Fritz Lang: Banned from Nazi Germany, storyteller of the criminal underworld, a visual stylist who could move from large-scale fantastic spectacles to painful close-ups of his tormented characters. The complete oeuvre of legendary director Lang is coming to the Harvard Film Archive, beginning Friday and running through Sept. 1. The enigmatic filmmaker’s most famous titles, such as “Metropolis,” “The Big Heat” and “M,” will be showcased alongside rarely shown films like “The Tiger of Eschnapur,” “Destiny” and “American Guerrilla in the Philippines.”
While modern day Hollywood is enjoying a mini sci-fi renaissance with “Snowpiercer,” “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes,” “Under the Skin” and “Coherence,” you should not miss Friday’s live-accompanied screening of “Metropolis.” The HFA notes that pianist Martin Marks will introduce the film and use the original orchestral score by Gottfried Huppertz.
If you haven’t seen the film recently, then this restored edition of “Metropolis” will add more depth to a familiar story. In 2008, almost 30 minutes of previously thought lost “Metropolis” footage was discovered in a film collection in Argentina. Using splices from other rediscovered prints from around the world, audiences in 2010 were treated to the most complete version of “Metropolis” since its 1927 Berlin premiere. The film remains five minutes short of its original runtime.
Like “Snowpiercer,” “Metropolis” discusses class issues in a dystopian future, with the downtrodden working class slaving over machinery underground while the upper echelons of society lead leisurely lives comfortably in the clouds. Lang industrializes the underground catacomb-like dwellings of the movie’s proletariat. Their work becomes a place that consumes them, a sight that horrifies our privileged leading man. After an accident, his vision equates it to an ancient temple where the workers are sacrificed in order to power lush playgrounds and chic nightclubs above.
In addition to the uncomfortable schism widening between the haves and the have-nots at the tail-end of the Weimer Republic, Lang also touched upon a very real technophobia we see repeated in contemporary sci-fi: fear of a robot takeover. One of the most iconic images from the movie (indeed usually the cover art or poster for it) features a sleek Art-Deco-esque robotic figure. In the film, an evil inventor creates her to take the form of a saintly working class peace advocate. It might seem less than groundbreaking now, but the world in 1927 could hardly imagine the full capability of computers, let alone the concept of carrying one in our pocket.
Other silent gems will be shown throughout the series with live accompaniment, including “The Spiders,” “Harakiri” and “Woman in the Moon.” Perhaps one of Lang’s next most recognized work was his collaboration with Peter Lorre in “M.” The chilling, frantic performance from Lorre as a child killer is matched with Lang’s carefully stylized suspense. Lang never depicts the actual crime, but terrifies its audience all the same. Playing on his protagonist’s fear (and ours), it’s a horror/crime movie built out of whispers and visual clues.
Lang’s career went through many phases, from silent to sound, from black and white to color, from the German UFA studio to the Hollywood studio system. Yet he returned to several themes throughout his career: vigilantism, paranoia, the breakdown of society, the concept of justice in an unjust world. His Hollywood days saw collaborations with Edward G. Robinson, Glenn Ford, Barbara Stanwyck and Spencer Tracy. Out from German expressionism and chiaroscuro, Lang uses lights and shadows to frame the scary world ensnaring his characters, playing on their fear of the unseen. His unique style helped to add several seminal works to the history of cinema. The HFA’s retrospective is a chance to see his style develop and his thematic dissertations go deeper across several genres.
Monica Castillo is a freelance film critic and writer based in Boston. You can usually find her outside any of the area’s movie theaters excitedly talking about the film she just saw.