Shinsedai now over and done with, and even though I wasn’t even there for it (though will be posting my distant observations sometime in the next few days), I’ve been taking a bit of a break from Japanese film over the past few weeks. Instead, as if casting my mind back to my week of adventures in April spent stranded in Frankfurt due to the volcano smoke, I’ve been reminding myself of the many joys of German cinema with a spate of late nights spent in front of the TV with my newborn son, loafing on the sofa bleary eyed during the small with bottle in hand (not mine, I might add, and nothing stronger than milk) and introducing him to the joys of Werner Herzog by way of the wonderful Encounters in the Natural World Blu-ray box set which, at the time of writing can be had for a mere 14.99 on Amazon.UK (a bargain not to be missed when you consider it’s been marked down from 54.99).
Brigitte Helm leads the excited charge in Fritz Lang's Metropolis (1927)
However, I don’t want to talk about Herzog for the moment, but instead hark back further in time to when German cinema was quite incontestably (in my opinion) the best in the world. Admittedly, this was over 80 years ago, but during the silent era no studio ever bridged the gap between art and commerce as successfully as the Berlin-based UFA, or to give it it’s full name, the Universum Film AG. UK distributors Eureka have already left an indelible glow in my heart due to their peerless releases of Japanese films such as Humanity and Paper Balloons, Face of Another, House, which I reviewed for Sight and Sound in March of this year, and more recently the Blu-ray of Shohei Imamura’s Profound Desires of the Gods, but their championing of some of the best German silent films through their Masters of Cinema label really clinches it for me.
After discovering the company hold a monthly sale on their website, I picked up one of these early releases, Fritz Lang’s Frau im Mond (1929), or Woman in the Moon, a couple of months back. Now, I’m not as familiar with the work of Fritz Lang as perhaps I should or want to be. I’d always considered him as playing slightly a second fiddle to UFA’s most celebrated genius, F.W. Murnau. This favouritism is no doubt more than a little coloured by Murnau’s premature demise in circumstances that have given rise to much mythologising, as well as leaving us wondering how the director of such macabre silent classics as Nosferatu and Faust might have fared during the sound era. Despite his sizeable output, Murnau perhaps didn’t have the same amount of time on this earth to put a foot wrong. Still, on the evidence of this film, to champion one at the expense of another isn’t entirely fair. What Murnau did with light and shadow, one might say, Lang did with line and form. The stories Lang told, which during this period were scripted by his then wife Thea von Harbou from her own novels, are less primal perhaps, but reward deeper analysis, and his work really sowed the seeds of cinema’s core genres – take for example, the secret-surveillance world of the Dr Mabuse films or his hugely influential spy-thriller Spione (1928).
Fritz Lang’s curiously overlooked Frau im Mond (1929), or Woman in the Moon
I’m going to write more about Murnau at a later date, but for now, lets focus on Lang, whose best known work is, of course, his epic imagining of the city of the future, Metropolis (1927), a title that any serious film fan worth their salt will have seen at least once, and apparently the first ever work of cinema to be listed by the UNESCO Memory of the World as an essential cultural artifact. Serious film fans will soon want to be giving it a second look too, as they’ll know doubt be aware that it has come in for some substantial restoration and is due to be released with an extra 25 minutes worth of footage believed lost to the world for over 80 years, only unearthed recently in Argentina, of all places. This recent discovery of the dusty old 16mm dupe negative at the Museo del Cine Pablo Ducrós Hicken in Buenos Aires is nothing short of miraculous, and really raises ones hope that all those thousands of other titles believed no longer extant have at least some slim chance of turning up again somewhere in time. (As a quick aside, the BFI has just begun a season of “Elusive British films previously thought to be lost” entitled Long Live Film: BFI Most Wanted, which will be screening at the Southbank until 20 August). Anyway, the full story of the Metropolis restoration can be read about on the website, and the new version will be going out across the UK and Ireland from 10 September this year, with a DVD and Blu-ray to follow.
