Category Archives: silent film

From Renee Smith to Sita Devi: Retrieving the Forgotten Enchantress of Silent Era

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Indian cinema had birthed a fair share of visionaries even before the beginning of what later came to be termed as the Golden era. Under the reigns of the British Raj, certain Indian artists thrived upon the offerings that colonial engagements with art had to offer and used the political situation of the period to engage cinema in a dialogue of cultures. The dialogical development of cinema, with silent movies relying heavily on scenic photography and camera angles, what unraveled on the big screen involved not only the oppressed lot making a statement but also the privileged lot participating in the process. The emancipating nature of art drew many budding filmmakers to garner the global recognition of not only Indian art but also Indian culture in general by using films as language. In this democratising activity of filmmaking, one of the most celebrated manufacturers was Himanshu Rai who dared to look beyond the logistical restrictions of his space to harness a global outlook. However, this post is not about him but about an unsung actor, who despite not being biologically involved in the cultural milieu of the subject matter of her work, adorned many characters in a number of such experimental films. Though, she was born as Renee Smith in an Anglo-Indian family, the cinematic history would remember her as Sita Devi.

The silent movie era of Indian cinema had a brief but eventful affair with German collaboration. Though much has not been written about her, Sita Devi’s momentary presence in Indian films can be seen in these very collaborative projects. When Himanshu Rai joined hands with a Bavarian film company Emelka, a film named Prem Sanyas (The Light of Asia) was released in 1925 which was generously budgeted and was directed and produced by Himanshu Rai himself who also appeared as one of the actors. This very film had the young Renee Smith (Sita Devi) playing the character of Princess Gopa, who is decorated quite intricately with the cultural symbols of Buddhist ritualism. This was her debut film, and thanks to her blossoming presence on screen, she became an overnight star. She later went on to work under the banner of Madan productions but could never repeat the success she garnered in her very first film.

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Renee went on to do two other films with this Indo-German collaborative project, which seemed more like a trinity now, that were also classified as period dramas showcasing the grandeur of Indian culture. Interestingly, these three films spanned three different religions (Buddhism, Islam and Christianity) rightly spanning the diverse cultural fabric of the country.

The artistic outlook of Renee Smith and her respect for the art of cinema can be traced from the diversity of roles she played in this trinity and also the distinct nature of each of those characters. Despite sprouting as a star in her very first film, she did not hesitate to play the ‘other woman’ in Shiraz (1928) and a villain in Prapancha Pash (Throw of Dice, 1929). Despite the social perception of that period for such roles and the impact it had on the careers of the actors who played them, Renee chose to explore the shades of her artistic capabilities rather than fearing social stigmatization.

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The short filmography of this illustrious actor involves many socially unconventional roles in movies such as Bharat Ramani (Enchantress of India, 1929), Bhrantri (Mistake, 1928) and Kal Parinaya (Fatal Marriage, 1930). Despite not being culturally relatable to the majority of the population, the success of Renee Smith established itself upon her ability to immerse herself in the complexities of her character, reaching the finest degrees of method acting. She came across as an exotic representation to many of her contemporary directors, but that only worked towards constructing a strong narrative around the creative credentials of this effervescent actress.

With her films being showcased in German and English to the elite cinematic audience of Europe, including the royal family, a couple of Renee’s films were also immortalized for global audiences with German translations (Das Grabmal einer großen Liebe and Die Leuchte Asiens). It is hard not to mention the famous rumour of the period which said that Renee’s sister Patty was often used as her double in some of the sequences. Renee Smith has been unfortunately forgotten by the repositories of Indian cinema. In her short yet colossal montage of work, Renee aka Sita Devi has displayed the full dimension of her artistic prowess and the lengths of her creativity. I hope the reading of this post will only generate more discussion on this wonderful actor, getting her the rightful place in pop culture, something she so unequivocally deserves.

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Picture Credits: British Film Institute

City Lights (1931)

City Lights, which is widely considered to be, not only one of the greatest silent films ever made, but one of the greatest films ever made, is all that and more. As Portland State University instructor Dennis Grunes points, out Charlie Chaplin’s masterpiece is “the seminal American movie of the Great Depression.” Then why did it leave me feeling so cold?

I suppose that is at least partly the film’s intention. Unlike many Depression era movies, City Lights has neither a happy ending, nor a cathartic, tragic ending. For eighty six out of its eighty seven minutes, Chaplain weaves an enchanting fantasy of a homeless man who finds true love with a blind flower girl only to bring us back down to reality before the final credits. Chaplain, a genuine artist as well as a gifted entertainer, won’t let us carry the illusion out of the theater.

You might miss it if you’re not paying attention.

City Lights opens with the mayor of the city dedicating a statue to “Peace and Prosperity.” Even though City Lights is a silent film, Chaplain couldn’t resist adding the voices of the politicians to the movie’s soundtrack. They sound like the teacher from the Charlie Brown comics, pompous fools babbling nonsense that has little or not relevance to the genuinely disadvantaged, “Little Tramp,” who’s revealed to have fallen asleep in the statue’s lap after they raise the curtain. After being chased by the police away from peace and prosperity the Little Tramp then meets the woman of his dreams, a blind flower girl played by Virginia Cherrill. In real life, Cherrill and Chaplain couldn’t stand each other, and he came close to firing her. It’s a good thing for City Lights he didn’t. Cherrill is a luminous presence, a worthy “object” of the little tramp’s devoted adoration who betrays little or no sign of her personal dislike for Chaplain himself. After he meets the flower girl, suddenly finding a reason to live in spite of his poverty, the Little Tramp meets a man who has every reason to live, a millionaire played by Harry Myers, but who, for a a variety of frivolous excuses, wants to die. The Little Tramp, inspired by his infatuation for the blind flower girl, saves the millionaire’s life. To be more accurate, he tricks the millionaire into saving his life, accidentally falling into the river where the man had planned to drown himself. A friendship, which, as Grunes points out, accurately reflects the attitude of the Depression Era bourgeoisie to the poor, begins to develop. The millionaire takes the Little Tramp home, gives him dinner and a change of clothes, accidentally pours wine down his pants, and introduces him to the Butler, who, like most devoted servants of the rich, dislike the poor more than the rich do themselves.

Soon it becomes clear that the millionaire is a kind, generous man when he’s drunk, and a bit of an asshole when he’s sober. Meanwhile, the blind flower girl, who lives with her mother in a tiny apartment, is in danger of joining The Little Tramp in among the ranks of the city’s homeless. After she asks him to read her the eviction notice pasted to their door, The Tramp is determined to get the money to pay the rent. First he gets a job as a street sweeper, but gets fired for being late one too many times. Then he agrees to go into the ring with a professional prizefighter, take a dive, and split the purse. The prizefighter, however, has to leave town – he’s wanted by the law – and the Tramp finds himself in the ring with a hastily chosen replacement, who knows nothing about the Tramp’s agreement to throw the fight. The Tramp, a surprisingly tricky fighter, does his best, but in the end loses, and comes away empty handed. All however, is not lost, at least for the flower girl. The Tramp not only discovers a revolutionary new surgery that promises to restore her sight. He persuades his friend the alcoholic millionaire, who has returned from an extended trip to Europe, to pay the back rent and bankroll the operation. After a series of mishaps – the millionaire produces the cash but gets robbed and the Tramp ends up in jail, false accused of a crime he didn’t commit – the blind girl undergoes the surgery, gets her sight back, and ends up as the owner of a prosperous flower shop.

