Tag Archives: German

REPORT: THE COMPLETE METROPOLIS [1927] (2010 RESTORATION)

DIRECTED BY: Fritz Lang

FEATURING: Brigitte Helm, Gustav Fröhlich, Rudolf Klein-Rogge, Alfred Abel

PLOT: The futuristic city of Metropolis is divided into a wealthy, hedonistic, and patriarchal

Restored still from The Complete Metropolis

above-ground, and the beaten-down workers who serve them below.  When the son of the city’s leader falls in love with a revolutionary worker, a chain of events is set in motion that ultimately sways the balance of power.

WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: While its story is standard allegorical fare and the performances are often melodramatic, the sheer inventiveness and visual splendor of Metropolis warrants its status as quintessential science fiction.  It set the standard for a host of weird films that came after it and has several iconically bizarre scenes and characters.  Taking into account its importance in film history, it is certainly worthy of the Weird Movie List.

COMMENTS: In a futuristic society functioning solely on a complex network of machines, the workers are beaten down to the point of exhausted submission, while the leaders squander their riches on pleasures of the flesh.  Freder (Gustav Fröhlich), the son of the “Master of Metropolis” Joh Fredersen (Alfred Abel), leaves the pleasure garden cultivated for the spoiled sons of the elite and discovers the horrific conditions threatening his subterranean “brothers and sisters” who operate the machines.  His instant fairytale ardor for the saintly revolutionary Maria (Brigitte Helm) encourages him to become the prophesied Mediator, a man who will act as the “heart” between the brain above and the hands below.  When Joh Fredersen fears a workers’ rebellion, he enlists mad scientist and former romantic rival Rotwang (Rudolf Klein-Rogge) to disguise his newly-fashioned robot into a replica of Maria, so that the automaton can destroy their faith in a mediator.

Settling into my usual stage-right balcony seat at Cambridge’s historic Brattle Theatre, I felt privileged to see such a landmark early film on a big screen, and in its complete form, no less!  An introductory title card explained that the 30 minutes or so of missing footage found in a Buenos Aires museum were shot on 16 mm and would appear in different format than the rest of the remastered film.  The few scenes still unaccounted for would be described in similar title cards.  As the music swelled over a series of pumping pistons and grinding machinery, I was once again whisked away into the simultaneously dark and resplendent world of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis.

The new footage details much of the subplot involving the “Thin Man”, a devious fellow hired by Joh Fredersen to spy on his son.  In the prior version of the film he was a forgettable, barely relevant character, relegated primarily to expository title cards for his missing scenes.  Now he is integral to the stories of the stalwart Josophat (Freder’s assistant) and Georgy/11811, a worker who trades places with Freder.  One of the most impressive new scenes is a montage of Yoshiwara, the city’s pleasure district, in which Georgy traipses about the brightly-lit saloons with pearl-draped multi-ethnic women.  It’s a visually memorable scene with several shots merged together in a mosaic to capture the Las Vegas-like over-saturation of the place.

Unfortunately the new footage was not remastered before theater release, and while I appreciate the speed with which it was put together, I did bemoan the grainy, darkened quality of the restored scenes.  The main advantage is that it makes them noticeable so any viewer can ascertain what was missing from the more familiar version.  It’s also lamentable that the film was shown in a digital presentation, but I’m not sure if that applies to all theater screenings or just the Brattle’s.  All told these are minor complaints, and the overall effect of seeing a visionary classic in its near-complete form (about 5 minutes are still lost) is breathtaking on a big screen and required viewing for any fan of science-fiction, silent film, or just great movies in general.

Riddled with shifting loyalties and a large number of characters, Metropolis spreads its complex narrative across two and a half hours of ornate sets and meticulously-planned shots.  The lively orchestral and onomatopoetic score captures the mood of each moment perfectly, magnifying the enthusiastic performances.  Helm is mesmerizing in her dual role as Maria and her robotic doppelganger: alternately a glass-eyed saint and twitchy, devilish rabble-rouser.  Klein-Rogge is the other standout as the manic inventor Rotwang, twisting his metal hand into a claw and arching his eyebrows with mad fervor as he slithers around catacombs and dingy laboratories.

It could benefit from better pacing and a more organized plot structure, and the added scenes don’t help the already dragging and plot-holed story, but the sheer wonder and imagination with which Metropolis is filmed combine with intense performances and a heartfelt message to establish it as a true masterpiece of filmmaking.  Now that it is available in its most complete form, its weird visuals and ambitious story can be fully appreciated for all their muddled religious iconography, forward-thinking mechanics, impressive effects, and allegorical implications.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…adds even more depth to a delirious, dreamlike class parable whose dystopia still feels exhilaratingly modern.”–David Fear, Time Out New York (restored version)

CAPSULE: THE WHITE RIBBON [DAS WEISSE BAND: EINE DEUTSCHE KINDERGESCHICHTE] (2009)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Michael Haneke

FEATURING: Christian Friedel, Burghart Klaußner, Leonie Benesch, Maria-Victoria Dragus, Leonard Proxauf

PLOT: A doctor’s horse is tripped by a wire strung between two trees, and soon

Still from The White Ribbon (Das weiss band) (2009)

other unexplained “accidents” start happening around a German village on the eve of WWI.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST:  I wouldn’t have even considered covering this fairly conventional film in this sacred space devoted to weirdness, except that as I was leaving the theater, I heard an old man ask the old woman beside him, “Wasn’t that the strangest movie you ever saw?”  The old woman agreed. My initial reaction was sadness at the thought that they both had reached an advanced state of decrepitude without having ever witnessed the miracle of a truly strange film.  My second thought was, I have to get out there and nip this rumor in the bud.

