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Sorting out the Pulp: Cousin Films Made Half a Century Apart

The Expressionistic gloved fist : Rotwang, 1927.

Savant was watching Metropolis recently, and trying to figure out the best way to convey some of the finer points of Fritz Lang's science fiction epic, given the absence of a way of even SEEING the film in anything resembling how it premiered back in 1927 in Germany. Trying to sort out what Metropolis must have been like by watching any of the many versions out on video is a frustrating experience. There are several excellent websites on the subject, a few of which I've listed in SAVANT LINKS.

Let me run some circles around Metropolis before discussing its connection with Star Wars. (if you really have to skip down there, go to where Star Wars is written in RED. )

PART ONE: The Puzzle That is Fritz Lang's METROPOLIS

Several factors have contributed to the confusion over versions and running times of the film. First off is the fact that Lang himself seems to have continued cutting Metropolis even after it was finished. I'll refer readers to the stats in the specific websites for the details, but it looks as if what supposedly began as a three-hour film ended up being about two hours long when finally prepped for export. Variety's Berlin Review from Feb 23, 1927 gives no specific running time. The British Board of film Classification lists it as 118 minutes on its import into England in March of 1927. When shown in New York City (March 16), whose skyline had inspired Lang to make the film in the first place, it had dwindled to 107 minutes.

For its American version Paramount had new inter-title cards written, effectively re-writing the story. Joh Fredersen, Master of Metropolis, becomes for some reason John 'Masterman.' His son Freder becomes 'Eric.' Simplifications and ellipses create gaps in continuity and logic, and major characters disappear. For example, Fredersen's secretary Josaphat, whom young Freder saves from suicide, is absent for the bulk of the film but returns at the eleventh hour to help rescue the workers' children. The worker with whom Freder swaps roles disappears outright. And the activities of the False Maria are limited to a nude dance before she starts inciting the workers to revolt, which now has become the reason she was created in the first place.

The second confusion over Metropolis versions has to do with film speed. It wasn't until '27 -'28 that film projection settled into a constant 24 frames per second. When projected at that speed Metropolis can look pretty jerky and comical, especially the faster action scenes. Gustav Frölich is a particularly ridiculous sight sprinting around like Tinkerbelle in jodphurs when he's saving the heroine. Worse, the running time of Metropolis is impossible to nail down when the projection speed (almost never listed) is not part of its running-time data. This is why England's Monthly Film Bulletin lists silent films in meters, not minutes. And also why that 107 min. running time of the Paramount-New York version is probably the 80 - 85 min. standard version we've all seen.

Some of the better versions of Metropolis have tried to alleviate this speed problem, with variable results. A late '70's BBC reconstruction added a few shots, including some semi-nude 'Pleasure Garden Girls' glimpsed briefly when Freder romps with his preppy pals among the ferns and fountains. This presentation lasts about two hours and seems to be projecting the film at about16 or 18 frames per second. This lends the proceedings a certain gravity. The marching workers trod heavily instead of jerkily. Freder's mad dashes look blurry, but he moves at a more natural speed. This projection speed, coupled with a moody synthesized score that respects the rhythms of the film itself, is a real asset. Unfortunately the BBC's cutting and inter-titles are the American digest version. And the title cards haven't been trimmed to reflect the fact that the film is being projected more slowly. Each title card seems to last forever, bogging down the whole show.

This brings us to the notorious Giorgio Moroder version from 1983. Moroder sincerely wanted to present his favorite film for a modern audience and link it up with his electronic-based musical background. Much criticism has been leveled at him for adding rock lyrics to the mix, and for daring to put '80's music against Metropolis in the first place. Moroder also did some 'revising' of his own, adding moving skies to some scenes and selective color here and there, especially in the scene depicting the transfer of Maria's likeness to Rotwang's gunmetal femme Robotrix.

Savant wants to go on record as a booster of the Moroder version. Without it Metropolis would be far more obscure than it is now. Moroder's music is dramatic and powerful, even if it isn't always right on the mark. Cycle V's Blood From a Stone and Machines are solid on, even if some of the other songs (Loverboy's Destruction, Freddie Mercury's Love Kills) are lyrically too literal. Only Bonnie Tyler's Here She Comes is an outright hoot. It sounds fine on the album, Savant must admit. At a preview screening in 1983 the audience laughed it off the screen even while applauding the film as a whole.

