Thursday, March 14, 2013

History of Science Fiction Cinema:
Fritz Lang, Metropolis and German Expressionism

The science fiction genre began in 1902 with the release of the French film, A Trip to the Moon.

It grew over the next two decades with films from the US, the UK, Denmark, Russia and Italy. All world leaders of the time in cinema.

Then the 1920's came and a new super power of silent cinema came roaring into the forefront of creativity and production.

That country was Germany, and the newfound creativity came from an artistic form known as German Expressionism.

Just coming out of a terrible war, the new Wiemar Republic of Germany turned its eyes to the arts, and most notably to that so-called eighth art, known as Cinema. Many of its great successes were in the horror genre.

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari

Films such as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Nosferatu were early benchmarks of the stylistic form that would make Germany a powerhouse in world cinema in the 1920's and early 1930's. Arguably though, the most famous of all the German Expressionist films (though we mustn't leave out the influence of Art Deco on the film as well), is also one of the finest science fiction films ever made, and is still considered so today.

The film is Metropolis, and it is indeed a spectacular work of cinema.

Set in a dystopian future (my favourite of all the sci-fi sub-genres), Metropolis is the most audacious undertaking from a director who was already known for creating audacious silent masterpieces. Fritz Lang, already with several big name films under his belt, created Metropolis as a metaphor for the class warfare that was going on in most of Europe at the time.

The fat cat factory owners versus the common man. Needless to say, the socialistic undercurrents of the film got Lang into a lot of trouble with the censors. The film was cut, and cut again, and eventually cut so much that Lang could no longer even recognize his own film.

The film, which cost five million marks to make, was only a moderate success at first, and over the years was mostly forgotten, many of the cut portions supposedly lost over time.

The spectacle of it all was quite impressive though. With giant machines, and hundreds of extras marching along in perfect form and symmetry, and being centerpieced by a female robot called the False Maria, the film was a gigantic spectacle indeed.

Critically famous, the film could not just sit in a warehouse somewhere, and many times through the years, film historians and restorers have attempted to put the film back together again.

As recently as the early eighties, new restorations have been tried. One by record producer Giorgio Moroder, was highlighted by a musical score by the-current pop stars such as Freddie Mercury and Adam Ant.

The most recent restoration though, came after a16mm reduction negative of the original cut of the film had been discovered in the archives of the Museo del Cine, in Argentina, in 2008. After several years of restoration, the new print was released to the public, many scenes being seen for the first time since its original 1927 Berlin release. The film is one of the most seminal films in the genre's history.

But, Metropolis wasn't the only sci-fi film Lang worked on.

In October of 1929, Lang released Woman in the Moon, a space travel film, that combines many aspects of the genre. The film has mostly been overlooked when discussing Lang's oeuvre - an oeuvre that includes films like M and The Big Heat and Dr. Mabuse and Beyond a Reasonable Doubt and Rancho Notorious, so it is somewhat understandable - but when we are talking early sci-fi, this one is truly a must see.

Combating weightlessness in space from Woman in the Moon

Lang is considered by most of the film-loving world, to be one of the greatest auteurs in cinematic history, and Metropolis and even Woman in the Moon, even if it is criminally overlooked, are two of the master's finest films.

That's it for this time around, but I will be back next time with a look at the early sound days in sci-fi cinema, and films like King Kong, Frankenstein and his Universal Horror brethren, as well as some of the better 1930's serials, like Flash Gordon. See ya then.

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