Kriemhild, Attila, c. 450 A.D. by Fritz Lang

December 26, 2012


From Fritz Lang’s Nibelungen:  Siegfried is dead, murdered at the behest of Gunther, King of Burgundy.  The widow, Kriemhild, Gunther’s sister, resolves to leave the court and seek revenge.  An offer of marriage comes to her from Attila (aka the Hun), and she accepts.  See the animated GIF below.

As she rides away, her escort asks if she doesn’t want to hail her family once more.  The answer is “No.”  Her mother cries; the court poet smashes his instrument in anguish.  She arrives at the court of the Huns, taken aback by the crude barbarism of it.  Attila is transfixed by his bride to be.


Click to Animate

[Anthony Burgess wrote a great story about Attila the Hun, simply titled Hun, that describes his anxieties and preoccupations as he ravages the Roman Empire.  It was published in a collection, The Devil’s Mode.]

Fritz Lang’s Nibelungen

December 23, 2012


Before Metropolis, before M, there was the Nibelungen (1925), a five-hour Nordic-medieval-romance-fantasy like nothing I have ever seen.  The primal storytelling impulse that drives this magnificent set of moving images has petered out today in computer generated extravaganzas of ersatz mythologies dreamed up by an English university professor.

One element of the art design that struck me was that it was like watching the Vienna Succession brought to life.  The sets, costumes, and even the direction often look as if they are lifted right from Gustave Klimt (see the cropped images above) and his contemporaries.  The cinematic results are magnificent, and, strangely, it sheds new, backwards directed light on the sensibility of that fin de siècle art movement.



M for Metropolis!

December 3, 2012

Fritz Lang, who made that fabulous Ur-noir, M, made Metropolis (1927) as well, but until the last few years, it was never seen in its original form. The restored version, including lost footage retrieved from a full print found in Argentina, is available on Netflix, and it is glorious.  A sci-fi fairy tale with ominous Art Deco sets and art production, a full-on tale from the Germanic medieval Apocalyptic tradition, and an Expressionist masterpiece, it awakens in me a deep understanding of the older name for movies, motion pictures.  The images, each one, are fabulous, and they are given life through the technology of cinema.

Lang expressed distaste for his masterpiece later in his life.  He felt that it was politically naïve and simplistic.  His feelings may have had something to do with the fact that his collaborator on the work, his then-wife, Thea von Harbou, went on to embrace the Nazis, leading to their divorce soon after, and to his exile to Hollywood where he made several excellent film noirs, including Human Desire, Scarlett Street, The Big Heat.  It’s hard for me to watch this film and not think about the conflagration to come to Germany, and Europe, ten years later.

The melodramatic plot concerns Joh Fredersen, The Master of Metropolis, the city that he built on the backs of his workers.  The city is a brilliant aerial extravaganza: the workers live underground in dismal blocks of flats that look like the work of a dropout from the Bauhaus architecture school.  His magnificent brain produces the ideas and directives that keep the city humming, and his every word, utterance, and gesture is attended to with slavish awe by his subordinates.



The children of the rich frolic in pleasure domes at the top of the city towers that look like something out of Hieronymous Bosch, if he had gone to Hollywood.  Maria, a teacher from the worker’s world, brings some of her charges up on a field trip.  One wonders what were the guards who let her in thinking?  That begins the ruin of all of them.



Freder, The Master’s son, is transfixed by the sight of Maria, and decides he must go down to the depths of the worker’s city to find her. She is regarded as a spiritual leader by the workers, and restrains their violent tendencies, telling them that a Mediator will come, to join together the Head (The Master) and the The Hands (the Workers.) The allusions and similarities to New and Old Testament language and imagery are deliberate and consistent.

Freder is appalled by what he finds underground.  He witnesses an explosion at the main machine that kills many workers, and he has a vision of the infernal engine as a Moloch devouring the people. From then on, he refers to his father’s city as The Tower of Babel.


