Only to be cast on the funeral pyre
As often is the case, I’m not quite sure how I came to have Netflix send me the 1927 German film, Metropolis. But it finally moved to the top of my queue the other day and showed up in the mail box.
Directed by Fritz Lang, it’s considered by some to be one of the finest silent films ever made. A grim sci-fi flick, it’s a tale of a futuristic society ruled by a pampered elite who oppress a working class that dwells and toils in subterranean squalor.
The movie ticks all the usual horror show boxes. The mad scientist. A Frankenstein like monster. Also interesting in these days of acting understatement are the histrionic techniques typical of silent movies. The special effects were ground breaking for their era. Also featured is a cast of thousands that, at times, rush around the screen like ants whose nest has been kicked over.
It’s not possible to watch the film without thinking of the cataclysm that’s just over the horizon for Germany. And, indeed, the rest of Europe, Western Civilization and the world at large. Metropolis was produced during the brief, overripe cultural flowering of Germany’s post WW I Weimar Republic. It was only a few years before Hitler came to power and night descended.
The film’s an odd mixture of Christianity and Teutonic mysticism. The leading character, Freder, descends from the from his privileged existence in the exalted, upper reaches of Metropolis in pursuit of the beautiful, chaste Maria who becomes the hope of liberation for the machine like Untermenge who populate the underworld. There, amid sets littered with images of crucifixes on Golgotha, Freder and Maria quickly develop a romantic attachment.
Inevitably, complications and confusions arise, leading to an uprising of the near subhuman workers against the ruling class. The violence destroys the pumps that prevent the underworld from flooding. Further misled by an evil double of Maria created by Rotwang, the mad scientist, the workers rush to the surface intent on overthrowing their overlords. In the chaos, the workers’ wives and children are left behind in the rising waters. But for the heroic efforts of Freder and Maria, all would perish in the flood.
A brand plucked from the fire
Lang went to great lengths to achieve realism in the film. For the flooding scenes, he recruited 500 children from Berlin’s poorest neighborhoods. By the time shooting was finished after 14 grueling days in water that Lang intentionally kept at low temperatures, the look of terror and exhaustion that appears on the children’s faces required no great acting skill.
In 1709 five year old John Wesley miraculously escaped from the upper floor of his family’s home when a late night fire burned the structure to the ground. Years later, Wesley went on to lead a powerful Christian religious revival that swept over first England, then America, and eventually the world in the form of Methodism. Wesley considered his escape from the blaze that destroyed his family’s home to be providential and later quoted from Zechariah 3:2 to describe it: “a brand plucked out of the fire.”
Only to be cast back on the funeral pyre
As I watched Lang’s nightmare vision of children of eight or ten years slogging through frigid water, it became obvious that Lang’s child actors weren’t as fortunate as the young John Wesley.
My mind drifted away to scenes far more dreadful than silver screen cataclysms. How many of Lang’s child actors, in real life, would be somehow crippled and declared by the Nazis to have a “life unworthy of life”-and then euthanized? And, for those “lucky” enough to be fit for military service, then to be killed or maimed serving Hitler’s war machine in WWII, the bloodiest conflict in human history? Or, if the child was a Jew, perish in one of the Nazi’s death camps? Or serve as a guard in one of the concentration camps infamous Death’s Heads units?
Of those 500 children cast as extras in Lang’s movie, whose faces flicker across the gray screen from so long ago, it’s certain that many of them were characters in one of history’s most horrific, real life horror shows.
So, by all means watch Metropolis. But prepare to be haunted by something far more disturbing than cheap cinematic thrills.