The flower girl’s miraculous cure, however, is the end of the Tramp’s beautiful dream. Up until she gets her sight back, Virginia Cherrill’s flower girl is a beautiful object with, perhaps, a rich inner life, but not an active subject with hopes and dreams of her own. Her disability gone, her own desires, which do not include marrying an ugly little homeless man, come to the surface. The Tramp, she has convinced herself, is a handsome young millionaire. There’s really no sadder moment in cinema – at least for men who aren’t handsome young millionaires – then the way her eyes light up at the sight of a tall, well-dressed young man she mistakenly thinks her benefactor and her disappointment when she finally meets The Tramp, her real benefactor. She’s kind to the poor little man – she gives him money and a flower – but it’s clear she doesn’t love him, at least not in the adoring, romantic way he loves her. Nothing, of course, can force romantic love, which is not kindness, respect, gratitude, nostalgia, or admiration, but an irrational selfish desire no one can really control. Some men inspire romantic love in women. Others do not.

Charlie Chaplin rises above the level of talented showman to become a genuine artist when he realizes that he can so clearly express what he will never experience himself.

Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ (1925)

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(Note: This review is not about the 1959 version of Ben-Hur with Charlton Heston, which is a dull, bloated, overrated movie, or about the 2015 version, which nobody saw, but the original, silent epic Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ, which is a masterpiece.)

On April 6 and April 7 of 1862 one of the greatest battles of the United States Civil War took place in Hardin County in Southwestern Tennessee, The Battle of Shiloh. After Shiloh, which ended up as a closely fought Union victory, came perilously close to being a career-ending disaster for Ulysses S. Grant and William Tecumseh Sherman, Grant, who was almost as good a politician as he was a general, and certainly no saint, started to look around for a scapegoat. He found his goat in the form of the 34-year-old Lew Wallace, a native of Indiana who was at the time the youngest Major General in the United States Army, but not a West Point graduate. Whether or not Wallace’s inability to get the Third Division online in time for the first day of battle on April 6 cost lives is open for debate, but there’s no question that it was Grant and Sherman’s incompetent intelligence gathering, not Wallace’s confusion, that almost led to disaster when Confederate Generals Albert Sydney Johnson and P. G. T. Beauregard came within an inch of destroying the scattered Union forces before they could consolidate near Pittsfield Landing. Wallace, who was relieved of his command, spent the rest of his life trying to redeem his damaged reputation.

Lew Wallace got the last laugh on Ulysses Grant. Grant was an excellent writer and a friend of Mark Twain who published a brilliant, but mostly forgotten autobiography in 1885. Lew Wallace wrote the best selling American novel of the latter half of the Nineteenth Century, Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ. Ben Hur, which was as popular in 1900 as Harry Potter or Star Wars is today, not only made Lew Wallace a wealthy man, it was eventually adapted into three feature length and one short film, a mini-series, and hit Broadway play, which opened in 1899 and ran for twenty-one years. It was the play, more than the novel itself, which inspired the 1925 epic. Starring Ramon Novarro and directed by Fred Niblo, Ben-Hur: The Tale of the Christ (1925) was most expensive film made during the silent era. Overshadowed by William Wyler’s far inferior 1959 film Ben Hur, Niblo’s film has recently become a cult classic among cinophiles, but has not yet reached the general public. I only found out about it because I used to follow a film critic on Twitter — who has since blocked me because she found out I voted for Ralph Nader in 2000 — who assured me that it was nothing like Wyler’s ponderous, overrated bomb, that it was a genuine masterpiece that ranks with the best films by Griffith or Eisenstein without a boring moment in its two and a half hour running time. Hillary Clinton fan girl or not, she was right. Believe the hype. The 1925 silent epic Ben-Hur: The Tale of the Christ is a work of genius. Watch it now. Even if you hate silent film, you’ll wonder why you waited so long to see it. It may in fact even get you hooked on silent film.

These days we live in the post-film era. Most of the big budget extravaganzas that make their way to the multiplex are more like video games than films. Film, if it still exists, has moved to Netflix and cable TV, with mediocre soap operas like House of Cards and Madmen doing a bad imitation of what was once a great art form. Yet, even in 1930, I think, we lost something with the advent of sound. To compare the 1959 Ben-Hur with the 1925 Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ drives home just how much. Wyler’s film, which cost three times as much as Niblo’s, and which had the advantage of twenty four years of advances in cinematic technology gets hung up on one unfortunate thing, Charlton Heston’s bad acting. Don’t get me wrong. I don’t particularly dislike Charlton Heston – he was fine in Anthony Mann’s El Cid – but he has no talent for infusing the English language with any sense of wonder or magic. He just reads lines. When his Judah Ben-Hur sees Jesus Christ being led to his crucifixion and growls “what has he done to merit this” he could just as easily be a middle class commuter watching the NYPD beat up someone for turnstile jumping as a man watching the actual Jesus Christ go to his actual crucifixion. Sound locks up film in the prison house of language and its a rare actor – Olivier perhaps in Hamlet or Henry V – who can set it free.

In 1925, the technology of film doesn’t serve to impede a sense of wonder and magic. On the contrary, it enables us to feel a sense of wonder and magic. Film wasn’t exactly new in 1925. It had been almost ten years since Griffith’s Birth of a Nation hit the theaters accompanied by protests and burning crosses. It had grown much more sophisticated. Not only does the opening of Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ present us with a meticulously designed model of the ancient city of Jerusalem and an elaborate staging of the nativity, it’s in color, Niblo’s epic being perhaps the first major Hollywood movie to use color film. The effect is similar to what happens when an archive publishes a rare trove of color photographs from 1920s Paris or turn of the century Russia, the illusion of authenticity. Niblo’s film, which was actually the first movie they ever played in my local movie palace — which has course long been divided and subdivided into a multiplex – by its use of color in its first 12 minutes loudly declaims “this isn’t film. This isn’t art. This is in color. This is reality. This is the actual birth of Jesus Christ in Bethlehem 1925 years ago.” No words, which would only sound as if they came from Brooklyn, New Jersey, or the Midwest, intrude upon the illusion. On the contrary, we simply look at the actress Betty Bronson’s beautiful face and understand why the innkeeper suddenly took pit on Joseph and Mary and found them a place in the manger. He felt the same magic we do, the presence of God in the light and shadow.

That Ramon Novarro, the Mexican American actor who portrays Judah Ben-Hur, lacks Charlton Heston’s heroic build or stature, works to the film’s advantage. The emotional heart of Lew Wallace’s novel lay in Wallace’s anger over having had his reputation trampled over by the mighty Ulysses S. Grant. In Fred Niblo’s film, the underlying obsession with the eighteenth President of the United States is translated into the physical differences between the slim, olive skinned, almost feminine Novarro and Francis X. Bushman, the tall, imposing actor who plays his nemesis Messala. It really is to American cinema’s everlasting credit that in 1925, with Hitler only a few years away from power in Germany, Hollywood released a big-budget film that, Christian though it is, is also an effective protest against antisemitism. The Jews are presented as an oppressed subject people, ground down under the heel of the Roman tyrant. Anybody who thinks bodybuilding started out in the 1970s needs to watch the silent Ben Hur. Somehow Fred Niblo managed to find dozens upon dozens of big, brawny, thuggish looking actors, all of whom seem to be over six feet tall and fresh out of a session pumping iron at Gold’s Gym, and all of whom are utterly convincing as Roman legionnaires. The Romans are an arrogant, occupying army. The Jews are their soulful, oppressed slaves yearning to be free. When Judah Ben-Hur, an unintentional rebel who accidentally kills a Roman governor after he leans on a parapet and drops a heavy stone on his head, is sentenced to life in prison as a galley slave – Wallace’s exile from active duty military command at the hands of Ulysses Grant? — and his mother, sister, long time family servant and childhood sweetheart, are buried alive deep in the hell of a Roman dungeon they become the stand ins, not only for European Jews, but for the black freedman abandoned by the Republican Party in 1876. In his novel, Lew Wallace, a fierce unionist and radical Republican, repeatedly addressed the issue of slavery. Niblo’s film even manages to include black actors, one of whom mocks the pompous Roman governor as he’s carried through Jerusalem in a sedan chair by a retinue of slaves.

