Enjoy the silence

Yesterday I saw Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. Wow, what a movie.

The first time I saw it was years ago, when I was a kid. Yesterday was the second time, and amazingly, it all seemed fresh and familiar at the same time, no doubt thanks to the countless Sci Fi films I’ve seen since that have all been influenced in one way or another by this one-shot wonder.

Elaborate sets, thousands of extras, and fantastic special effects(!) that look impressive to this very day. When you watch it, a constant thought runs through your head:

This was done in 1927!!!

Metropolis seems so familiar because it influenced an entire genre. The industrial nightmare a big city has turned into. Workers in the depths, toiling. Nameless cogs in the nameless machine they themselves operate. They are just one more big machine in a city that has traded its soul for the temptations of technology.

The Boss’s son falls in love with a commoner and descends from the skyscraper where he lives (like a god) to the belly of the earth, and when he witnesses the exploitation and nightmarish existence there, he decides to do something about it, along with his charismatic beloved

But then, wouldn’t you know, his beloved is kidnapped by a mad scientist (yes, a mad scientist) who wishes to graft her face upon a Machine Man he has built in a sad attempt to revive his long lost love (echoes of Frankenstein here). His objective: To destroy Metropolis by destroying the machines which operate it. Hate breeds indiscriminate destruction. Sounds familiar?

There are so many powerful themes here which resonate to this very day: Man and Machine and our dangerous dependency on them, losing one’s humanity because of grief, love conquers all, the abyss that lies between the rich and the poor and volatility of it all. And all this is done without any spoken words, just inter-titles and the actors faces. When you look at Brigitte Helm’s face you don’t really need to hear anything. It’s there, in front of you, every emotion, every nuance, in all its glory.

There is something truly magical about silent cinema. It is so stylish, so unrealistic, it is a pure movie. Alfred Hitchcock, who began his illustrious career in silents, really didn’t like dialogue and in every picture he made tried to tell the story as visually as possible.

And who can blame him? Cinema is visual. There are so many films these days with endless yammering. Not everyone writes dialogue like Tarantino or David Mamet. I myself have a secret desire to do a silent film, or at least a film without dialogue, to feel what it’s like to make pure cinema. How rich. This is coming from a guy who’s just preparing to film a script with tons of dialogue.

At the end, I think it’s about the material. The story I want to tell with my current production can’t be told without dialogue. Its essence rests on the spoken word. When you are both the writer and the director, you find yourself in an odd position: For a writer, writing dialogue is the most enjoyable part of the job. You hear your characters speak. Up until now they were just thoughts, ideas, but the minute they open their mouths, they become people. But when you put on the director’s hat, you look at the script and think: “What’s with all that talking??” for a director, shooting two people talking is mostly boring stuff. You put the camera on one side, and then on the other side, and you do a two-shot, and that’s it. Sure, there are exceptions, but mostly, when you’re a director, you want to tell the story visually. There are dialogue scenes that are great not because what is being said but because what is not  being said. Seeing the actors think and react with their eyes and body language is much more interesting then hearing them talk.

Metropolis is a great example for the triumph of the image. This won’t work today. This movie is a time capsule in a way. A movie like this today would be considered a parody or an intersting experiment, but won’t stand on its own. We moved on, of course. Technology has turned cinema into a digital playground where anything is possible.

So why are there so few films that look and feel as impressive a Metropolis? Why do so few filmmakers utilize technology to tell a story instead of using a story to celebrate the Machine? Let us not forget Metropolis’ main theme and sage advise to us all: “There can be no understanding between the hand and the brain unless the heart acts as mediator”.

Or else, we are all just cogs.


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