This Month, We Watched Metropolis with Legion of Leia’s Jenna Busch

By  · Published on December 31st, 2015

I am a film critic, but almost all of the movies I watch are new releases. That is going to change. With Jeff Bayer’s Remedial Film School a notable film critic or personality will assign me (and you) one film per month. Jenna Busch from Legion of Leia is our guest, and she chose Metropolis (currently available on Netflix Instant as Metropolis Restored). Each section begins with a quote from the film.

“There can be no understanding between the hand and the brain unless the heart acts as mediator.” (Busch explains): The first time I saw Metropolis was back in the ’80s at a party with some theater friends. (Stop laughing.) They were so excited to show me this incredible silent film. The thing is, the version I saw wasn’t so silent. It was the remastered version with color washes and a new soundtrack that included music from Freddie Mercury, Adam Ant and Pat Benetar. Though this would ultimately not be the version I gush over, it definitely sparked something. (OK, fine. I still love the Adam Ant song.) Heck, the visuals, the performances, the iconic look of the film, not to mention the class struggle and world building blew me away and is largely responsible for my love of film today.

A silent film may not be the way most people get their love of cinema, but Metropolis is different. The film takes a classic sci-fi trope, the glorious city of leisure being powered by slaves underground and gives it a visual impact that was far ahead of its time. Even the attempt to take someone of pure heart and turn her into an uncaring machine is stunning to watch. Even people who haven’t seen the film are familiar with the iconic look of Robot Maria.

Do you like dystopian future films? The country and YA fiction is lousy with them these days. This one started them all in terms of cinema. Jeff, watch this and gush along with me.

“Let’s all watch as the world goes to the devil!” (Bayer watches): With Star Wars: The Force Awakens now out, I wanted to focus on science fiction this month, and I knew what hole needed to be filled. Metropolis was clearly a missing piece in my personal film history, and I begged Busch at a party during Comic Con to help me with this void. There is no one I would rather take advice from about sci and/or fi. I knew nothing about Metropolis besides it was old, silent, and had some sort of female-looking C-3PO robot.

I can’t believe this film is so good-looking. Since this is the restored version, there are previously missing scenes, and those properly show a ton of age, but the rest of the film is polished, and I kept being impressed by the size and scope of the film. We learn the character names before we meet them, and I’m hooked. The Thin Man (Fritz Rasp), Grot Guardian of the Heart Machine (Heinrich George) and 11811 (Erwin Biswanger) are enough to give me hope that I’ll actually like this film instead of just respect it. That’s the thing with most truly old films. Reverence is easy, entertainment is sometimes harder.

There are a pile of extras running around the set, and the look is much closer to 1984 than I expected. It also has a Hunger Games vibe with some outrageous outfits and major class separation. The story is simple. Freder (Gustav Fröhlich) attempts to bridge the have and the have-nots much to the chagrin of his father Joh Fredersen (Alfred Abel) the master of Metropolis. Maria (Brigitte Helm) is his inspiration and she’s already in the muck fighting for equality. Oh, and there’s a mad scientist named Rotwang (Rudolf Klein-Rogge), who makes a robot that looks just like Maria.

Robot Maria is insanely sexual and I was not prepared for that from a 1927 film. Plus, she’s now launched herself onto my “All-Time Best Odd Facial Expressions” list. Her one-eyed stare is burned into my brain for eternity.

I actually like that the workers aren’t perfect, they have plenty of flaws, including the fact that they love a good burning. There are many things left unsaid (which is obviously the case for most silent films), but it works well here. I feel like Hel’s past could be a prequel. I want more details about 11811 (also known as Georgy) and him living it up with the rich. A 2+ hour silent film shouldn’t leave me wanting more, but it definitely does.

Here are some rapid fire random questions and thoughts … Because I can’t stop thinking about Star Wars, Joh Fredersen looks exactly like Grand Moff Tarkin (Peter Cushing), right? Also, it’s impossible to think of anyone but Luke when someone has a fake hand, even if Rotwang did it decades earlier. It feels like Freder gets too much credit compared to Maria. You’ve seen other versions, do they feel incomplete? Do you own the musical score? Do I even want to explore the Benetar version? How smart can Joh actually be if he names his son Freder Fredersen? I’m doing some finger pointing at the workers for completely forgetting about their kids. How many times have you seen this film? Also, humor me. How many times have you watched The Force Awakens?