The sea battle, where Judah is befriended and eventually set free by a Roman commander who admires his youthful good looks and rebellious spirit, is an elaborate production — Niblo built and destroyed life sized reproductions of Roman galleys – the probably surpasses the famous chariot race. Since the 1925 film predates the Production Code by almost eight years, there are no puritanical restrictions on content. We even get to see topless women later in the film, scenes which had been edited out of the film prior to the latest restoration. The sea battle is as violent as anything in Saving Private Ryan. A pirate commander straps a Roman prisoner to the prow of his galley and executes him by ramming his head into the side of a Roman ship. “I captured you from Roman and in a sense I return you to Rome.” Another pirate decapitates a Roman sailor and raises his head high as a trophy of battle. Above all, the scene manages to convey the difference between being a terrified galley slave, chained to a ship that most likely be rammed and sent beneath the waves, and a free man like Judah Ben-Hur, whose shackles had been deliberately left unlocked by the Roman commander Arrius. Freedom, the film tells us, is not something anybody can give you, but the opportunity to take it for yourself. After their galley is sunk by pirates, Judah manages to save the life of Arrius. Floating in an open raft at sea, and believing that he lost the battle, Arrius contemplates suicide. Eventually however, much like Grant and Sherman at Shiloh, he learns that a near disaster had actually been a great victory. At Shiloh, the Union Army cleared western Tennessee of the Confederate Army. After the sea battle in Ben Hur, and Arrius learns that he has dealt a crippling blow to the pirates threatening Roman shipping in the Mediterranean, he adopts Judah as his son and gives him the privileges of Roman citizenship. A slave no longer, Judah Ben-Hur is now an honorary member of the master race.

Yet Judah decides against the idea of assimilation, of becoming one of a few Jews privileged to lead the life of a Roman aristocrat. Instead, he travels back to Judea to look for his long lost family servant, childhood sweetheart, mother and sister, both of whom contract leprosy in the Roman dungeon. Much has been written about the famous chariot race, where Judah finally vanquishes Massala in a way Lew Wallace could never get his revenge on Ulysses Grant, but the most remarkable segment in the latter half of Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ involves a chase scene. As Daniel Levine, the co-proprietor of this blog, has often argued, one of the fundamental narrative strategies of American cinema, which was invented by D.W. Griffith in The Birth of a Nation, is the cliffhanger. We are presented with two parallel narratives. As the action proceeds, the director ratchets up our interest. We know it will have a happy ending, but we still become immersed in dramatic tension. Will the Klan rescue Elsie Stoneman before she’s raped by marauding freedmen? Will Luke Skywalker blow up the Death Star before it obliterates the rebel base on Yavin 4. Will Frodo cast the ring into the fires of Mount Doom before Sauron’s dark legions overwhelm Aragorn and the brave men of the west?

In Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ, the cliffhanger centers around Jesus Christ being led to his crucifixion. The dramatic tension, of course, has nothing to do with the idea of whether or not Christ will go to the cross. Of course he will. It involves Esther, Judah Ben-Hur’s childhood sweetheart, his mother and sister. Judah, who has returned to Judea not only to get his revenge on Massalla, but to find his unjustly imprisoned mother and sister, eventually resigns himself to the idea that he’s the last surviving member of his family, that his mother and sister have long since perished in a Roman dungeon. They have not. On the contrary, they’ve been freed. They know Judah has returned and they know of his whereabouts. The only problem is that they’ve both contracted leprosy and “the Princess of Hur,” Judah’s mother, is too ashamed to reveal herself. There is a scene of almost unbearable sadness where the Princess and Tirzah, her daughter, hover over her sleeping son. Each time Tirzah makes a move to wake her brother, her mother prevents her. “He’s of the living,” she says. “We’re of the dead,” recalling, in many ways, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s great story Wakefield, and the invisible wall of separation that often falls between alienated family members. The Princess has resigned herself and her daughter to living out the rest of their lives in a leper colony among the living dead, but Esther, who becomes aware of their presence, as well as the divinity of Christ, descends into hell, the leper colony, to rescue her future husband’s family members. Christ has already been sentenced to death and is in fact already on his way to his crucifixion, but Esther races against the clock, dragging Tirzah and the Princess behind her on the way to Christ’s Golgotha and what towards what she believes will be their magical cure, a brilliant variation on the classic American chase scene that, of course, ends with the condemned Jesus passing his hand over the two women, curing their leprosy, and bringing them back from the land of the dead to the land of the living. Christ has not only reunited Judah Ben-Hur with his long last mother and sister, he has liberated Judah Ben-Hur, he has liberated Lew Wallace from his desire for revenge against Ulysses Grant and the Jewish people from their Roman oppressor.

“Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ,” the original advertisements in 1925 read, “a film that every Christian must see.” See it even if you’re not a Christian. It’s a classic that deserves to be revived, not in a lame Hollywood reboot, but by a new audience.

The General (1926)

The General is a cinematic marvel. If you’re under any illusion the Buster Keaton was merely a slapstick comedian, see it now. As a pure filmmaker, Keaton was fully the equal of Eisenstein, Vertov and Pudovkin, his three great Soviet contemporaries. Nevertheless, to compare The General to October, A Man With a Movie Camera, or The End of St. Petersburg is understand once and for all the superiority of early Soviet cinema to anything that ever came out of Hollywood. At the same time Eisenstein, Vertov and Pudovkin were making revolutionary films about smashing Russian feudalism, and about the liberation of the working-class, Buster Keaton had thoughtlessly fallen into the reactionary politics of the Neo-Confederate south.

The General is loosely based on “The Great Locomotive Chase,” an incident that took place during the early years of the United States Civil War. On April 12, 1862, a group of about twenty Union soldiers led by a Kentucky civilian named James J. Andrews crossed over into Confederate territory near the present day Kennesaw, Georgia, and hijacked a Western and Atlantic Railroad Company called “The General.” Their plan, to tear up the railway lines between Atlanta and Chattanooga, made perfect sense from a military perspective. The United States Civil War was the first conflict in history where both sides depended on railroads. Cutting the supply lines from Atlanta to Chattanooga would have been a devastating blow to the Confederates in the west, where the had already lost the Battle of Shiloh only a week earlier. It failed, of course. Twenty men were pathetically inadequate to wreck several hundred miles of railway behind enemy lines. What’s more, William Allen Fuller, the General’s conductor, managed to chase Andrews and his men for over eighty miles, first by foot, by handcar, and finally by the Yonah, a locomotive he managed to commandeer near the present day site of Canton, Georgia, and the Texas, yet another locomotive, he found, along with twelve Confederate soldiers, near Calhoun. His determined pursuit kept them from doing even the small amount of damage twenty men could have done had they been let unmolested. After the General ran out of fuel 18 miles short of Chattanooga, Andrews and his men scattered, attempting to get back to Union lines, but all of them were eventually captured, and Andrews himself, being a civilian, was hanged as a spy.

