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The history of film dates back several centuries to the time when people used shadow patterns to tell stories. However, it was only in the twentieth century that it became possible to store films for multiple screenings. The development of the photographic film made the production of moving pictures possible. This was an innovative application of still photography. The technologies used in still photography were the basis for the development of the first motion picture films. Motion pictures did not have sound. One of the effects of the sound gap was that the original motion pictures were comedies. Producers soon adopted live music to compensate for lack of sound. Some directors opted to use live actors to voice words in the silent films. This paper focuses on a silent film called Metropolis released in 1927. The film is very significant in the history of film because it represents the golden age of the silent film era.
Production of the Film
The production process of a film plays an important part in the critical appraisal of the film. Critics try to match their expectations to the efforts made to produce a film. Therefore, the critical appraisal of Metropolis requires a review of its plot, cast, filming, releases, and restoration history.
The setting of the silent film is a futuristic city ruled by the elite from tall towers (Brooke, 2011). A lower class of residents worked in the city’s dungeons to generate the power needed to run the city. The ruler of the city was a ruthless man named Joh Fredersen. He was one of the few people who know of the existence of the dungeons. In one of the opening scenes, Fredersen’s son, named Freder was whiling his time away with the children of other wealthy people. A woman named Maria barged in with poor children from the city’s dungeon. Her intention was to show the poor children how the rich lived. The guards quickly whisked Maria and the children away. Her courage impressed Freder, who then decided to go and find her in the city’s dungeons. Freder had never visited the dungeons before.
Life in the Dungeons shocked Freder. He went and switched places with a city worker to get a better idea of the life the workers led. In the process, he witnessed an explosion that killed some of the workers. This shocked him profoundly. He then rushed off to tell his father about the explosion. His father became very furious because his aide failed to notify him of the accident. Freder then went to find Maria after hearing of prophesies about a future mediator who would unite the two classes of the city. The two groups did not interact and they are oblivious of each other’s existence. He convinced himself that he could fulfill this role. Through this, Freder found his purpose by trying to unite the city’s elite with the workers.
As this story plays out, Frederson tried to destroy Maria’s reputation by abducting Maria and releasing her double. Maria’s double went round the city causing mayhem, mainly by seduction. She caused the death of many people who lusted after her, and became willing to die for her. The story ends when Maria and Freder meet at a Cathedral, and Freder is able to fill the role of mediator in Metropolis.
Most of the cast in the film were novices and first timers in the film industry. It is unclear why the director chose to use unknown people in the film. The main actors in film included Gustav Fröhlich who played the role of Freder. Fröhlich was a novice actor with barely five years acting experience. He landed one of the main roles in Metropolis because of his outstanding work in other projects. Brigitte Helm played the role of Maria as well as Maria’s double. This was Helm’s first appearance in a film. The role prepared her for thirty more film roles in her career as an actor. Alfred Abel played Joh Fredersen, the ruler of Metropolis. Abel had the longest acting career among the cast chosen to handle title roles in Metropolis. He had been active in film and theatre since 1913.
The filming of Metropolis took a whole year, starting in 1925. Most of the actors later recalled the incessant demands made by the director (Minden, 2000). He was relentless and made the actors repeat the scenes many times until the scene was perfect. Some scenes took up to fourteen days in cold water to shoot. The film had some pioneering technologies such as the use mirrors and miniature sets (Russel, 2003). The technologies were the precursors of modern visual effects in film production.
The release of the film went through several stages. The original film as directed by Fritz Lang went to a Berlin theatre in January 1927 (Eureka Entertainment, 2010). This version was more than two hours long. However, the audience liked the film very much. Shorter versions of the film came out after some editing work to cut the length of the film. The first release of a shortened version was in March 1927 in the UK and the US (Eureka Entertainment, 2010). The goal of shortening the film was to optimize its financial performance. Other releases in the months that followed were to rid the film of communist ideas and references to religion (Stoicea, 2006). One of the effects of many revisions of the film was the loss of some sections. The most complete restoration came out in 2010, after the discovery of some portions that were lost since the twenties (Eureka Entertainment, 2010).
Initial Critical Response
Film critics were very harsh in their initial reviews of Metropolis. Several reasons contributed to the harsh treatment of the film by critics. First, the film had little-known actors playing the lead roles (Russel, 2003). For instance, Brigitte Helm was only eighteen years old when she played Maria (Stoicea, 2006). The decision to give the pivotal role to a novice actor made critics feel that the production lacked excellence. At the time of the release of Metropolis, the film industry was in its formative stages. This made the choice of cast a critical decision for movie producers. Well-known names always attracted the attention of audiences.
The second issue raised by critics was the length of the film. The length of the original film was two hours and thirty-three minutes. This duration attracted the wrath of both critics and marketers who then pushed for the reduction of its length. The subsequent releases in various countries around the world were all shortened versions. The nature of the version depended on the person who commissioned it. The concern of most critics was that the film was too long for ordinary theatre patrons (Brooke, 2011). Most films at the time were not more than one and a half hours long. Metropolis was too long in comparison.
