Steve Bullin

Storytelling is one of those truly universal activities. Every story is simply a retelling of another that has preceded it, with slight alterations through artist interpretation. Thanks to this the truest and best told stories are able to stand the test of time. These stories and themes become the building blocks for the fiction and artistic expression of tomorrow. Metropolis, is one of those timeless classics.

Now I know there are some of you out there thinking: Silent films just are not for me. I’ve tried them, they’re kind of boring. The actors do the silent lip moving thing, then the text comes up, it’s disjointed. Then the other half of the time they over-react; it’s just too comedic to take seriously. Right? Well no. Sure there was a time I felt a little like that about the silents too, when I was 9, but then you get lucky and you see a showing of one of the classics. The Phantom of the Opera with Rupert Julian, The Gold Rush with Charlie Chaplin, The Cabinet of Dr. CaligariFaustNosferatu, dozens more and at the top of the list Fritz Lang’s Metropolis.

A few things you should take note of when talking about the silent era. First, the technology to record the actors voices or sound effects for the picture were basically non-existent when it came to film, ergo the silent era. Second, color wouldn’t become commonplace until the sixties. Because of these limitations directors had to construct other ways to convey the moods of the scene and characters, and it isn’t as if they could include all of the dialog acted out into the film, no one wants to read a paragraph of text every few minutes watching their movie.

So to make up for their natural limit in dialog and other limitations these pioneering filmmakers worked wonders with the lighting, photography, and actors to convey believable emotion and moods to the audience so that while they might not be able to hear everything the actors are saying, they still know exactly what they are thinking and feeling. Many of the actors from this time period started out in the theater and were classically trained, where, of course, body control and projecting energy and emotion to the entire audience is key. In theater if the person way in the back understands how the character is feeling just by the way the actor is presenting himself then the actor is doing his job. This is why so many of the old silents seem melodramatic, over the top. Because they’re compensating for dialog and telling the story in a different way. Later when sound came along the actors started taking it back a bit and began focusing on more subtle characterization. The development and techniques used back then through photography and lighting literally shaped the practices we see in photography and lighting today, regardless of the vast difference in technology the film makers of today still take lessons from the films of almost a century before them. Imagine something that was barely considered an art becomes the stepping stones for an entire artistic industry; that’s pretty cool.

Along with a really neat take on biblical themes and utopian/dystopian class struggle, Metropolis is a technical and design landmark film in cinema history. Without it we wouldn’t have the Schufftan process and all the great scenes in cinema that resulted. Metropolis is a textbook example of the German Expressionism movement in film, which would have a strong influence in the coming years of Hollywood and the Noir style of the 1940 and 1950, which brought about the reemergence of the anti-hero and much of what we understand of our mature corner of popular fiction today. This film is worth seeing on that note alone -you have to respect your roots- but on it’s own merit Metropolis is memorable and at times down right breathtaking. It’s score is phenomenal, the settings are masterfully built, the cinematography and visuals are so in-tune with the film and the message behind it is simply breathtaking. There is no surprise how Metropolis became a classic, it’s defiantly worth a study. I hope you black-and-white movie fans enjoyed it as much as I did.

Until next time, happy movie going everyone.

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