Visions of the future, in Lang's Metropolis (1927)
I was lucky enough, on one of my rare forays outside the house recently, to be invited to a press screening where I got my first glimpse of this new version. My first impression was just how clear the familiar footage, projected in this case from DVD, looked in this restoration. Its modernist designs looked so fresh, so pristine, it is almost impossible to imagine that the film was made 83 years ago. The older footage was understandably less clean, although it was integrated into the film perfectly, and while it was easy to see the joins, this didn’t distract from the viewing experience at all. In summary though, you’re pretty much getting a totally different experience watching this more complete version (there’s a few fragments still considered lost to the world), with at least one sub-story emerging into significant with the re-fleshing of the bare bones, and even the odd re-instated reaction shots giving a wholly different emphasis to key scenes.
The new restored Metropolis goes out across the UK and Ireland in September
The most head-scratching piece of the puzzle for me is that, given how timelessly classic this film is, how did we ever get in the situation where almost a quarter of the footage ended lost in the first place? The basic story is that after its premiere in Berlin on 10 January 1927 in the original 4189-metre director’s cut, Metropolis was released in the USA in a version heavily butchered by Paramount, with the intertitles rewritten, characters’ names changed, and large segments excised. Back in Germany, on 26 August the original was withdrawn and reissued in a similarly truncated 3241-metre version. The complete version of the film hasn’t been since, but at least on 10 September 2010, the general public will be as close to witnessing Lang’s full original as anyone has ever been over the past 83 years.
Wage slaves - the future labour force that keeps Metropolis ticking along
Frau im Mond was Lang’s last silent film and his second and final stab at science fiction after Metropolis (despite the title, his 1955 Moonfleet was actually about smugglers). It takes a radically different approach to its better known counterpart, more rip-roaring space opera than rigorous social allegory. Stripping the plot down to its basics, it portrays a group of benevolent scientists who create a space rocket only to find their efforts literally hijacked by a cartel of greedy capitalists who wish to co-opt their invention for their own nefarious ends, to gain access to the wealth of gold ore conjectured to exist on the dark side of the moon. There’s a bit of a sexual tension on the good guys’ side, with the female astronaut Friede (the “woman in the moon” of the title) the axis of attention among her two male rivals, and a rocket-obsessed 11-year-old boy also hops along for the ride.
Lang's final silent film and final foray into science fiction, Frau im Mond
At 163 minutes (as it plays on the Eureka disk), Frau im Mond is perhaps a rather lengthy undertaking, especially given that the first half is given over entirely to setting up the characters prior to their launch into space. It never bored me though. Again, I really savoured the modernist Art deco designs, even in the earthbound sequences. The general air of quaintness reminded me a little of the Tintin comic book Destination Moon from 1953, while the science behind the fiction was particularly intriguing, drawing heavily upon the writings of a certain Professor Hermann Oberth, a school master and amateur physicist who published heavily in the field of theoretical rocket science. The short documentary included on the Eureka disk is full of all sorts of fascinating insights. Frau im Mond included the first ever 10-9-8-7… countdown sequence, adopted by NASA for their first successful space rocket launch some 30 years laters, and the rocket technology underpinning it was considered so realistic that the film was subsequently banned by the Nazi party, who were then researching missile technology for military means, resulting in the V-2 long distance rocket that entered production in 1943. After the war, a large number of German rocket scientists were recruited by NASA to assist in their space programme.
Who needs a helmet? A moon landing as imagined in 1929, in Lang's Frau im Mond
But there are also other things – the film portrays how the characters are effected by the weightlessness of space, at a time long before anyone had ventured into the upper atmosphere, yet not its airlessness, allowing them to bounce about on the moon’s surface without helmets and oxygen tanks. The costly flop of Metropolis explains why the production values look a little slimmed down, with the moon basically little more than a painted backdrop, although this adds a certain retro something to proceedings, and invokes memories of the Georges Méliès proto-science fiction adventure film, A Trip to the Moon (Le Voyage dans la lune) from 1902.
So while you’re waiting to reacquaint yourself with the Metropolis restoration, I heartily recommend you take a look at this lesser-known work, which might not have the same epic status, but is highly enjoyable and just as thought-provoking in its own right.