[From my column on studio-era Hollywood films for Firstpost]

“While the transition to sentimentalism can seem jarring for viewers used to tight film noir narratives of the era, Cloak and Dagger deems it important and just to give Gina this passage of peace and warmth before the spy film resumes with all its violence and mayhem. For Lang’s film is first and foremost a fable about the loss of innocence—a theme that preoccupied the filmmaker throughout his working life. In 1945, the year before the film’s production, the Nazi concentration camps were discovered, shaking western civilization’s deep-rooted faith in progress. It was also the year atomic bombs were dropped in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, catapulting humanity into an age of fear and uncertainty.

One of the first Hollywood films to deal with the moral and existential repercussions of the nuclear era, Cloak and Dagger evokes the disillusionment of a civilization with the stories it has been telling about itself. The film was written by Albert Maltz and Ring Lardner Jr., screenwriters blacklisted in 1947 as part of Hollywood’s anti-communist drive, and Jesper’s opening speech spells out their pacifist dispositions. In an interview years later with Peter Bogdanovich, Lang revealed that the film’s original ending had Jesper discover an abandoned concentration camp with several thousand deceased inmates who had been forced to work on the bomb. This conclusion, with its suggestion that the real danger had only begun, was too strong for producer Milton Sperling, who instead ended the film triumphantly with Jesper returning to America with Polda.

Jesper, too, experiences this loss of innocence in a stylized-yet-austere scene set in an apartment foyer, where he’s forced to fight a henchman tailing Polda. It’s an unsettling, very physical sequence of hand-to-hand combat in which the henchman digs his nails into his rival’s eyes while Jesper, with Gina’s help, strangles the man to death. That this peace-loving scientist of lofty ideals could suffocate a man with his bare hands is the kind of dark irony Lang was adept at driving home. A master of mixing tonalities, Lang amplifies the brutality of the sequence by cutting it with sweet accordion music playing in the streets. As the dead man lies on the floor, a ball comes bouncing towards him from the staircase—a quintessential Lang image of corrupted innocence that harks back to his German-language masterpiece M (1931).

 

[Full article at Firstpost]

Metropolis (1927)
Fritz Lang
German

“There can be no understanding between the hand and the brain unless the heart acts as mediator.”

 

Metropolis

When cinema was in its infancy during the teens and the twenties, many pioneers sought to provide it a definite shape and even assemble various tools and benchmarks for the decades of filmmakers to come. This led to the formation of various cinematic and narrative techniques, characteristic to their country of origin, which were later used by tens of directors from that country. One such trait, expressionism, was extensively used by the filmmakers of Germany such as F. W. Murnau and Fritz Lang. The latter’s magnum opus, Metropolis (1927), is a grand marriage of the expressionist method and unimaginably high ambitions for its time.

Joh Fredersen is a huge industrialist and the owner of the high-tech city of Metropolis. The workers of Metropolis are overworked and are exploited in exchange for small amounts of wages. This pains Freder (Gustav Fröhlich), the son of Fredersen who seeks to get justice for the workers from his father. The workers are on the verge of a revolution, but are held back by the hopes given by Maria (Brigitte Helm). Knowing this, Fredersen plans to use the evil genius of the city, Rotwang (Rudolf Klein-Rogge), and build a humanoid that resembles Maria in order to disorient the workers. However, Rotwang has his own plans and decides to double-cross Fredersen , in the process endangering everyone’s life.

To get an idea of the film’s influence on cinema it is enough to consider that it was the pioneer of the Sci-Fi genre – the one that Hollywood has never grown tired of. Its ideas of science and future have tricked down to every science fiction film made after it – both great and disastrous. Right from the struggle to create a whole new world (Minority Report, Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow etc.) to the debate of humanity versus artificiality (Blade Runner, A. I. etc.), the impact of the film is omnipresent in the genre. The film’s special effects, needless to mention, were groundbreaking for their time (The Tower of Babel sequence retains its potency to amaze).

Going hand in hand with expressionism, the film is full of black and white characters and only aids the film’s heightened take on fantasy. Its consistent message of compassion for the working class may be a tad tasteless for viewers of today who do not expect any propaganda from the medium. However, this was, perhaps, required for Lang to drive home the point of the film which would otherwise have been deemed meaningless. Faith in the face of apocalypse becomes a joint theme, along with importance of humanity over science, which is supported well by biblical references.

Special mention must be made for the 2002 restoration of the epic which happens to coincide with its 75th anniversary of release. With over 25 percent of the film’s footage lost, the techies at the F. W. Murnau Foundation have done a staggering job of gathering the remaining material, removing the blemishes from each and every frame and providing intertitles summarizing the missing sections. The conventional score by Gottfried Huppertz for the version majestically supports the grandeur of the film.

Metropolis invariably takes the second place when the works of Fritz Lang are discussed and is overpowered by the dynamism and adrenaline of M (1931), immensely influential by itself and unbound by time. When watched today, Metropolis may look very amateurish in the execution of its themes and dated in its techniques, but placing oneself in its age and assessing its influence on future of the medium and the massiveness of its strides, it is ineluctable to call it a classic.