film, claiming it heralded how "the political bourgeoisie is about to leave the stage of history.” Which seems particularly bizarre in retrospect. The ordered, autocratic world of ’Metropolis’ seems to us more a warning of the incoming fascist regime than a commentary on its contemporary Weimar world. Had it been a truly fascist film surely Freder would have deposed his weak-willed Father, and ruled by imposing his will but on the workers’ behalf. Was Goebbles simply engaged in the typical fascist activity of territorial annexation?

The workers are shown to be not just enlisted but themselves destroyed by the forces of production, as much fuel as they are parts. Bad Maria has a point when she says “Who is the living food for the machines in Metropolis - ? Who lubricates the machine joints with their own blood - ? Who feeds the machines with their own flesh - ? Let the machines starve, you fools - ! Let them die - ! Kill them - the machines - !” This in itself is a genuinely communist statement, for all that it’s wrapped up in Gothic trappings. But then how are those workers depicted?

Unsurprisingly the good/bad Marias are included in TV Tropes’ examples of the Madonna Whore complex. (Though, for some reason, bad Maria doesn’t make the cut for Evil is Sexy.) But, at their beck and call of both Marias, the workers effectively take up the same dichotomy. They either sacrifice themselves to the machines (literalised in Freder’s vision) or destroy them in a deranged frenzy, oblivious to the warning that this means destroying themselves.

Crowds are a mass of bodies reduced to a single head. (And someone should really compare Bad Maria’s suggestive stirring up of the workers to Lenin’s speechifying in ’October.’) Class revolt is reduced to brute urges. Could the workers could use the machines for their own ends, or make their own machines more to their liking? Not something which come up.

And how does the film end? With the phrase “HEAD and HANDS need a mediator. THE MEDIATOR BETWEEN HEAD AND HANDS MUST BE THE HEART!” (The film’s capitals.) Fredersen's problem is not that he’s autocratic or exploits the workers, but that he’s remote, unknowing and hence uninterested. But Freder, now he’s visited the workers’ city, can be that mediator. Society doesn’t need reorganising, the body politic just requires pulling together. Now we can all get along.

And for a film with such a strange love-hate relationship to machines, this patented fix is very mechanistic. For the thing to work all the parts need to be synched up. The main machine set, the one we see the workers destroy, is even called the Heart machine – as if one heart replaces another.

So the slightly less exciting answer is that the film is neither communist nor fascist but mainstream social democratic. Yet it was made in a time when communism was still making its presence felt. Revolution was not the threat it had been a decade earlier, but strong workers’ organisations persisted. So the film becomes like a magic spell where the workers rise up only to be assuaged, the more likely for that to be the result in real life. But its understanding of communism is equivalent of mine to German inter-titles – a pidgin communism, inadequate to the point of parodic. It’s seen as little more than the cry for help from the attempted suicide, filtered through some fear of the crowd.

And it’s precisely the engagement with this pidgin form of communism which makes the film so attractive to fascism. Fascism only came to power in countries with strong worker’s movements. It’s in essence a spoiler product for revolution, which must always dress it’s anti-revolutionary essence in revolutionary clothing. Goebbles’ quote above makes that perfectly clear. (Scriptwriter Thea von Hourben later embraced the Nazis, proving how easy was the slippage.)

And those references to the body politic as a metaphor for social cohesion, particularly when phrased in terms of calls to the workers, though here social democratic in expression – they hand some of that clothing to fascism. Having to take up some of the more formal aspects of communism while opposing it’s content, that effectively left fascism without a content. 

As Gilles Dauve commented “It's significant that fascism defined itself first as a form of organisation and not as a program. Its only program was to unite everyone into fasces, to force together all the elements making up society.” A Nazi speechmaker once genuinely said: "We don't want lower bread prices, we don't want higher bread prices, we don't want unchanged bread prices—we want National Socialist bread prices!"

Fascism is the fetishisation of unity masquerading as a programme. And Freder’s well-intentioned interventions in visiting the Lower City, they would help pave it’s path.

The classic montage opening (note, ACCA, with subtitles)…

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