Archives for posts with tag: Metropolis

Semiotic ghosts: Dubai’s architectural hallucinations

Bruce Bennett

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Travelling from the UK to New Zealand recently we stopped for two days in Dubai in order to make the long journey more manageable. Even allowing for the dislocating effect of flying across time zones and two sleepless nights since the hotel we were staying in was packed with raucous teams competing in the international women’s Rugby Sevens tournament, Dubai seems a jarringly strange city.

It is the materialization of a defiantly aspirational vision of the future that predates and disregards anxieties about peak oil and catastrophic climate change. The combination of high-rise office blocks and hotels, luxury gated communities and freeways presupposes an economically stable future in which oil continues to flow freely from the ground, and we continue to travel by car and jet plane. It is a city under construction and new buildings appear so frequently that, one taxi driver told us, he and his colleagues sometimes struggle to find their way around the financial centre.

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Driving into the centre of Dubai on the 14-lane freeway what I was most strongly reminded of was William Gibson’s brilliantly economical short story,’The Gernsback Continuum’ (1981). In that story, while driving through present-day California, a photographer working on an assignment on futuristic architecture of the 1920s and 1930s has visions of an alternative present that resembles the future as it was imagined in films, architectural designs, visual art and the illustrations and cover art of pulp science fiction journals and novels from that period (such as those published by Hugo Gernsback through magazines such as Amazing Stories).

“Then I looked behind me and saw the city. The books on Thirties design were in the trunk; one of them contained sketches of an idealized city that drew on Metropolis and Things to Come, but squared everything, soaring up through an architect’s perfect clouds to zeppelin docks and mad neon spires. That city was a scale model of the one that rose behind me. Spire stood on spire in gleaming  ziggurat steps  that climbed to a central golden temple tower ringed with the crazy radiator flanges of the Mongo gas stations. You could hide the Empire State Building in the smallest of those towers. Roads of crystal soared between the spires, crossed and recrossed by smooth silver shapes like beads of running mercury. The air was thick  with ships: giant wing-liners, little darting silver things (sometimes one  of the quicksilver shapes from the sky bridges rose gracefully into the air and flew up to join the  dance), mile-long  blimps, hovering dragonfly things that were gyrocopters…”

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One of the photographer’s friends reassures him what he’s seen are “semiotic ghosts”: “bits  of  deep cultural imagery that have split off and taken  on a life of their own, like the Jules Verne airships that those  old Kansas farmers were  always seeing”. This term captures very well the phantasmatic bricolage of Dubai’s spectacular architecture. Deceptively compact, viewed through the filters of a windscreen, exhaust smoke and the haze of the desert sky, these buildings could have been a painted backdrop or a hallucination. They are a striking collision of old and new forms, a point made particularly evident by the building that copies (and scales up) the clock tower on Westminster Palace. The illusion that Dubai is a future city irrupting from the past like a scene from Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927) was completed by the little prop-driven plane that took off repeatedly and circled over the shoreline, ejecting parachutists competing in the International Parachuting Competition.

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All buildings present us with a symbolic representation of the future – they are designed and built in anticipation of possible future uses and contexts and so they are necessarily anachronistic; they show us the future as it was imagined in the past. What is so striking about Dubai is that these coastal cities are so new and yet still they appear to imagine the future in spatial and architectural terms that are at least a century old. The future will be more of the same.

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Introduction to Metropolis (Lang, 1927) – Dukes cinema, Lancaster, 16 Jan 2010

Bruce Bennett (Lancaster University UK)

(This is the introductory public talk I gave for a screening of a print of the definitive 2010 restoration of this film)

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Premiered in Berlin on January 10th, 1927, Metropolis was the most expensive film produced in Germany up until that point. With 36,000 extras, 200,000 costumes and costing 5m Reichsmarks it was the Titanic (Cameron, 1997) or the Avatar (Cameron, 2009) of its day. The film was intended to challenge the commercial and aesthetic international dominance of American cinema that had continued from the First World War onwards, and its director, Fritz Lang, contended that German culture could imbue the technology of modern cinema with a spirituality and significance that American films lacked.  Metropolis, which is about the seductive marvels (and dangers) of industrial technology, is thus also a film about the marvellous industrial technology of cinema. It was intended to demonstrate that technically sophisticated, mainstream cinema could also be deeply moving and thought-provoking.