Even if Andrews and his men failed to cut the railway lines between Marietta and Chattanooga, however, The Great Locomotive Chase had been an enormous psychological blow to the south, a foreshadowing of Grierson’s Raid much later in the war, as well as Sherman’s March Through Georgia. As a civilian, Andrews wasn’t eligible for the Congressional Medal of Honor, an award given posthumously to several of his men, but from a Union perspective he and his men were obviously heroes. The General, by contrast, comes down squarely on the side of the Confederates. Buster Keaton, who plays “Johnnie Gray,” a loosely fictionalized version of William Fuller, portrays Andrews and his men as buffoons, the Keystone Cops of the Union Army. Unlike the real James J. Andrews and his men they do briefly succeed in turning the tide of the war around Chattanooga, but in the process of stealing The General, they accidentally kidnap Annabel Lee, Gray’s one time girlfriend who had dumped him early in the film because she had believed him a coward unwilling to enlist in the Confederate Army. This gives Keaton the opportunity to play Fuller not only as a determined Confederate patriot, but as a romantic hero willing to risk everything to rescue his beloved. By the end of The General, Gray has won back the love of Annabel Lee. He has also accidentally spied on a Union General and his staff planning a surprise attack against the Confederates, who had left their flank exposed during a retreat. After a second chase from Chattanooga back to Marietta, this time with the Yankees in hot pursuit of Gray, he manages to reach Confederate lines. The Confederate Army, now apprised of the Union Army’s plans, turn the tide of what would have been a losing battle and drive the Yankees out of Georgia back towards Chattanooga.

It’s all incredibly entertaining. The General set the template for almost every chase movie put out by Hollywood in the past 75 years. Keaton pretty much invented the whole template. The train crash, the only good scene in the insufferably dull 1990s film The Fugitive, for example, is lifted almost whole cloth from The General. A hilarious scene where Keaton is oblivious to the retreating Confederates and the advancing Unionists, to the way he’s falling behind enemy lines, is a masterpiece of silent film comedy. Keaton is not a great stunt man and physical comedian. He’s a great cinematographer. Filmed in Cottage Grove Oregon, The General manages to capture the way northern Georgia would have looked in the 1860s. Gone With the Wind, by contrast, looks like an artificial stage production. Most of the Confederacy during the Civil War was still basically the frontier. Keaton’s portrayal of the early railway system, in turn, is almost as good. Determined to be as authentic as possible, Keaton chose to film on location in Cottage Grove mainly because it had the same kind of “narrow gauge” railway the Confederates would have been using in April of 1862. For anybody accustomed to CGI and “special effects” The General will be a revelation. This is real cinema, not a video game put up on the big screen.

The problem with Keaton’s film isn’t so much that he plays the Yankees as buffoons and recasts William Fuller as a romantic hero. The Yankees aren’t villains so much as stock comic figures you’d find in any vaudeville show. The real life William Fuller was quite obviously a brave, inventive man who chased a raiding party of twenty men by himself. Keaton’s insertion of Annabel Lee as the reason for the pursuit was a stroke of genius. The problem is inherent in the reason Keaton, a northerner, gave for casting himself as a Southerner in the first place. Keaton chose to tell the story from the point of view of The South, we learn in a documentary called A Hard Act to Follow, because it would have been “punching down” (to use the modern term) to make fun of the “side that lost the war.” Keaton, in other words, like D.W. Griffith and Margaret Mitchell, bought into the myth of southern white victim hood, of the slave power as the underdog. He erases slavery from his narrative and black people from the history of the Civil War. In that respect, The General is even worse than Birth of a Nation or Gone With the Wind, both of which have toxic, racist views of blacks, but neither of which deny their existence. I’ve watched The General twice and kept a sharp eye out for the sight of even one black extra. There are none to be scene.

“Well so what?” I can here you say. “Watch the movie Keaton made, not the one you’d like him to have made.” Better yet, make a film about The Great Locomotive Chase yourself. That way you can make the Yankees the heros and include all the oppressed and beaten down slaves you want. You might be right, and maybe I’ll do that some day. History would bear me out. Not everybody in James J. Andrews’ raiding party, in fact, got captured by the Confederates. Not only did eight men escape back to Union lines. According to William Pittenger, one of the surviving members of James’ raiding party, they did it with the help of “union sympathizers and escaped slaves.”

Writing about the exploit, Corporal William Pittenger said that the remaining raiders worried about also being executed. They attempted to escape and eight succeeded. Traveling for hundreds of miles in pairs, they all made it back safely to Union lines, including two who were aided by slaves and Union sympathizers and two who floated down the Chattahoochee River until they were rescued by the Union blockade vessel USS Somerset. The remaining six were held as prisoners of war and exchanged for Confederate prisoners on March 17, 1863.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_Locomotive_Chase

That’s the movie that would have gotten made by Keaton’s Soviet contemporaries and the great American Civil War film we’ll probably never get to see.

Mother (1926)

Mother, Vsevolod Pudovkin’s first major film, was released in 1926, two years before The End of St. Petersburg. I’ll leave the question of whether or not Mother is a feminist movie to the feminists. This essay by Cara Marisa Deleon does a better job of breaking down the way Mother approaches gender issues than I could. I am mainly interested in comparing the ways in which Mother and The End of St. Petersburg deal with the issue of how women become radicalized, and in what that means for the idea of working class revolution.

Mother, which is loosely based on the Marxim Gorky novel of the same name, is the story of a timid, Russian peasant woman played by Vera Baranovskaya. It’s rightfully considered one of the great peformances in all of silent film. Mother opens shortly before the Russian Revolution of 1905. Pelageya Nilovna Vlasova, the “mother,” is torn between her husband, a drunken ne’er do well who abuses her physically and emotionally, and Pavel, her grown son. Vsevolod Pudovkin isn’t coy about his politics. He clearly sees Pavel, a revolutionary militant, as the way forward, and the husband, a drunken, lazy reactionary, as everything dark and backward about Czarist Russia. The power to determine the course of history, therefore, devolves upon “the mother,” the as of yet politically uncommitted majority of the Russian people.

The political transformation of the imprisoned Bolshevik organizer’s wife in The End of St. Petersburg goes on largely behind the scenes. Her gesture at the close of the film, the act of sharing a bucket of potatoes, is both very realistic and specific. We see her initial reluctance to up a precious supply of food during wartime as well as the flood of relief that overcomes her when she finally decides to let go. That she’s such a minor character, just one more anonymous woman in St. Petersburg whose views have ever so subtly changed in response to the world historical events going on around her, is paradoxically what makes her so important. Revolutions are not created out of thin air by great leaders. They are, rather, the end result of a collective shift in consciousness by the people as a whole. An ordinary housewife who feels confident enough to give up food during war time is more dangerous than a hundred Trotskys or Che Guevaras.

The woman of Mother, by contrast, begins as an ordinary woman, but ends up as an iconic revolutionary. After her husband is killed in a drunken brawl, and Pavel is caught stockpiling arms and revolutionary pamphlets, turns him into the secret police, not because she wants to harm him, but because she believes in the authority of the state and the essential benevolence of the Czar. Pavel, she has decided is headed for the same bad end as her husband. Snitching is the only way to put him back on the right track. After Pavel is sentenced to hard labor, she realizes her mistake. Her conformism, her trusting nature has condemned the young man to a short, miserable life in Siberia.

