March 13: The Best Architecture Movie Ever

2016/03/13 § Leave a comment


On this day in 1927 the film Metropolis opened wide in the US (preceded by its German premiere on January 10).

Directed by the great Fritz Lang, Metropolis is probably the best architecture movie ever.  It’s a great science fiction story as well (made a little clumsy in the telling by censor-butchers) that addresses the whole point of science fiction–not just as a story set in the future, but taking the promise and problem of science and technology in human life as its central theme.  It’s a great architecture movie because it addresses architecture (sometimes obliquely, sometimes head-on), as an agent of technology within the human drama.

Metropolis portrays the great city of the movie’s title as an extreme division of two worlds.  First, that of the fortunate few who control everything from on high in soaring Deco and Moderne skyscrapers (at ground level they look like the streets of Manhattan that had mesmerized Lang during a visit in the early 1920s) and frolic in stripped-classical gymnasia and glittery nightclubs that conjoin imagery from Broadway, Shangri-la and Babylon.  Second, that of the underground workers, whose environment is mechanical, drab, tedious and impersonal (the main machine drawing again from Babylon and also the Futurists)–except for the weird gothicky elements in the form of a cathedral, a mad scientist’s house, and a grotto type of place where workers gather for a kind of refreshment provided by their spiritual leader (it’s ostensibly natural, but cast with very strong lines influenced by German Expressionism, like a lot of other sets in the movie; this one too).  Architecture’s role in the film is not confined to the backgrounds; it  reinforces the character of protagonists and emphasizes the divide between haves and have-nots.  It’s an especially interesting story to tell through architecture that reached a high point of debate and energy in this decade (remembering that Corb’s famous book was translated into English in the same year).  You could slog through sixteen weeks’ worth of reading in a graduate seminar on early Modernist theory, or you could observe it here in easily digestible cinematic form, stunningly filmed and gloriously acted. Indeed, spectacular as the setting is, it does not dwarf the extraordinary performances of Brigitte Helm and Gustav Fröhlich.  Being a silent film, the actors had to really act, with their whole faces, and we are happy to watch Fräulein Helm’s and Herr Fröhlich’s faces by the hour.

It’s all made newly luminous by Kino’s most recent restoration.  Like so many films of its date, Metropolis had been hacked apart, much of it thought lost for a long long time; the restoration not only restores important parts of the plot (removed by a tut-tutting American censor decades ago) that make the story hang together a little better, it has also renewed the film as bright and crisp and amazing.  The new Metropolis is pristine, freakishly so since there’s no longer the patina to separate us in the here-and-now from this film by virtue of it being oldey-timey.  It looks like a right-now film, and its theme is certainly of the moment.  Is there really much difference between Lang’s world, divided horizontally between the workers below, who toil to comfortize life for those above the earth’s crust, and the present one, where there is a less visible, but still strong barrier, between lifestyles of Chinese workers who put their health at risk to serve the jazzy technological cravings of the west?

Clio invites nominations for other great architecture movies in the comment box below


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