COMMENTS: As a historical drama, a novelistic examination of small town immorality, The White Ribbon is superb.  It immerses us in the life of a quiet, one-bicycle German hamlet on the eve of World War I, where order is harshly enforced in public but cruelty and hypocrisy are the rule behind closed doors.  The story begins by evoking a mystery—who strung the invisible steel wire that tripped the doctor’s horse?—then moves on to explore various village subplots involving characters from every strata of society.  Among others, there’s the humane schoolteacher who romances a shy nanny; the Baron, who employs half the village and acts as if feudalism is still in fashion; a Farmer and the rebellious son who blames the Baron for his mother’s death; the Doctor, an eminent man hiding shameful secrets; the Midwife, who lives with the Doctor since his wife dies and cares for her mentally retarded son; and most significantly the Pastor, who is obsessed with enforcing purity among his children, binding his son’s arms at night to help him resist the temptation to touch himself and tying white ribbons on the elder children to remind them of innocence.  And there are the children themselves, whose eerily blank faces and frustratingly proper responses to interrogations mask unknown motives.  Led by creepy and unflappable Maria-Victoria Dragus, a gang of tykes seem to be present at the periphery of all the tragic accidents that start popping up around the village.  The question of whether the kids are just curious spectators drawn to the hubub in a quiet town, or if they have some deeper involvement in the plague of catastrophes, is the mystery that Haneke leaves unsolved.  But the real unsolved mystery may be why the director chose to structure his story as an unsolved mystery.  When the tale focuses on exploring of moral hypocrisy, exposing the domestic cruelty of upstanding pillars of the community, the film is first-rate drama; there are excellent, tense scenes where a man callously dumps his mistress and parents inflict sadistic punishments on their children for minor infractions.  Haneke apparently did not feel that this searing drama was enough to grant his film Palme d’Or-type gravitas, and so we have the ambiguous mystery arbitrarily piled on top.  Not only is the plot obscure, but the purpose of employing an obscure plot is obscure.

Perhaps it’s because Haneke’s thesis isn’t as meaty as it seems.  The reminders that these wan, detached and abused children will be the generation that grows up to embrace Nazism are not subtle.  But if Haneke’s trying to say that a morally rigid, patriarchal society set the ground for the rise of Nazism… well, that’s a small part of the puzzle.  But the same types of societies existed all over the Western world.  Change a few details—replace the feudal Baron with a capitalist robber baron—and the story could just as easily be set in small town America in the 1910s.  What’s specifically German about this story that supposedly helps to explain the rise of Nazism (as the film’s narrator suggests in his opening lines)?  If, on the other hand, Haneke isn’t blaming a particular social order for nurturing fascism, but trying to say something universal about human societies and their capacity for institutional evil, the point gets a bit lost by locating the story in such an incredibly specific historical time and place.  The movie ends up perched uncomfortably between ambiguity and a definite argument, between a universal message and a historical one.  Maybe these unresolved tensions help explain why The White Ribbon, with its impeccable acting and classic production, feels thematically awkward.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Our narrator, well into old age, tells us that he is revisiting the strange events in the village to ‘clarify things that happened in our country’ afterward.  But ‘The White Ribbon’ does the opposite, mystifying the historical phenomenon it purports to investigate… ‘The White Ribbon’ is a whodunit that offers a philosophically and aesthetically unsatisfying answer..”–A.O. Scott, The New York Times (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: NEKROMANTIK (1987)

Beware

DIRECTED BY: Jörg Buttgereit

FEATURING: Daktari Lorenz, Beatrice M.

PLOT:  A necrophiliac who works for a corpse disposal service loses his job, his perverted girlfriend, and finally his mind.

Still from Nekromantik (1987)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST:  Although Nekromantik is indisputably weird—not simply in its bizarre concept, but in its numerous nightmare digressions from linearity—it can’t be recommended as a viewing experience.  It’s a badly made, tedious parade of revolting and nihilistic imagery with no ambition other than to shock the viewer.  When the film does utilize weirdness, it does so shallowly and irreverently, solely in service of its intent to disturb.

COMMENTS:  Like sex, inherently shocking imagery in film can be used well, to explore the human experience, or (more commonly) it can be used badly and exploitatively.  The ironic celebration of evil in A Clockwork Orange disturbs the viewer deeply, but the purpose of the film isn’t to shock us; it’s to provoke us into thinking more deeply about the problem of evil by forcefully confronting us with the paradox of free will.