The biggest thing we miss about silent film is its universality. I don’t have to speak Russian to understand what Pudovkin is trying to express in Mother. I don’t even have to know very much about Russian culture. All I need are my own eyes. Pudovkin sees the woman’s response to her son’s imprisonment, not as a case of tragic regret, but, rather, as a liberation, as the transformation of a timid, beaten down woman into a revolutionary. As a Russian, he chooses an image that any Russian, or northerner, would immediately recognize. After Pavel is sentenced, Mother becomes an extended montage, a May Day parade and the melting of an ice flow. As winter gives way to Spring, as the Mayday parade makes its way to the fortress where Pavel is imprisoned, we see the evolution of a group of ordinary people from an oppressed, unconscious and obedient mass, into an unstoppable army of revolutionaries. That the “mother” and her son both die under the guns of the Czarist authorities, that the revolt is crushed, only makes the ending that much more optimistic. If Winter is here, Percy Shelley once wrote, can Spring be far behind. Pavel dies, but not before seeing his mother transfigured, a ferocious icon of “Mother Russia” who has raised the red flag and joined the revolution.

Note: Vera Baranovskaya died in 1935 in Paris. Was she living in France as an exile from Stalin’s tyranny? A Google search offers no real answers.

The End of St. Petersburg (1927)

Unlike the French Revolution of 1789, the Russian Revolution of 1917 coincided with the birth of cinema. We’ll never really know what the Fête de la Fédération, the first Bastille Day, looked like. We know it was held on July 14, 1790 on the Champ de Mars. We know that when it was all over there was a feast in the gardens of the Château de La Muette where over twenty thousand people ate, drank wine, and celebrated over the next few days. We have dozens of written accounts. But do we know what it all really looked like? No.

The tenth anniversary of the storming of the Winter Palace is different. Not only do we know exactly what it looked like. It was actually staged by one of the greatest filmmakers in history. Sergei Eisenstein’s October is more than a cinematic masterpiece. It’s a real life historical event. Even if the French had had cameras in 1790 at Fête de la Fédération, the Bastille was already gone, torn down along with the feudal system it symbolized. The Winter Palace, on the other hand, will live forever in Eisenstein’s great reenactment, the events of the October Revolution boiled down into one hundred and forty minutes, available on YouTube.

There is perhaps no better proof of the importance of the cinema of the early Soviet Union than that there is not only one great film about the October Revolution, but two. The End of St. Petersburg is less ambitious than October. Unlike Sergei Eisenstein, Vsevolod Pudovkin does not attempt to re-stage the storming of the Winter Palace in full. It’s also more ambitious. Pudovkin attempts to re-stage not only the evens of October 1917, but the entire course of the Russian Revolution. That he succeeds is mostly due to the way the camera’s focus ultimately settles on two individuals, a woman and a young man who both undergo a personal transformation that mirrors the larger changes taking place in Russia. Indeed, the “end” of St. Petersburg – the city’s re-baptism as “The City of Lenin” – is not the end of the End of St. Petersburg. That only comes after a brief epilogue, where the smallest gesture of solidarity becomes even more important than the fall of the Romanovs.

The End of St. Petersburg opens in the poverty stricken Russian countryside. A young Russian peasant, newly entered into adulthood, is sent away from the family farm to look for work in one of the many factories in the rapidly industrializing St. Petersburg. There he attempts to move in with his uncle, a grizzled, veteran factory worker, and a Bolshevik organizer, but is driven out of the house by his uncle’s wife. She’s not so much a selfish woman as she is a desperate woman. She has small children. A wave of strikes has not only paralyzed the city, but has put her husband out of work. She cannot afford to have a strange young man in the house eating the food she’s so painfully scraped together for her own babies. The consequences are disastrous. The young man, now as desperate as the woman who cast him into the streets, accepts a job as a scab. “There’s a strike,” he naively tells a group of men on the street. “They need people. There will be plenty of work.”

As Pudovkin so effectively dramatizes, scabbing is only the beginning. Not only does the young man cross a picket line, he becomes a snitch, ratting his uncle out to the police as “one of the troublemakers.” His quick change of heart – he immediately feels remorse and rushes down to the police station to retract his accusations – is also the beginning of his political transformation. Of course the police don’t release his uncle. On the contrary, they seize the young peasant, and press him into the army. It’s August of 1914, and the Czar’s disastrous war against the German Empire – which Pudovkin tells us was a desperate preemptive measure to head off the working class movement coming to a head all over Russia – needs bodies. What follows is well known to students of history. The Russian army is hopelessly outclassed by the Germans, who deal them one crushing defeat after another, but Nicholas II, determined to honor his alliance with the British and French, is just as determined to feed a whole generation of young men into the meat grinder. Finally the Russian people break, overthrowing the Czar, and then the Provisional Government of Alexander when it refuses to sue for peace. The young peasant, who has miraculously survived the war, and his uncle, who has miraculously survived his arrest, join the Bolsheviks as they storm the Winter Palace.

St. Petersburg is No More. Long Live the City of Lenin.

But the young peasant’s political transformation from rural oaf to scab to reluctant soldier to Bolshevik, as dramatic as it is, is not the culmination of the movie. That comes in the film’s brief epilogue. We see the young man’s aunt, the woman who had thrown a man from her home village into the street out of fear that there might not be enough food for her children, searching the grounds of the Winter Palace for her husband. She’s carrying a bucket of boiled potatoes, a precious supply of food in a city that was still reeling from the effects of the most destructive war in history. Pausing briefly, she sees a group of men. They are heroes, the shock troops of the revolution. They’re also wounded, hungry, exhausted. She continues to search for her husband, but not before leaving the bucket of potatoes for the hungry Bolshevik soldiers. They smile. She smiles in return, then continues on her way. Revolution, Poduvkin has just dramatized, is not about speeches, or armies, studying Marx or distributing pamphlets, but about a million small gestures of kindness. The woman, now living in the City of Lenin, is no longer afraid for her children. The end of St. Petersburg is the beginning of solidarity.

October (1928)

I’ve been methodically going through the cinema of the Soviet Union in the 1920s and have come to the conclusion that it’s never been surpassed, that Hollywood’s ultimate victory (even the French make American style blockbusters these days) was the ultimate artistic tragedy.

I’ve seen October three times now, once as a college junior in a political science class, a second time in the Winter of 2014 (after which I wrote this review), and just last night (to prepare for a review of Pudovkin’s The End of St. Petersburg). Each time I come away even more astonished at Eisenstein’s greatness. This is what cinema is all about.

Writers Without Money

One of most celebrated scenes from Eisenstein’s October.

The career of Russian film maker Sergei Eisenstein, who lived from 1898 to 1948, can roughly be divided into three phases. In his mid-20s, he made Strike, October, and the iconic Battleship Potemkin. He spent most of his 30s in the wilderness, first in Hollywood, and then in Mexico, where most of his work ended up either incomplete or destroyed. He ended his life as the court film maker for Joseph Stalin’s peculiar amalgam of communism and Russian nationalism, giving us Alexander Nevsky in 1938, Ivan the Terrible: Part I in 1944, and Ivan the Terrible Part II in 1947, which, although suppressed during his lifetime, is arguably is greatest film.

