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August 9, 2010
The Most Silent Movie
Last night Pooh and I went to a screening of Fritz Lang's 1927 masterpiece Metropolis, one of those classic films that everyone should see, but somehow we both hadn't. After remarking here last week how no one discusses utopias much these days, I was struck by this vision of a future dystopia where the poor, living in a subterreanean city, toil tirelessly to satisfy the whims of the super-privileged. The workers synchronized movements looked like a macabre ballet, and I had an eerie feeling of deja vu. The big message of this surprisingly Christian-toned movie made in Germany less than a decade before Hitler's rise to power is "the mediator between the head and hands must be the heart." Why doesn't someone put that slogan on a billboard somewhere?
This current incarnation of Metropolis is billed The Complete Metropolis and it features recently discovered scenes that had been edited from the original. It also features a beautiful score by Gottfried Huppertz. It was a pity an audio glitch silenced that beautiful score a minute or two into the third act, Furioso.
A dead silence hit the theater. One person behind me whispered "Oh no." A question, borne of new experience, bubbled up in my mind. "How upset should I be that this silent movie is now a silent movie?" The visuals were still there, but they now seemed to have lost the illusion of reality. There was an emotional disconnect, as if it didn't matter as much what happened, even though logically I knew that wasn't true. It made me realize what a misnomer the words "silent movie" are. Without a musical underpinning to help convey the emotions, I found my interest waning slightly.
Suddenly, I became hyper aware of every noise in the theater. The slightest creak or shuffle sounded five times louder than normal. I began to wonder what the other citizens of this community of about thirty were thinking or feeling. It had been about four minutes since the silence began. In reaction to a particularly fake looking shot of the subterranean city being flooded, a few people began to snicker. My stomach growled and it sounded to me like a foghorn. Then it growled much louder. Other people got the giggles and I wondered if it was because of my stomach growls or a particular hammy expression on the face of lead actress, Brigitte Helm, writhing with sadistic glee amongst the proletariat. Without music to add weight to the dramatic events of the final act, "Metropolis" had become , to at least half a dozen people, a comedy.
I have to admit, though I loved the film, I was a little relieved when "The End" came. I did come away with a revelation though. Even well-heeled art movie afficianados can turn into 8 year old giggleboxes when something unexpected happens. Not that there's anything wrong with that.
Here's a great article about the film by film collector and historian Fernando Martín Peña.