Too many artists, however, have noticed that offending huge numbers of people is a far easier way to draw attention to themselves than working hard at their craft and creating something thoughtful and meaningful.  Sometimes, artists get confused and adopt a simple logical fallacy: much great art, like Nabokov’s “Lolita” or Buñuel‘s Un Chien Andalou, has shocked and offended large numbers of people; therefore, the purpose of great art must be to shock people.  (This artistic disorder is commonly known as “John Waters Syndrome”).  Most shocking art, however, is made with a more cynical hand, made with the artistic integrity of a freakshow proprietor.  This is the category into which Jörg Buttgereit’s Nekromantik falls.

Un Chien Andalou opens with a shot of a woman’s eyeball being slit by a straight razor, juxtaposed with a shot of a cloud passing in front of the moon.  The image is shocking but artistic, suggestive and numinous.  Nekromantik opens with a shot of panties dropping and urine streaming onto the grass; the image is banal, and, besides breaking Continue reading CAPSULE: NEKROMANTIK (1987)

9. HELP! HELP! THE GLOBOLINKS [HILFE! HILFE! DIE GLOBOLINKS] (1969)

“Headmasters never sing!” –line sung by the headmaster in Help!  Help!  The Globolinks

DIRECTED BY:  Joachim Hess, from a production of composer/librettist Giancarlo Menotti

FEATURING:  The Hamburg State Opera

PLOT:  In this children’s opera, the world has been invaded by bizarre alien creatures named Globolinks, who are allergic to music.  A bus full of children returning to boarding school breaks down in the middle of a lonely forest, and the students are surrounded by the alien creatures. Meanwhile, back at the school, the headmaster is infected by one of the aliens, meaning that he will soon turn into a Globolink himself.

globolinks

BACKGROUND:

  • Gian Carlo Menotti, the author of Help! Help! The Globolinks, was a well respected, Pulitzer Prize winning composer.  His most popular work is the Christmas opera Amahl and the Night Visitors, which was commissioned specifically to launch the “Hallmark Hall of Fame” television series, and which was shown annually in the United States on television during the Christmas season from 1951-1966.
  • Help!  Help!  The Globolinks, by contrast, was a flop and is rarely performed.  It is usually only mentioned in complete biographies of Menotti.
  • Menotti was a pioneer in adapting opera for telecast, and the film version of Help!  Help!  The Globolinks was originally shown on German television in 1968.

INDELIBLE IMAGE:  No doubt, it’s the Globolinks themselves (pictured above), who come in two varieties: one that looks like a wriggling rook from a chess set, and one that looks like an avant-garde ballerina dressed in a full-body dayglo bungee-jumping suit.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD:  A children’s opera about music-loathing aliens is already, presumptively, pretty weird.  But when the opera is made in 1968, at the height of the psychedelic sixties, and utilizes all the camera tricks, distorted electronic noises, and bizarre set designs Summer of Love filmmakers developed in an attempt to mimic the disorienting effects of LSD, there’s no more need for the presumption: we’re definitely caught in a very weird nook of film.

Scene from Help! Help! The Globolinks

COMMENTSHelp! Help! The Globolinks is one of the most obscure Continue reading 9. HELP! HELP! THE GLOBOLINKS [HILFE! HILFE! DIE GLOBOLINKS] (1969)

4. HORRORS OF SPIDER ISLAND (1960)

Ein Toter hing im Netz, AKA A Corpse Hangs in the Web [literal translation], It’s Hot in Paradise, and others   

Beware

DIRECTED BY: Fritz Böttger

FEATURING: Alex D’Arcy,  , & buxom German exhibitionists

PLOT:  A plane carrying team of eight dancing girls, along with one male and one female manager, crash into the ocean en route to Singapore. There they find a cabin with the body of a man hanging in a giant spiderweb. The lone male is bitten by a spider and turns into a spider-human hybrid, who then briefly terrorizes the girls at a party to celebrate their impending rescue after two men row ashore.

BACKGROUND:

  • With some brief nudity included, this German/Yugoslavian co-production was originally released in the US as a sexploitation feature under the title It’s Hot in Paradise. After the nudity was clipped out, the movie was re-released under the present title and marketed as a horror film.
  • The movie was featured in the tenth season of Mystery Science Theater 3000 (show 1011).
  • Horrors of Spider Island is believed to be in the public domain.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: The puppet-like evil spider, with it’s large, shiny, almost cute eyes and clawed hands.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Horrors of Spider Island takes place in an alternate universe that’s nothing like our own. The poor dubbing, including a mangled deep south accent, immediately takes us out of reality and makes suspension of disbelief impossible. The plot is thin as a wire, made to hang chauvinistic male fantasies on, and often seems to be improvised on the spur of the moment. Horrors of Spider Island already seems like a half-remembered bad dream, even as you’re still watching it.

4 minute clip from the film, including spider attack, courtesy of Something Weird video

COMMENTS: Horrors of Spider Island is a movie that falls into the “so-bad-it’s-weird” category. It’s quite obvious that the film was made with little Continue reading 4. HORRORS OF SPIDER ISLAND (1960)