A review by the New York Times judged the film very harshly. The critics felt that the film was too grandiose. In many ways, the film was more outlandish than other films of its time. Its length, its graphics, and its cast were all different from mainstream films. In this regard, the film attracted negative reviews from New York Times critics for its attempts to break from the mold (Eureka Entertainment, 2010). The critics felt that the film consumed too many resources and did not deliver full dividends commensurate with the resources. In the same vein, the critics questioned the motives of the director because of the decisions he had made during the filming process such as staging novice actors.
Some critics took issue with the plot of the film. The film’s premise was that the heart is what connects the hands and the brain. This premise is false because the brain has direct links to the hands. Critics also questioned the need for several plots and subplots in the film. In their view, the complicated plots made it very difficult for audiences to follow the film. In fact, the people who watched the film to the end watched it because of its superior technical appeal and not to hear its story (Stoicea, 2006). The revisions of the film featured changes in the plot by eliminating unnecessary scenes. At the time, this seemed like the best solution for handling the perceived problems of the film.
Lastly, critics took issue with some parts of the film because it borrowed heavily from other works. The critics felt that the film lacked originality in its plot. These critics felt that the film’s superior technical qualities were not a substitute for originality. The film had some themes from films like Frankenstein (Minden, 2000). The concept of Maria’s body double was very similar to the plot in Frankenstein. They both involved restoring someone after death. Therefore, this similarity among others led critics to believe that the film lacked originality.
Current Critical Response
The critical response to Metropolis evolved over time. Currently, the film enjoys a wider acceptance among theatre lovers and critics. The journey took many turns. The most important critic of the film was the director himself. Fritz Lang was not impressed with his own work. He hated the fascination the Nazis developed for the film. The film impressed the Nazis because of its social justice theme (Minden, 2000). It seemed to capture the central Nazi message. Fritz did not like the Nazis, and he fled to the US during the early years of their rule. Apart from this, Lang felt the film’s basic premise was stupid. He had imagined too much when he made the film, hence the apparent appearance of stupidity in the film.
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After the original release of the film in 1927, it went through several phases that culminated in a restoration effort that led to a second release of the full film in 2010 (Eureka Entertainment, 2010). The restoration of the film aimed at presenting the film as originally conceptualized by Fritz Lang. This restored film came to the theatres in 2010 and has received a better critical appraisal compared to the original release (Eureka Entertainment, 2010). The reasons for the improved critical acclaim vary. First, the film has become an icon because it stands out as a marvel from its time.
When Lang released the film in 1927, it faced competition from other films in that era. The standards at the time meant that Metropolis had to carve a niche for itself as part of the films produced in that era. However, in 2010, the film was a historical marvel. Very few films from the twenties achieved that status. The people who watch the film today identify with it because it was a futuristic film. The future Lang created is the reality of the viewers of the film today. In this regard, the film’s prophetic themes stand fulfilled today.
Before the current release, some producers attempted to restore the film, but portions of it were lost. The earlier restorations met with little success. They did not leave a strong mark among the critics. One interesting change in the critical review of the film is from New York Times. The New York Times dismissed the original film as a marvel without foundations (Brooke, 2011). In 2010, the New York Times described the film as a “classic” (Eureka Entertainment, 2010). This shows that the reputation of the film changed with time even among the same critics. The film earned respect over time, as the implications of its plot and the appreciation of its technical production grew.
The lessons that arise from the critical reviews of this film are as follows. First, a great film does not always seem impressive during its release. It takes time for people to appreciate the film. This implies that a reviewer needs to look at both the initial criticisms and subsequent criticisms to determine the real worth of a film. The second lesson is that the critical review of a film depends on its relevance at a given time.
When Lang first produced the film, the film industry was not as keen on technical aspects of production compared to today. In this regard, the average filmgoers today will appreciate Lang’s efforts to produce a remarkable film better, especially considering that he did not have access to modern technologies. In addition, the themes presented by Lang in the film appeal to viewers today because they were futuristic. In other words, Lang imagined the current world. Viewers can now check Lang’s predictions with current realities to confirm the accuracy of his imagination.
The main conclusions from this work are as follows. First, Fritz Lang committed considerable resources to produce Metropolis. His efforts paid off many years later when the film rose to become a well-respected classic in film circles. Secondly, the initial critical reviews of the film were mostly negative because the film was very outlandish. It dealt with things that were relevant to a future world that was beyond the imagination of its immediate audience. In addition, it seemed to borrow from other productions in its time such as Frankenstein. Thirdly, the critical review of the film changed with time as an appreciation for Lang’s extraordinary efforts grew. The film stood out as a marvel because of its production quality. Subsequent restorations and releases helped to improve the reputation of the film. The film was ahead of its time by many decades.
Brooke, M. (2011). Metropolis. Sight and Sound , 21 (1), 96-97.
Eureka Entertainment. (2010). Metropolis. Web.
Minden, M. (2000). Fritz Lang’s Metropolis and the United States. German Life and Letters , 340-350.
Russel, C. (2003). Metropolis. Cineaste , 29 (1), 70-71.
Stoicea, G. (2006). Re-Producing the Class and Gender Divide: Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. Women in Germany Year Book , 11 (1), 22-26.