Some of Moroder's alterations of the film are truly problematical. Since the only 35mm speed normal theaters can run is 24 fps, certain shots and parts of shots were double-printed to try to slow down the action, creating a mix of speeds that is distracting. While keeping expository inter-titles, Moroder elected to display dialogue with conventional subtitles, a stab at greater audience accessibility that definitely does not work. The 'dialog' not only doesn't fit whatever the German actors are saying, but removing those inter-titles creates a slew of jump cuts. Savant suspects some cutting was done to eliminate several of these. Finally, Moroder even cut some material that he supposedly felt didn't work, such as the semi-nude Garden Girls from the BBC version. Whether he did this for censor reasons (unlikely, with Maria dancing nude later?) or because test audiences laughed is not known. His version retains the other 'new' scenes from the Pleasure Garden so Savant assumes he had the Garden Girls as well.

The GREAT thing about the Moroder version is its effort to restore Thea von Harbou's original story, reinstating crucial subplots, adding several minutes worth of dazzling scenes, and in a couple of instances bridging gaps with animated stills. Yoshiwara's House of Sin is back in, along with an explanation of the true relationship between Rotwang and Joh Fredersen, and the crucial revelation that the False Maria is not following anyone's instructions, but is totally out of control. Moroder also makes a stab at retaining and recreating the original animated artwork inter-titles that add so much to the feel of the film - the triangular wedge of titles that precede and echo the triangular phalanx of workers, the animated, blood-dripping 'Moloch!.'

Moroder's Metropolis is foolishly out of print. Savant has a pal with a rare Vestron Video laserdisc in good condition and we run it every year or so. Along with Koyannisqatsi and Powaqqatsi, I can't think of a more no-brainer candidate for a DVD release than the Moroder Metropolis.

How this Figures Into STAR WARS

Now, on to the Star Wars connection. It's a plot structure thing. In the original cut of Metropolis, Joh Fredersen and Rotwang are bitter enemies because Fredersen 'stole' Rotwang's beloved wife, known as Hel. Hel died in childbirth bearing young Freder, Fredersen's only heir. Now Rotwang is reduced to crackpot hermit status, holed up in a medieval cottage stranded among the steel skyscrapers of the city, worshipping a monument he has built to his long lost Hel. (The Moroder version uses a tacky painting to represent this; Aitam Bar-Sagi's website has an authentic image of this monument). Fredersen meanwhile is obsessed with sheltering the naïve Freder from the cruel societal foundations of the super-city that supports his playboy lifestyle.

All of this must have seemed deeply autobiographical while the film was in production, because sources have reported that Metropolis's sentimental author Thea von Harbou was married to Rotwang actor Rudolf Klein-Rogge before being wooed away to become the wife of director Fritz Lang. Clearly this ménage a drei, literally mythologized in Metropolis, knew very well they were writing their personal soap opera into the fabric of an epic. Pretty nervy types, these. If you want to make an even more Wagnerian issue out of it, Lang fled from Nazi Germany in 1933, while Thea became a prominent Nazi. What a story - the most evil empire of the century, at the center of a romantic triangle!

Savant always took the structural basis for Star Wars as The Searchers, 'remade' (as The Wind and the Lion, The Yakuza, Hardcore) as often as has been Vertigo ( as Tomb of Ligeia, Obsession, The Legend of Lylah Clare). The Searchers' brilliant stroke is the narrative idea of having its youthful generation unconsciously repeat the folly of their parents: Martin Pawley (Jeffrey Hunter) is away from home on wild adventures, abandoning his intended Lori, who almost marries a dull substitute, Charlie McCorrie. Apparently John Wayne's character Ethan Edwards did much the same thing years before, abandoning his beloved Martha. She settled for dull brother Aaron. Luke Skywalker runs off on a heroic quest, leaving his relatives to die in the same way the Edwards' of The Searchers did. When it is revealed in The Empire Strikes Back that Darth Vader is Luke's real father, we realize that the real drama must have occurred about 18 years ago and was hushed up: both Luke and Leia were spirited away into secret new families (like young Debbie Edwards to the Comanche, or Sleeping Beauty and Snow White, for that matter). Obi-Wan and Yoda pointedly withhold vital information from the callow Luke about his own heritage.

