On the same day that “San Andreas” — the latest 3-D blockbuster tossing walls of water at rattled cities — hits Chicago theaters, “Metropolis” promises to slam and drench downtown with music of Arnold Schoenberg, Edvard Grieg and Béla Bartók.
For the final CSO at the Movies concert this season, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra provides the soundtrack for Fritz Lang’s 1927 silent epic, die mütter of urban disaster flicks, made at UFA (Universum Film AG) in Berlin. Set a hundred years into the future — that’s a decade from now — “Metropolis” envisions multilevel roadways that envelop skyscrapers towering above an underground workers’ city steam-powering the whole enterprise; industrialists reign from penthouse perches until (Achtung! Spoiler!) the basement machines go rogue and flood the town’s foundations.
“Perhaps it expresses a nostalgia for a dystopian vision of the future that has become outdated,” observes critic Thom Andersen. “This vision offered some consolation because it was at least sublime.”
Andersen, the Los Angeles writer and filmmaker who lives for words like “dystopian,” is speaking about “Blade Runner” (1982), Ridley Scott’s reimagining of L.A. as a gritty, post-apocalyptic “Metropolis” with messy street food and no parking enforcement. (Chicagoans looking to re-create the experience should try Jim’s Original Polish sausages just off Maxwell Street.)
“Blade Runner” and the entire sci-fi film genre owe a debt to Lang. His arresting high-rise imagination spawned an entire “Bride of ‘Metropolis”/“Son of ‘Metropolis” city-of-the-future industry that still thrives — except in Berlin, where Nazi architect Albert Speer’s “Welthauptstadt Germania” pretty much shut it down. Scott’s hovering cruisers and crumbling towers are perhaps the most celebrated progeny. (And then there’s Disney’s “Tomorrowland,” opening May 22. Check your local listings.)
Nowadays watching “Metropolis,” which is screening at Symphony Center in filmmaker-composer Giorgio Moroder’s 1984 restoration, might seem reminiscent of swinging your Buick past Michigan Avenue onto Lower Wacker Drive, then punching elevator buttons at the 1929 Civic Opera Building, where Chicago utilities baron Samuel Insull ruled from his tower suite while sub-basement stage machines powered grand spectacles for gilded crowds.
Lang’s 1927 cinematic visions rush past just as quickly. Architect and “Metropolis” set designer Otto Hunte wrote that buildings were “meant to be 500 meters high and therefore could in no way be constructed in full size.” He used miniature models and trick shots. “The kind of toilsome, minutely precise work needed to put airplanes, high-speed railways, automobiles and people into this shot can easily be imagined. The work took almost six weeks, and the result flits past the eyes of the spectator in twice six seconds.”
Late in “Metropolis,” the infernal underground hydraulics, packed with steam-spewing pipes and dials spinning senseless metrics, ominously escalate past Spın̈al Tap’s 11 — what bandmate Nigel Tufnel called “that extra push over the cliff.”
For set designer Hunte’s big flood, “a trick shot was completely out of the question.” He let loose four huge reservoirs of water to destroy paved roadways and reserved several smaller tanks for close-ups. He also unleashed a large motorized spray, “just in case the water did not have enough power to burst through the concrete pavement.”
Could it happen here? Need Chicago theatergoers worry that the Civic Opera House’s ancient sub-stage hydraulics, reportedly powered by river currents beyond the basement wall, might amp up for a “Metropolis”-style upstairs/downstairs deluge of operatic and German cinematic proportions? Consider packing a snorkel when Lyric stages Das Rheingold two seasons hence. