strange_complex: (Metropolis False Maria)
Another Thing Wot I Sore recently was this, at the Hyde Park Picture House. It was the 2010 147-minute restoration, which I have seen before on the big screen and reviewed here. I've also previously reviewed the 2-hour restored version, which was the best one available before 2010, here. So we can take it as read that all the things I enthused about in those previous reviews thrilled me once again this third time - the surreality, the balletic quality of the movements, the homoeroticism, the imaginative vision, the scale and ambition of the production, the wonderful restored score, etc. It really is a remarkable film.

A couple of things struck me this time which I hadn't really reflected on much on previous viewings, though. One was the sense of history built into the city of Metropolis. The main focus of the story and the cinematography, of course, is on its futuristic aspects - the soaring skyscrapers, flyovers, machines, night-clubs, aeroplanes, etc. It's easy to come away from a viewing thinking that Metropolis the city is entirely a futuristic fantasy-city - and indeed, that's what it has become a short-hand for in modern cultural discourse. But beneath it are catacombs which are explicitly glossed as being two thousand years old, Rotwang's house, which looks early modern and is described as being 'untouched by the centuries' and the Cathedral, which isn't given any specific dating, but is in the European Gothic style, and thus most naturally belongs to some time between the 12th and 16th centuries. These three settings do a lot to make the city feel like more than just a futuristic fantasy, but a real place with a real history which has evolved and grown organically over the centuries. They also, of course, add a lot to the story, and particularly its religious dimensions.

The catacombs in particular are set in direct opposition to the mechanised hierarchical world of the city above, where the exploited workers can gather in a crude and simple setting, and hear the words of their Christian preacher-figure, Maria. They carry all the resonances of early Christianity as a literal underground resistance movement which are popularly associated with real catacombs (e.g. those in Rome). The Cathedral meanwhile, sits both physically and temporally between the catacombs and the skyscrapers, and is thus the site of compromise. At the end of the film, it is the location where the film's central tension, between the modernistic over-lords of the upper city and the simple workers of the lower city, is resolved. In other words, it is the heart which we are repeatedly told must mediate between head (the over-lords in the skyscrapers) and the hands (the workers in the catacombs). It is neither too simple and crude, like the catacombs, nor too hierarchical and exploitative, like the skyscrapers, but a place where the best of the modern and the ancient worlds can meet.

Meanwhile, the crooked, ancient character of Rotwang's house sets him apart from both the over-lords and the workers in a different way. Unlike the workers, he seems to have chosen to reject the march of modernism, isolating himself away from it in his house. And although in one sense he is the archetypal mad scientist, with the bubbling flasks and the robot in the attic, details like the pentagrams on the doors of his house show that he is really more of an alchemist or even a magician, meddling with forces which mankind was not meant to tamper with. The crooked house captures that very nicely, too.

Actually, I found myself fascinated with Rotwang generally on this viewing, much more than I have before. I guess it wasn't until the 2010 restoration that his story arc really became clear, but the first time I watched it, I was too busy with the story-arcs of characters like Freder and his father to really have time for it. This time, though, Rotwang really rose to the surface for me, and I thought he was fantastic. As the villainous alchemist-scientist with the mechanical hand, he has left a clear legacy in characters like Darth Vader, Dr. Strangelove (OK, not actually a mechanical hand, but an evil one all right) and perhaps even Peter Pettigrew (a magical hand, rather than a mechanical one, but the line between the two is of course famously blurry in fantasy stories). He is also surely an important bridge between the Baron Frankenstein of Mary Shelley's novel, who must be one of his ancestors, and the various filmic versions of the same character, who are certainly his descendants.

I also can't believe I didn't notice before now that Rotwang's missing hand means that he is inherently shut out of the film's proposed solution to society's ills: the mediator between the head and the hands must be the heart. His mechanical hand shows him to be out of balance - he is all head, and indeed has used the intelligence which that gives him to replace the hand which he has lost in his quest to create the Machine-Man. But unlike Joh Fredersen, the industrialist, who is capable of compromise if only shown how, Rotwang has lost that capacity - hence the fact that it is he who grapples with and tries to kill Maria at the climax of the film.

All clever stuff, then, which was always there, but which I hadn't consciously thought through before. And of course it's a sign of a rich and carefully-structured film that it is all there for the discovering.

Meanwhile, viewing this only a few days after returning from Vienna, and finding that German isn't actually a completely closed book to me after all, but a rather neatly-structured language with rules which I am starting to grasp, it was also very pleasant to discover that I could fairly reliably read the German-language intertitles, without needing to rely on the English-language translations underneath. Obviously intertitles in silent films tend to be in fairly simple language - they are largely statements and explanations in the present tense. But still, that was nice.

And having said this last time I saw this film but done nothing about it, I now really, really need to get myself a copy of the soundtrack. Or, more like, pop it on my Amazon wish-list so that my family will have something they can buy me for Christmas, I think. But it will be mine!

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strange_complex: (Dracula Risen hearse smile)
(Also known as Die Schlangengrube und das Pendel, The Snake Pit and the Pendulum,The Torture Chamber of Dr. Sadism and about a zillion other alternative titles. Not to be confused with Castle of the Living Dead, which is completely different. Obviously!)

Another entry here in the series 'Other Gothic Horrors Starring Christopher Lee Which I Haven't Seen, And Which Ideally Feature Him Playing A Character As Similar To Dracula As Possible, And / Or Also Star Peter Cushing And / Or Vincent Price', and this one was a corker! Well, at least, it is a corker by 1960s Euro-horror standards. Here are three reasons why it is worth watching:

1. It is visually splendid. This is mainly thanks to being filmed in Bavaria, and making exceptionally good use of the setting. I was particularly charmed to recognise Rothenburg ob der Tauber, which does a huge amount to create the appropriate fairy-tale atmosphere for The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm, and is such a perfect gingerbread town that it is a struggle to believe it can possibly be real. But in all fairness, the set, prop, make-up and costume departments are all performing at a very high level too. It isn't exactly an expressionist film in the full-blown sense of German cinema from the inter-war period, but it definitely has many of the same sorts of visual design touches, and these are some of its biggest strengths. See, however, point 3 on my 'downsides' list, below, which alas means that a film which must have looked absolutely bloody fantastic when it first came out is now difficult to discern through all the dust and scratch-lines.

2. It is utterly unashamed to ramp the Gothic horror clichés up to the absolute max. The basic approach is quite similar to Castle of the Living Dead, in that this film is essentially a pastiche made up of scenes and motifs drawn from successful previous horror titles. This time, the two chief source texts that I could recognise are Edgar Allan Poe's 'Pit and the Pendulum' (very obviously mediated through Roger Corman's 1961 film) and Dracula, Prince of Darkness, which had come out only the previous year. Poe / Corman contribute a castle full of dungeons and torture chambers, where a group of travellers experience new and more inventive horrors at every turn, while Prince contributes an evil Count who is supposed to be dead, but gets resurrected by a creepy and incredibly loyal servant. According to Jonathan Rigby, Mario Bava's La maschera del demonio is a big influence too, and while I haven't seen it myself the Wikipedia description certainly backs him up. Rather than merely repeating or mimicking its predecessors, though, the watchword for this film seems to have been to make everything about them MORE - more blood, more dungeons, more dark and scary forests, more unsettling interior décor, more bubbling potions, more mad villains, more distressed damsels. That's not always a good thing in horror films, because often all the subtlety of the earlier takes on the story dies a horrible death in the process, but somehow here it just came across as really joyous and exuberant and fun. It's like they said to themselves, "Let's not muck about! This is a Gothic horror film. We know what our audience wants, and so do they, so let's do it properly!" And they did.

3. It has Christopher Lee in it, playing a character very similar to Dracula. This is of course a subset of point 2, but it is a very important subset! His character is called Count Regula, which clearly (as for Count Drago in Castle of the Living Dead) was the closest name they could think of to Count Dracula without attracting a law-suit. The film opens with a flash-back of him being executed in the town square 35 years before the main story begins for drinking the blood of 12 women in an attempt to secure immortality. He didn't quite manage it, needing 13, but thanks to some hand-waving and some kind of elixir of life, his servant is able to resurrect him for the main story anyway, so that he can chow down on his final victim and seal the deal. He looks a bit grey about the face, wears a floor-length black coat, and suffers from an aversion to crosses, while his first words to the travellers who have been unfortunate enough to end up in his dungeons are "Welcome to my house". All in all then, he is set up as a first-rate Dracula-substitute, and he utterly delivers the goods in his performance, too - lots of good icy aristocratic vengeance-fixated evil, some nice bursts of anger when he is thwarted, and some fine anguish when everything starts going horribly wrong for him at the end. In short, this film is even better than Castle of the Living Dead if you're after a cheap Lee-as-Dracula fix and have run out of actual Dracula films to watch - which is, of course, exactly my position.

On the down side:

1. The dialogue is all dubbed in post-production. Although Christopher Lee definitely speaks his own lines in the English-language version, and I'm pretty sure most of the other actors do too, still actors recording their lines in a studio almost always come across as wooden by comparison with in-context performances recorded on set. Also, I'm not sure all the actors were of a terribly high calibre in the first place anyway - particularly someone called Vladimir Medar, who plays a highwayman-disguised-as-a-priest comic relief character.

2. The gender politics of it are utterly Victorian. The main female character, Baroness Lilian von Brabant, is actually quite well played by Karin Dor, especially in a scene where she has been drugged and convinced that she is someone else, but gradually comes to realise that something isn't quite right and she can't be who she thinks she is. Nonetheless, the character clearly exists purely to function as a victim and / or sexual object. At one point, I thought she might experience a bit of character growth by having to face up to her fears in order to rescue her male companion (much as Willie does in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom), but no - she just ended up fainting with terror instead, while he got on and rescued himself. In fact, at the end of the entire experience, she begs him to tell her that it was all just a dream - and he reassures her that it was. Bah! This sort of stuff is, of course, characteristic of both the genre and the period, but it's not inevitable. Compare, for example, Diana in Dracula, Prince of Darkness (one of this film's sources), who is full of the spirit of adventure from the start, and even grabs a gun and has a good old shoot at Dracula at the climax of the film. Strong women could exist in horror, even in the 1960s - but this film does not have any.

3. The visual quality of the DVD transfer is absolutely appalling, especially at the beginning. I don't normally get particularly exercised by this sort of thing, but what you get if you borrow this movie from Lovefilm is basically an utterly unrestored film projection, complete with visual noise, distorted colours and massive streaks running down the screen, all simply transferred to a digital disc. I don't mind any of those features on an actual original film reel which I'm viewing in the cinema, as there it is all part of the experience of engaging with a vintage print. But I kind of expect a DVD print to have undergone at least some very basic clean-up in the process of being transferred to a digital format, and this just really hadn't.

In short, not perfect, but one of the downsides isn't the fault of the original film-makers, and the other two are pretty much par for the course in this genre, so it's not like anyone who likes this sort of film won't be expecting them. Meanwhile, the upsides more than compensate. Don't expect it to change your life, but do expect it to make for a thoroughly enjoyable evening.

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