The stylistic influence of Metropolis is quite profound. It developed an epic visual vocabulary in its depiction of a technologized society that has served as a template for the imagined futures of twentieth century science-fiction cinema. Familiar images of future cities as vast, labyrinthine spaces from which nature has been expunged in films like Logan’s Run (Anderson, 1976), Star Wars (Lucas, 1977), Blade Runner (Scott, 1982), Brazil (Gilliam, 1985), The Fifth Element (Besson, 1997), and The Matrix (Wachowski, Wachowski, 1999) are derived, at least in part, from Metropolis.

Despite its influence, however, the film’s critical reception has been quite ambivalent.

A standard critique of Metropolis has been that its visual inventiveness is not matched by an equally sophisticated narrative. The American film historian Tom Gunning suggests, however, that a key reason for the sceptical response to the film is a failure to understand it as allegory, a symbolic narrative rather than a realistic hypothesis of a possible future. As a result, the film has tended to be regarded as simplistic. When HG Wells reviewed the film for the New York Times, he famously dismissed Metropolis as ‘the silliest film’ partly because of his belief that science fiction’s responsibility was scientifically rigorous prophecy (and partly because he felt it was plagiarising his own work). However, unlike Blade Runner, say, Metropolis is not an attempt to present a convincingly realistic depiction of a possible future, but instead is a mythic narrative. Lang’s two previous films, both very successful and visually rich, were of stories from Der Nibelungen – German mythology – and we might understand Metropolis as a continuation of this preoccupation with mythic storytelling – a futuristic folk-tale, or modern myth. In the preface to the novel, from which the film was adapted, Thea von Harbou writes, ‘This book is not of today or of the future. It tells of no place…It has a moral grown on the pillar of understanding’. The film too should be seen as a moral tale but, the American film historian Tom Gunning suggests, this has made the film confusing for film viewers who are used to analysing layered, realist films whose themes and messages are hidden and elusive. ‘It is the over-explicit nature of this film’, he writes, ‘that makes many viewers, trained to hunt out subterranean meanings and organic symbols, so uncomfortable’.

Like many film-makers and critics of the silent period, Lang had an idealistic notion of cinema’s social role and he felt that film could comprise an international language that would allow complete communication between cultures. He wrote in the 1920s that ‘The internationalization of film language will become the strongest instrument available for the mutual understanding of peoples, who otherwise have such difficulty understanding each other in all too many languages’. This claim rests on an understanding of cinema as a primarily visual medium and so it is important to recognize that Metropolis was not conceived as a literary film, or as an art film for a small audience of connoisseurs, but as a film that addresses as broad an audience as possible by exploiting the capacity of cinema to produce rich, complex, narrative images.

This is a film about a society organized entirely around the requirements of capitalism and industry. Metropolis, whose name identifies it as a generic city, rather than a specific place, is a dystopia in which the workers have been reduced to cybernetic components of the giant machines that power the city. They live like animals in underground caverns and, as we see in the opening scenes, even their physical movements have become machine-like – they are robotic figures. Thus, although this is a society that has been transformed by radical technological expansion and the rationalized efficiencies of Taylorism and Fordism, industrial technology has not emancipated the workers but has dehumanized them. The city is an architectural manifestation of these repressive class divisions so that while the workers live underground ‘in the depths’, the elite live and work above ground in modernist skyscrapers entertaining themselves in decadent nightclubs, sports arenas, lecture halls, theatres, pleasure gardens and brothels. Gender roles are also extremely traditional in this supposedly advanced context, with women occupying the roles of mothers and saintly madonnas on the one hand, and prostitutes and seductive vamps on the other.

The class conflict that results is explored through the invocation of Christian myths. Metropolis is ruled over by a patriarch, Joh Frederson, who uncovers a burgeoning, illicit religion forming among the workers around a woman called Maria who preaches to them about the coming of a messianic figure called the ‘mediator’, (der Mittler), who will bring the classes together. Meanwhile, Frederson’s son, a playboy named Freder has become infatuated with Maria and has disguised himself as a worker in order to travel to the worker’s underground city to meet her. Frederson asks the crazed scientist, Rotwang to turn the robot he has built into a replica of Maria, so that they can use the robot to disrupt this potentially seditious underground movement. It transpires, however, that Rotwang resents Frederson because years earlier, Frederson married the woman he loved, so in revenge he programs Maria to cause havoc and she leads the workers to destroy the city. Rotwang, who sports a robotic hand and whose workshop is decorated with a pentangle, represents the irrational, uncontrollable dimension of technology.