Finally, because I’m awful and can’t leave a good thing alone, let’s remake Metropolis, even though that means we’ll be burned on the sci-fi stake. I think Maria and Freder need to be younger. Ideally I want to cast Daisy Ridley in everything, but I’ll resist the urge. Elizabeth Olsen as Maria, Logan Lermen as Freder, and Bill Murray as Joh. Disagree? What about the other roles?

Movie Score: 9/10

“Oh, mediator, show them the way to each other” (Busch responses): The quality of the film blew me away when I first saw it as well. It still does, even after about ten viewings. Robot Maria’s sexuality shocked me too. It’s funny; despite what I know about the history of film, I’m always surprised when I see how racy some of these movies actually are. I love that you were happy with the flaws in the workers. That sort of thing always stands out to me. It’s not a one-sided war. No one is a perfect character in Metropolis. I think if they were, this would look like preaching.

Fredersen does look like Grand Moff Tarkin! I’m not sure how I missed that one! Did I read somewhere that the arm thing in Star Wars was based on this? Probably not, but now that’s in my head and I’m going to spend all night researching it. I’m pretty sure Robot Maria was a basis for C3P-0. I’m not surprised that Freder gets the credit over Maria. Doesn’t that always happen with female characters? They’re tough until the male character becomes fully realized and then they’re background or they just ask him what to do. In fact, I’d love to hear what you think about Maria’s role in terms of the time period.

The other versions don’t feel as complete, but you definitely have to watch the Benetar version. The soundtrack is amazing and I’ve owned it since the day after I saw the film the first time, decades ago. I even performed a number of the songs when I was the singer in a band. (I’ve had at least four careers.) I’ve even seen the musical based on this starring Judy Kuhn in London’s West End. I’m so glad you liked it!

I’ve already seen Episode VII three times and I’m assuming it’s going to go into the hundreds in the not-so-distant future. Yes to casting Daisy Ridley in everything. I’ve actually been afraid they’d try to remake Metropolis for years. No remake! Actually curious if you think it could be done. Novelization on the other hand – I’d be totally in for that. HBO series? John Boyega as Freder? Max von Sydow as Joh? “Star Wars Cast Recreates Metropolis?” Yes? Yes!

So, thoughts on an actual remake? On Maria’s role? Which particular set piece blew you away? How many drinks do you owe me for making you watch this? (I know it was your idea, but still, drinks.)

“For her, all seven deadly sins!” (Bayer concludes): Yes, sadly you are correct about Maria. She’s Freder’s gateway to becoming a complete, caring person. For this film, she’s obviously humanity. She’s the good we can all become (with a ton of effort). From the first time we see her, she’s surrounded by children. It’s powerful, but even more so when Robot Maria is the opposite (and created by man). It actually surprised me that Maria was leading a movement at all. And it wasn’t about a woman leading the movement. None of the workers seemed to care about that. That was a little thing that impressed me. The set piece that will sit with me the most are all of those children in the flood. You just don’t see that anymore (safety concerns, CGI).

I wonder how many people know Kuhn without looking her up. I was not one of them. Also, I looked into this soundtrack. Benatar clearly has the best song with “Here’s My Heart” (without connecting it to the movie).

I’ve seen Episode VII twice, and that will be it in the theater for me. I’ll watch it a third time at home with my wife at some point. After that, it will all be a solid focus on when I will start having my son (he’s currently 3.2-years-old) dive into the series. I think I can hold out until he’s five. I’m keeping all toys away until he sees the films.

It’s funny, but you’re right. Any movie getting remade does sound better if it’s going to HBO (or Netflix, Amazon, FX, etc.). Times have changed. The series would work best if the only known actors were in the roles of Joh Fredersen and Rotwang. Hugh Laurie as Joh, and Alan Rickman as the inventor. Done and done.

My hand says I owe you one beer. But my brain says I should make it six. Thankfully, the mediator, my heart, negotiated and they met in the middle. I owe you three and a half beers.

Your Next Assignment: Guest critic Rob Hunter selected Oslo August 31st. It is available to watch on Netflix Instant and elsewhere. Your due date is January 28, 2016.