He goes in search of other knowledge, and comes upon a man killing himself with the effort of manning his post.  He is part of a crude feedback mechanism, and he must manually move the arms of the machine to point to the lights on the outer circle as they blink.  They change often, and he is worn out with keeping up, but if he does not, disaster will ensue:  He looks like a man crucified. Freder relieves him and takes his place and his worker’s clothes. He sends the man up to the city and to wait for him at a friend’s apartment, but the worker ends up spending his type at the city’s casino, a decadent fleshpot.  So much for the virtuous proles!


In another part of the city, in the only building that retains a pre-modern appearance, a tall, ancient mansion, lives Rotwang, the mad scientist- inventor.  It is obvious from his artificial hand that Dr. Strangelove owes something to this movie, as do so many others!

Rotwang's House


There’s a back story here:  Frederson’s wife, Hel, is dead, but it seems that both Master and Madman loved her.  The inventor maintains a shrine to her memory that Frederson  contemplates when he pays a visit to his main technological adviser and mentor. (These images are from restored footage, and they are grainy, and cropped differently.)


Rotwang reveals that he has been developing a mechanical man to reincarnate Hel, and Frederson is horrified, but intrigued.


Knowing that his workers are being roused to rebellion by Maria, he commands Rotwang to fashion her in the image of Maria, and send her among the workers to sow chaos and discord.  Instead of Maria’s message of peace and reconciliation, the mechanical-Maria will preach insurrection and violence.  Joh Frederson will have a perfect excuse for retaliating brutally and teaching the proles their proper place.


Rotwang kidnaps Maria and uses her in his deranged experiment…


…which ends up being rather successful.

m14_c_      m14a_c_

The transformed Maria is presented to Frederson, and he sets his awful plan in motion, not knowing that his son is in love with the real woman, and is living among the workers.  The guys on the top just don’t know what’s going down…


Freder sees his father with the false Maria and is stunned and horrified.  He swoons, and is put to bed, where he has an extended  vision along the lines of Revelation, ending with his cry, “Death come to the city!”  I have created an animated GIF of his vision, below, that you can click to activate.


click to animate and view in full

Meanwhile, the false Maria carries out her mission of evil among the workers.


Freder tries to unmask her as the impostor he knows she must be, but the workers turn on him as a member of the ruling class.

Talk about a femme fatale!


Roused by her calls to violence, the workers storm the engine rooms, and overcome the foreman, who occupies a rather difficult position in the class hierarchy.  He is a worker, but he is at the top of the class, a sort of craft-union type, and he knows the mob is wreaking destruction on itself!  He shuts the gates to hold off the mob, but The Master, with his own long game in play, orders him to raise them.  He obeys, the engines are smashed, the pumps stop, and the workers city begins to flood.




The workers do an infernal dance around the smoldering ruin of the main engine, but the foreman breaks the spell, demanding of them, “Where are your children?”  Indeed, they gave no thought to them as they went on their rampage, and the foreman makes clear to them their utter dependence on the machines that they have smashed.  Luddite he ain’t.




The real Maria comes to the rescue, herding the children left behind to the alarm station where she is ringing the bell.


Meanwhile, the false Maria declares, “Let’s watch the city go to the devil!!” an parties with the city élite.


Like Hugo’s novel Notre dame de Paris, the center of the city, even of the godless machine-metropolis, is the cathedral.  It symbolizes the mediating heart between head and hands.  And as in that novel, a climactic struggle between Good and Evil takes place on the roof as Freder fights with Rotwang.


Down in the square, the foreman leads the action, roping the false Maria to a stake for burning in the good old fashioned way.



With purifying flame comes the revelation of her true nature.


Finally, Freder emerges with Maria and his father, and mediates an uneasy reconciliation between the foreman, speaking for the masses, and his father.  Happy ending for ruler and ruled!