So, the film explores the social impact of technological progress and capitalist exploitation. It also explores the way in which religion functions both as consolation and as a vehicle for political resistance.  Despite its dramatization of class struggle and the violent inequalities produced by capitalism, the film has often been seen as, at best, politically ambivalent. The workers remain de-individualized and framed as bodies rather than rational intellectual figures, and the liberal narrative resolution which favours reconciliation rather than resistance and confrontation is abrupt and somewhat unconvincing: ‘The mediator between head and hands must be the heart!’ The film has often been read as fascist while the studio producing the film felt that it displayed Communist sympathies.

But of course, Metropolis’s significance is not that it offers an insightful narrative examination of class politics, or a progressive political programme, but that, through the medium of a big-budget action film, and a mythic tale of an alternative reality, it gives us images of the effects of advanced industrial capitalism, which depends upon the subjugation, depersonalization and invisibility of labouring bodies. It also offers us spectacular and threatening images of a society organized around principles of rationality, efficiency, surveillance and control. It is a distorting mirror, reflecting back to audiences of the 1920s an exaggerated, grotesque image of contemporary reality. This is crystallized in a sequence in which a shot of a massive exploding generator dissolves into a shot of a sacrificial furnace into which ranks of uniformed workers, who are identified by number rather than name, are being marched. It is an image that captures the relentless, indifferent violence of modern industrial capitalism in which humans are simply another resource, and also the horror of rationalized, assembly-line genocide that was to follow just a few years later.

The version of Metropolis released in January 1927 was around 2½ hours long and was received with little enthusiasm. As a result the distributor, UFA, cut about a quarter of the film out. The American distributor, Paramount, made even more severe cuts, handing the film to a playwright and critic, Channing Pollock, who reframed the film as a Frankenstein-derived story about an inventor attempting to replace humans with robots. Pollock changed the names of characters and rewrote the intertitles, cutting out entire subplots and characters as well as the crucial back-story of the longstanding rivalry between the inventor and the head of the city, and he also altered the running order of the story. Consequently, the shortened versions of the films were incoherent and perhaps because of this, the film was a disastrous commercial failure that almost bankrupted the studio.

The material cut from the film was ordered to be destroyed, and so it was assumed that the original version was lost for good, but in 2008 an almost complete copy of the 1927 edit was found in an Argentinian film archive. That print was very badly damaged, but it provided restorers with most of the missing scenes and the correct running order. There are still one or two missing passages but of the five or six versions of Metropolis I’ve seen, this is the first that makes sense and it raises the question of whether the film might have had a different reputation if it was known in this version. There is a clearer motivation for characters’ behaviour and there is also a certain amount of comedy that wasn’t evident in earlier versions.

This is a film that was designed to be viewed on big screen, a much bigger screen than this, accompanied by a symphony orchestra playing the specifically commissioned score, but watching it on a cinema screen of any size, also allows us to see the subtleties of the performances, the nuanced hand gestures and facial movements, as well as the intricacies of the production design. 1927 was the year in which sound film became commercially viable with the release of the Jazz Singer, and for many critics and film-makers of the time, the pedestrian realism of synchronized sound film destroyed the poetry and allusiveness of cinema, as well as its capacity to cross language barriers. It meant that the primarily visual medium of cinema was superseded by an audio-visual medium, which required film-makers and audiences to engage with a new aesthetic regime. So, Metropolis is a film from the summit of silent cinema, one of the last and one of the most refined, ambitious, expensive and mature works of the silent period.

References:

Thomas Elsaesser (2000) Metropolis. London: BFI

Tom Gunning (2000) Fritz Lang: Allegories of Vision and Modernity. London: BFI

In March this year I organised a one-day research symposium on production design in cinema at Lancaster University. This video is of the introductory keynote paper by Prof. Sir Christopher Frayling, which includes a historical survey of approaches to film production design and outlines some of the key issues for scholars and critics studying this field of film production and aesthetics.

The video opens with my introduction in which I set out the context for the keynote paper and the papers and discussions across the rest of the day (and I hand over to Christopher at around 9 minutes).

Frustratingly, copyright restrictions mean that we were unable to include in the video the many stills and production sketches with which Prof Frayling illustrated his talk, but we have included captions to indicate what was displayed on the screen during the presentation. In any case, Christopher is a very engaging and knowledgeable speaker and so this is a fascinating and informative talk.

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