October, sometimes known as Ten Days That Shook the World and made for the 10th Anniversary of the Russian Revolution, is an ambitious yet ultimately unsatisfying film. The Soviet government gave…

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A Man With a Movie Camera (1929)

nan-movie

When it came to his date of birth, David Abelevich Kaufman, better known by his adopted name Dziga Vertov, had perfect timing. He was 22 in 1917, just coming into the prime of his life during the early years of the Russian Revolution. “Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive ,” William Wordsworth once wrote, looking back at the French Revolution, “but to be young was very heaven.”

While many of us think of communist art along the lines of the dull, socialist realism it would later become under Stalin – “boy, girl, tractor,” as a professor of mine once said – the 1920s in the Soviet Union were the golden age of experimental cinema. One only has to remember how many technical innovations Hollywood stole from the Sergei Eisenstein, the greatest of all Soviet filmmakers, to understand the debt that the capitalist American cinema owes to the communist avant-garde. The Soviet film industry in the 1920s was in fact so rich and so varied that Vertov rose, not as a protege of Eisenstein, but as one of his harshest critics.

By the 1920s, cinema, Vertov had decided, had become overly dependent on theater. The Odessa Steps sequence in Battleship Potemkin, while great propaganda, was not genuinely revolutionary art. It was melodrama. That Brian De Palma borrowed some of Eisenstein’s techniques for The Untouchables, a propagandistic film glorifying the early days of the FBI, testifies to Vertov’s insight. As great as Eisenstein was, reactionaries regularly steal his revolutionary techniques for their own reactionary agenda. Melodrama can serve revolution. It is not revolution.

A Man With a Movie Camera opens with an announcement that the film is “an experiment in cinematic communication of real events,” that it does not have “intertitles” (cue cards describing the plot), or even a story, that it is not dependent on “theater,” and that it aims at creating a “truly international language of cinema based on its absolute separation from the language of theater and literature.” What follows is a highly stylized documentary about a day in the life of a rapidly industrializing city in the Soviet Union. It’s a “real” city according to Vertov but since it’s also a composite of three real cities, Moscow, Kiev, and Odessa, it would perhaps be more appropriate to call it a “fictionalized real city” or a “representative city.”

Building a stage out of a composite of two or three cities is a fairly common technique in American filmmaking. Toronto, for example, often stands in for New York, but that’s mainly because film crews are cheaper in Canada than in the United States, not because of any conscious, aesthetic choice. Vertov is not building a stage, a stand in for Kiev, Moscow, Odessa, but rather, an image of the future of socialism out of the raw material of three Russian cities of the present. Vertov’s socialism is not a fictionalized socialist utopia, but a work in progress, the use of film to build new forms of perception that allow us to see the possibilities of the future as they exist in the present. His technical innovations, the split screens, jump cuts, off kilter angles, tracking shots, and above all the extremely short “average shot length” are not technical innovations for the sake of developing technical innovations. They’re not empty formalism devoid of content or the building blocks for a cinema of the future.

Vertov’s technical innovations are the cinema of the future, even, I have to stress, of today. Some of Vertov’s camera work – and his wife Yelizaveta Svilova’s editing – is so startling and so exhilarating that watching it for the first time feels a bit like discovering Mozart or Wagner for the first time. There are geniuses in western cinema, John Ford, Orson Welles, Frank Capra, Jean Renoir, Luchino Visconti, Andrej Wajda, but none of them quite rise to the level of revolutionary geniuses. John Ford, for example, is the reflection of New Deal liberalism in cinema. Visconti is an acid upper-class critic of capitalist decadence, Wajda a gifted survivor who produced great movies under Stalinism, post-Stalinist communism and capitalism with equal skill, but neither Ford, Visconti nor Wajda managed to harness the very act of filmmaking to a genuine revolution, if only because none of them lived through a genuine revolution. In that, Vertov stands alone.

Perhaps the key moment of Man With a Movie Camera, maybe not the best or the most beautiful moment, but certainly the most representative, comes halfway through the film. Vertov shows a women in a beauty salon having her hair styled. Spliced into the footage of the beauty salon is the image of a lower working-class woman in the streets shoving coal. Her face is dirty. She’s prematurely aged. She notices the camera and flashes an embarrassed smile, but the whole sequence is not an illustration of social injustice, or inequality, but one of progress. It’s hard for an American in 2016 to imagine living in a backward, predominantly rural society – most of us live in suburban sprawl – but that’s precisely what Russia was in 1929. Vertov’s focus on urban Russia is also a focus on the dynamic, modernizing influence of Lenin and the Russian Revolution. We do not see the woman in the beauty salon as bourgeois. Rather we see her as the filthy, prematurely aged woman in the streets transformed by socialism into a well-groomed citizen of the new Soviet Union.

If Vertov stopped here, of course, Man With a Movie Camera would be fairly standard socialist propaganda, a bit more dynamic, perhaps, but nothing genuinely innovative. What follows is so startling, even in 2016, that it quite literally transforms the viewer’s perception of what film can do. The simple montage of the two woman becomes a staggeringly complex montage of the whole of Soviet society, of the empowering quality of cinema. As the camera focuses on a telephone switch board, wires crossed over wires, and a line of female telephone operators routing and re-routing calls, we see another woman making boxes in a factory. We see women making clothes in a textile factory. We see a man directing traffic. We see an accountant keeping records and a cashier at her cash register. We see a typewriter and a printing press running off an edition of a newspaper. We see the boxes the woman is making being filled with cigarettes – the idea that making cigarettes available to the people is a worthy socialist goal hasn’t aged quite as well as the rest of the film – before we cut back to the switchboard, filled with more and more lines being connected. We see Yelizaveta Svilova see editing the footage that Vertov and his brother Mikhail Kaufman shot over the course of five years. We see the entirety of what the urban Soviet Union looked like in 1929, a form of perception made possible only by film, and one that had not been possible up until that point. Vertov, the filmmaker as Prometheus, has given fire to the people, used the cinema to allow anybody who could walk into a movie theater the ability to see across the length and breath of the Soviet Union as if he or she were a god.

We need to get back to this kind of revolutionary cinema.

La Jetée (1962)

By the time I was born I the mid-1960s, cinema was already dead.

At first glance, that seems absurd. Weren’t the 1960s and 1970s a “Golden Age” of cinema? After all, Godard’s Breathless was made in 1960. Weekend came out in 1967. Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola were still in film school, Robert Bresson in mid-career.

Nevertheless, by 1965, TV had already eclipsed cinema as the primary form of visual communication. Hollywood movies would continue to get bigger, even as movie theaters continued to get smaller. Shown in a classic “movie palace,” wide-screen, 70mm blockbusters like Ben Hur or the Sound of Music already felt like an unnecessary gimmick. In the 2010s, when almost every movie theater has been subdivided into a multiplex, Hollywood’s spending $230 million to make The Dark Knight Rises, or $195 million to make Transformers: Dark Side of the Moon, just seems a like cynical attempt to bludgeon moviegoers into emotions they don’t genuinely feel. Small, independent films, in turn, will never compete with the HBO TV series. Most people will watch them on their TV and computers, on DVDs, or on Netflix, anyway.

So far there has been only one genuinely great film made after 1960: La Jetée.

La Jetée, the short, 28 minutes long, low-budget “photographic novel” by the leftist French filmmaker Chris Marker is fairly well-known, especially among film students, and science-fiction writers, mainly because nobody has ever been able to recreate the often hypnotic effect it can have on its viewers. Terry Gilliam’s big-budget remake, 12-Monkeys, is a good film, mainly because of a great performance by a young Madeleine Stowe, but it largely misses the point. La Jetée, like the Mona Lisa, remains an enigma, a deceptively simple, yet haunting work of art with a magic that we cannot entirely explain.