Now it looks as though Metropolis is in Star Wars too. When George Lucas decided to flesh out his myth for sequels and prequels he chose a great model. With all the revisions and cover-ups in evidence, nobody buys Lucas' bunk about having planned it from the beginning. If Freder is Fredersen's, out of Hel, then nothing lines up. But considering Hel's dual romantic relationship, it is interesting to conjure the resonances that would result if Freder were really Rotwang's son, raised by Fredersen either begrudgingly or in ignorance. Besides the soap-melodrama 'rightness' of this, there are other pointers: Rotwang is a man living in two incompatible worlds. A master scientist and inventor, wielding technological power far in advance of even Metropolis's achievements, he is at the same a throwback alchemist-sorcerer, complete with pentagrams on his doors and a protean madness that bespeaks a pre-Christian, perhaps demonic link. If Freder is Rotwang's son, he seems to have inherited some of these traits. Freder's blossoming spiritual rebirth under the influence of Maria is one; his empath-like ability to experience events at which he is not present (the nude dance) and see to the truth behind deceptive illusions is another.: the machine is Moloch; the vulgar Maria is a counterfeit.

But the most visual and accessible link is in the iconographic gloved hand. Rotwang's black-clad gesticulating hand, the expressionist-acting hand that he brandishes dramatically in practically every scene, has been passed down to Star Wars by way of Dr. Strangelove, where it is used by Kubrick to represent a soul divided against itself in the most basic way. Strangelove's arm seems to have a life of its own, and like Strangelove's own dark death-worshipping side, actually tries to kill him.

Looking at Star Wars, what do we find? Darth Vader has gloved hands, one or both of which might be robotic in origin. He hacks off Luke's right hand, necessitating the grafting (a la Mad Love or The Hands of Orlac) of a robotic replacement. In Germanic Expressionistic Serial terms (and Star Wars is at base this kind of serial) this can only mean one thing: Mutilation = character flaw. The mutilation should mark the beginning of a BLACK period in Luke's life. Savant was therefore disappointed when Luke returned in Jedi wearing black but having changed only by becoming (unaccountably) a full-fledged Jedi master. His false hand plays no further part. The mutilation comes full circle when Luke lops off Pop's hand, a hollow gesture that adds nothing, unless the message is that solving one's identity problems is as easy as hitting Dad.

Savant always felt that the dramatic promise of Empire was left unfulfilled when no 'dark' chapter in Luke's quest materialized. For all the happy endings of Jedi to work, you'd need an interceding episode where Luke plain and simply 'goes bad' for a spell. As pleasing as it is, the initial 3-film cycle misses the mark because Luke doesn't really learn much or earn his destiny. Without a passage through real self-doubt and redemption, Luke's character arc is too Dorothy-like: "Yes, we see the Ruby Slippers, but it was inside you all the time, kid."

Many fans of The Phantom Menace are excusing its 'kiddie' orientation by reasoning that as Annakin matures in the next episodes, his adventures will by necessity become darker. After all, Annakin must grow into the most ruthless murdering villain in the cosmos as well as set in motion the Searchers - like deadly triangle that will transform him into the arch-enemy of his own teacher, Obi-Wan. Princess Amidala must have those twins (by who really?) and die tragically. Not in childbirth as did Hel, because Leia remembers Mommy from early childhood. By violence, as did Martha Edwards?

Many Star Wars addicts are expecting episodes two and three to be full of vengeance, assassinations, betrayal and dark deeds: Dark Night territory. Don't count on it. The Star Wars commercial Empire has gone beyond simple storytelling or even mythmaking, no matter how much even Lucas himself talks about 'modern mythology.' Star Wars began as class-A Pulp and grand storytelling, which can be wonderful aspirations. Now it's an institution. Cursed with being all things to all people, Lucas's Star Wars films now must be Disneyland, a roller coaster and sliced bread, all at the same time. Just being Pulp Serial Epics won't do.

The Expressionistic gloved fist : Darth Vader, 1980.

By Glenn Erickson

Like SCIENCE FICTION? Try the following SAVANT entries!
Review: IT HAPPENED HERE, The Ultimate INVADERS FROM MARS, DUNE and David Lynch, DANGER: DIABOLIK, The Uncut THINGS TO COME, THE ANGRY RED PLANET and CineMagic, Jump Cut 1 - FORBIDDEN PLANET, QUATERMASS who?, An Exotic Treat - THE MYSTERIANS!, Review: Quatermass and the Pit, Those ASTRAL COLLISION Movies, The Strange Case of UNTIL THE END OF THE WORLD.

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DVD Savant Text © Copyright 1999 Glenn Erickson

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