Diary of a Lost Girl

June 12, 2011

The second great Berlin collaboration of Pabst and the incomparable Louise Brooks:  She plays Thymian, the innocent daughter of a philandering pharmacist who swoons at sexual insinuation, and is raped by her fathers apprentice.  She has a child, and is cast out of the house while the father marries his pretty housekeeper.  The creepy associate takes the mortgages of the business and runs the show.

In the reformatory, she lives a grim, regimented existence ruled by a pair of sadists:  a repressed woman who gets orgasmic beating time on a cymbal to direct meals and evening exercise; and a shaven-headed thug who must have inspired Lurch of The Adams Family.   The only human warmth comes from surreptitious lesbian relationships among the wards.

When the thug manhandles her friend for sneaking in lipstick, Thymian and she escape and make their way to a tony whorehouse that the girl knows.  Thymian is showered with clothing and caresses, but remains innocent…until she swoons again, and joins the business.  Does anyone do swoons as well as Louise?

Her father dies, and she is the heir.  During the legal formalities, she takes the opportunity to snub her rapist and tormentor who responds with, “Filthy slut! ”  She gives away all she receives to the father’s widow who would otherwise be thrown onto the street by the rapist.  Her husband, the pennnyless and dissolute Count Orloff, a childhood friend, commits suicide when he finds that she gave away the money so that her step-sister won’t end up as she did.  Orloff’s uncle wants to make amends for his harsh line with his nephew, and he takes her in.

She joins the do-gooding crusade to save wayward girls run by the uncle’s family relations, and ends up at her old scene of torment.  The sadists adopt a mask of syrupy virtue that fools the high-class reformers, but Thymian sets them all straight about what really goes on there.  Her uncle concludes with the golden rule of social reform.

Brooks is wonderful throughout, and the film has many harrowing scenes of hypocrisy, sadism, and brutal social snobbery that make the conclusion profound rather than sentimental.

More Blue

September 20, 2010

From The Blue Dahlia, to The Blue Angel – it still packs quite a punch after eighty years! 

Lola Lola is in town, performing at The Blue Angel, and the schoolboys flock there at night.  Their uptight professor investigates, and tries to scare them away.  He imagines that Lola is the victim of a “white slavery” racket.  Marlene Dietrich’s vamping and singing have been parodied and spoofed, always as homage, I guess, and there’s no denying their power.  This was 1930 cinema!

The professor, “Teach” they call him at the club, comically tries to “defend” Lola, and she is touched and amused.  He is totally smitten.  The impressario makes him the guest of honor for the night.  Just what sort of honor is this, I wonder?, he seems to be thinking.  Complete fool that he is, he marries Lola Lola – who knows what she makes of it, a nice banquet, maybe? – and his reputation is sunk.  At the wedding party, he does an imitation of a crowing rooster – more on that later.


He joins the troupe to stay with Lola, and discovers a different form of white slavery, his own.


I wonder if there is a connection between this image of Lola and this one by Man Ray from a bit later.


Five years go by, and Teach has sunk very low.  He has become the clown figure he scorned as trash when he first burst into Lola Lola’s dressing room.  She has developed other interests like the strongman Mazeppa, who starts hanging around.  He’s a natty dresser.

The troupe leader scores a coup!  They will return to The Blue Angel for the first time in five years, and Teach will be featured!  The house will be filled for sure – everyone in town knows his story.  But he struggles against his ultimate humiliation, and refuses to go on.  Lola gives him a fatal look, and he obeys.


On stage with the magician doing his egg-from-the-nose routine, he must crow like a rooster.  He complies, but when he sees Lola cuddling offstage, he becomes totally unhinged.


Escaping from the club, he makes his way back to the classroom where it all began, and dies, clutching his old desk so hard that the watchman can’t pry his fingers loose.  Too late – he lost his respectable refuge long ago.

At several points in the film, people say to the professor, I can understand a lot, but to ruin yourself for a woman/a dame/a woman like that!  Lola Lola closes out with her signature song, “Falling in Love Again,” and laments, “what can I do, I’m just made that way, I can’t help it.”  It’s his song too.