La Jetée is set in a world that’s already dead. It begins with a child. He stands on the “jetty” of the Orly Airport in Paris, looking at the face of a woman in the crowd. That was before the nuclear holocaust, the narrator explains. The man, a survivor, the child fully grown, lives underground, deep beneath what were the Palais de Chaillot galleries in Paris. The surface of the earth is poisoned with radioactive fallout. The man is a prisoner of war. His captors, strange, yet strangely nondescript men who whisper in German, have chosen him to participate in an experiment. The earth is dying. Space is forbidden. The only path for survival is a link through time. They have chosen the man because they think he can survive the trip, mainly because of a strong sense of identity that comes from his fixation on the past. “His captors spied, even on his dreams.” They send him back in time to meet the woman he once saw at Orly International Airport.

How has a small group of men living underground after a nuclear holocaust has mastered time travel is not explained. That, paradoxically, is the foundation of La Jetée’s greatness. The lack of realism in La Jetée is in fact realism. There’s no mechanism to send the man back to the past, only the suggestion that images provide a glimpse of that link through time the man’s captor’s seek. The effect is that Chris Marker provides us, the viewers of La Jetée, with a link through time back to the early days of cinema. Watching La Jetée is to become the film’s hero. If the man’s captors send him back through time with a series of chemical injections, then La Jetée sends us back in time by rearranging our brains waves into the same pattern a film goer would have had in 1910 or 1915.

La Jetée is literal, not figurative time travel.

La Jetée, with the exception of one beautiful sequence, is made up only of still photographs. In the early days of Cinema, roughly from 1890 to 1930, Americans, and Frenchmen, had already been looking at still photographs for decades. One of the greatest silent films, for example, The Birth of a Nation by D.W. Griffith, recreates the United States Civil War, the first major event in American history to be photographed. For an American in 1915, The Birth of a Nation was magical, the hand of technology reanimating all those old portraits of young men, dead and gone, or grown old. As William Faulkner wrote in his novel Intruder the Dust, “for every Southern boy fourteen years old, not once but whenever he wants it, there is the instant when it’s still not yet two o’clock on that July afternoon in 1863.” In 1915, for a Southerner, The Birth of a Nation was the chance to dream about changing the course of history, the chance to step into the past and join Pickett’s Charge before it had failed.

The man in La Jetée travels back in time to meet the woman he has loved for so many years, yet who is already long dead. His soul, her “ghost” as she calls him, revisits that moment he noticed her as a little boy. Only now, as a grown man, he can understand the emotions he felt when he saw her face, the sexual awakening that was never to be, that was lost in the nuclear catastrophe. They speak. They go to a museum. The wander through the park. For one, brief, haunting moment, Marker’s “photographic novel” becomes a film, and the woman’s eyes come alive, look directly into the camera, the man’s eyes. Their souls have met. We, in turn, have quite literally had the same experience as an early film goer would have had when he went into a movie theater and saw still photographs begin to move. Yet the man, like the viewer of La Jetée, cannot enter the world of the images that have captured his soul. The experiment over, he’s called back into the present, the dying planet after the nuclear Holocaust. He realizes, then, finally, what he had witnessed on the pier or the Orly International Airport in his childhood, so many years before. Pickett’s Charge will always fail. He will never meet her in the flesh.

You can travel though time, but you cannot change the course of history.

Metropolis (1927): Death and the Megamachine

In his seminal work Technics and Civilization, Lewis Mumford, a pioneer in the field of urban studies, developed the concept large, hierarchical organizations which he would eventually call “megamachines.” Since the megamachine, which he defines as a machine using humans as its components, has its origins in ancient Egypt and the construction of the pyramids, it predates the Industrial Revolution by several millennia. For Mumford, the clock, a piece of machinery whose product is seconds and minutes, and not the steam-engine, is the key-machine of the industrial age. What’s more, time, not the police, or the army, is the most important method by which societal control is maintained. The elites, who are not subject to the strict regimentation they use on their wage slaves, live in gated communities apart from the miserable quarters of the working class.

“In the suburb one might live and die without marring the image of an innocent world, except when some shadow of evil fell over a column in the newspaper. Thus the suburb served as an asylum for the preservation of illusion. Here domesticity could prosper, oblivious of the pervasive regimentation beyond. This was not merely a child-centered environment; it was based on a childish view of the world, in which reality was sacrificed to the pleasure principle.”

The City in History: Its Origins, Its Transformations, and Its Prospects (New York, 1961)

If you are familiar with German Expressionism, Lewis Mumford’s theories about the megamachine, suburbia, and the industrial revolution might seem familiar. This is not to say that Fritz Lang read Lewis Mumford’s writings, or even knew that he existed, before he released his legendary, yet often misunderstood film Metropolis. Indeed, Technics and Civilization would not even be published until 1934. Yet Lang, who was born in 1890, and Mumford, who was born in 1895, were almost exact contemporaries. The American social theorist and the German filmmaker were both distressed by the alienation of people from the natural world, and the production of vast wealth that seemed to lead only to human misery. Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and the Holocaust were over a decade away, yet both men realized that advances in technology were by no means guaranteed to usher in a Utopian civilization. On the contrary, without advances in moral philosophy and social justice, they were likely to bring vast human suffering, and destruction on an almost unimaginable scale. Above all, Lang’s film and Mumford’s book both seem to work from one, central, poetic conceit.

Mechanization equals death.

Metropolis begins with the image of a machine. Pistons move up and down in their cylinders. Belts and gears turn cranks. There is the illusion of great industrial might. Yet, in reality, it’s basically a Rube Goldberg device, hundreds, thousands, probably millions of strokes being used to do little more than turn the hands on a giant clock, the megamachine working primarily to maintain its own existence. A whistle blows. Two gates open. Through the door on the right, a group of workers enters the building. Through the door on the left, a second group exits, presumably to go home, although, throughout the film, we never get to see the inside of a working-class apartment. The men are identical, dressed in drab, dark-grey jumpsuits. They move together, in unison, their heads lowered, their arms at their side. They have no individuality for they are, in fact, components of the megamachine that is the city of Metropolis.

Groups of men stripped of their individual identity, are perhaps, the film’s strongest recurring image. We will see these robotic labor gangs again, not only in the futuristic city of Metropolis, but in ancient Mesopotamia, at the dawn of history. Fritz Lang then moves from the “satanic mills” of the poor, to use Blake’s term, to the pleasure palaces of the rich. We find ourselves in a grandiose stadium so evocative of the Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will that it’s hard to believe Albert Speer didn’t use it as the model for the Nazi parade grounds at Nuremberg. Here the children of the privileged, all dressed in white, move freely and easily, stretching, sunning themselves, running along a track, and, at night, cavorting with high-class party girls at the Yoshiwara Club, a nightspot modeled after the red-light district in early 17th century Tokyo.

It is at the Yoshiwara Club where Freder, the son of Joh Fredersen, the master of Metropolis, meets Maria, a wholesome-looking young woman played by Brigitte Helm. “Wholesome” is a better word than “angelic” because she’s real, and physical. Maria is the negation of the decadent, unhealthy lust of the Yoshiwara Club, emerging out of nowhere, surrounded by a group of children. “These are your brothers,” she says to Freder, who is instantly smitten, and transformed.

The next day Freder descends into the megamachine. If a chain is only as strong as its weakest link, and a machine only as reliable as its weakest moving part, then Metropolis has a fatal vulnerability, the faceless, oppressed masses Joh Fredersen relies upon to keep the great city running for the benefit of its ruling class. What the young Freder sees in the bowls of the megamachine is exactly what Lewis Mumford saw in the 1960s, the clock as the “key-machine of the industrial age.” Nowhere in Metropolis do we ever see the great industrial machine actually make anything. There are cars, but no assembly lines. There are skyscrapers, great sports palaces, and even housing projects for the working-class, but no construction sites. The only product that Metropolis seems to manufacture is repression.

Fritz Lang has, in fact, seen far into the future. He has imagined what New York, London, Paris, and San Francisco would eventually become, not, productive, industrial cities like Twentieth Century Detroit or the Paris of the Second Empire, but financial and administrative centers full of blood sucking parasites. Lang has often been criticized for the trope that, in an industrial civilization, the workers are the muscle, the ruling-class the brains, and Christian love the heart, but he was describing a historical reality, not an ideal. My computer was designed by rich Americans, but it was put together by Chinese proletarians who labor in gigantic work-camps like Foxconn, and get paid less than fast food workers get paid in the United States.

The only work Freder observes in the bowls of the megamachine is a man turning the hands of a giant clock. We wonder. The pistons, cylinders, belts and cranks we saw in the film’s opening, were they tools, or parts of a machine? What is the difference between a machine, and a tool? In the world of Metropolis, is there any difference at all? The man breaks down, exhausted at the end of a 10-hour shift. The machine is thrown out of rhythm. There’s an explosion. A cloud of steam envelopes a group of workers, burning them beyond recognition. Time breaks down. The past, the present, and the future collapse down onto one another. Freder has a vision. He is no longer in Metropolis, but in Biblical Canaan, no longer watching a giant clock in a future city, but human sacrifice, the alter of “Moloch.” In the 1950s, in his poem Howl, Alan Ginsberg, in the 1950s, had a similar vision about the true nature of industrial civilization.

“Moloch whose mind is pure machinery! Moloch whose blood is running money! Moloch whose fingers are ten armies! Moloch whose breast is a cannibal dynamo! Moloch whose ear is a smoking tomb!”

Howl and Other Poems (1956)

Freder, having seen the bowls of the megamachine, now intends to confront his father, the “brain” of the great city. He gets into his chauffeur driven car, and goes to The New Tower of Babel, the tallest building in Metropolis, the administrative and financial center of the city that is the administrative and financial center of Fritz Lang’s futuristic world. He does not get what he wants from his father, empathy, a change of heart, the promise to make things better. He does get what everybody who understands the nature of the “1%” expects from Joh Freder, cold-hearted indifference, and more repression. The elder man, not concerned about the welfare of the workers of Metropolis, but certainly worried about making the machines on “run on time,” fires Josaphat, his executive assistant, scapegoating a mere clerk for flaws that are built into the system itself. Then he orders “The Thin Man,” a gigantic, menacing enforcer played by Fritz Rasp, to spy on his own son.

Having failed to convince his father to right the injustices of the great city of Metropolis, Freder becomes a revolutionary. After descending back into the heart of the megamachine, he sees a worker named “Georgy” struggling with the hands of the great clock at the center of the “heart machine,” and relieves him. What’s more, the two men change identities. Georgy becomes the golden child of privilege. Freder joins the proletariat. More specifically, while Georgy discovers the ladies of the Yoshiwara Club, Freder searches for Maria, who’s a leader of Metropolis’ working-class. While Maria is certainly not a Marxist, Metropolis is not the fascist movie some critics have accused it of being. Rather, Maria, like Lewis Mumford, understands the history of civilization, and the repression of the working-class, not within the dialectical framework of Marx and Hegel, but as the history of the megamachine. Maria’s talk, or rather, since she speaks in front of a group of crosses, her sermon makes the connection between The New Tower of Babel, and the old. Like Metropolis, the original Tower of Babel was built on the backs of an oppressed, regimented work-force, men stripped of their individual, and turned into parts of a great machine. In the Bible, the sin that brought down the Tower of Babel was pride. In Maria’s speech, it’s the urge to dominate other men, the will to power.

If the love between Maria and Freder represents liberation, Joh Fredersen is the embodiment of the will to power. Any threat, even the idea of his own son’s happiness that threatens his control of Metropolis must be destroyed, so he seeks out Rotwang, a mad scientist in the tradition of Doctor Frankenstein. Rotwang and Joh Fredersen have a past. Having once loved the same woman, they have been rivals. Joh Fredersen thinks the rivalry is over, but Rotwang, he lives in a tiny, desolate house apart from the elite of Metropolis, still has a monumental statue of “Hel,” Freder’s mother, who had left the scientist for the lord of the city, and who had died in childbirth. Their plan, to kidnap Maria, and reconstruct her in the image of their lost love, is as revealing as it is evil. Joh Fredersen and Rotwang have sick hearts. They are once noble souls who have been corrupted by having loved, and having lost. Rotwang, who plans to take revenge on Fredersen, and Fredersen, who plans to destroy his own son, have become the satanic mirror images of what they once were.

Rotwang’s plans for Maria, however, go beyond remaking her image. Up until now, there have been no true machines in Metropolis, just tools, human and mechanical. After he kidnaps Maria, pursuing her through the catacombs underneath Metropolis, a blood curdling chase scene that reveals the connections between mechanization and death, Rotwang takes Maria back to his laboratory. There he transforms her into the first genuine machine, a robot that embodies the values of the megamachine in one, human-sized individual. Rotwang’s experiment not only means Maria’s metaphorical death. It means the final victory of the ruling class of Metropolis over the workers. While unspoken, the outcome is inevitable. Joh Fredersen has conquered human nature. He has become God. Humans, on the other hand, have been reduced to human capital, compliant, soulless automatons.

The climax and conclusion of Metropolis are a good example of why it’s so difficult to interpret a work of art outside its historical context. On the surface, Joh Fredersen’s plan to have the robot Maria inflame the workers of Metropolis with a base lust seems against his interest. The workers are already beaten and compliant. The real Maria was preaching Christian love, not Bolshevik revolution. Why stir the masses up to rebellion when they’re already lying on their backs? But Metropolis was released in 1927. Fritz Lang had already scene the apocalypse of the First World War, the degeneration of the Russian Revolution into tyranny, the battles between red guards and Freikorps in the streets of every major German city, and Mussolini’s coup in Italy. Lang and Mumford both understood that chaos, disorder, is not necessarily the friend of the working-class, or the enemy of the established order. Rather, the working-class benefits when the people as a whole are filled with the spirit of love and Eros. The ruling-class benefits when they gave way to Thanatos, the death-wish. If Metropolis eventually falls apart, it’s mainly because Lang tried to graft a happy ending onto a movie that draws out the grim future that was coming for Germany, and the world. Fritz Lang lost his artistic nerve when he had Rotwang imprison Maria instead of flat out killing her. To be more accurate, he lost his artistic nerve when he allowed her to live on after the mad scientist’s demonic experiment so obviously did kill her.

Fritz Lang, like Lewis Mumford, stared into the abyss of a society ruled by the megamachine. Unlike Mumford, he blinked. Rarely however, has a sociological concept been so vividly, and dramatically realized on screen.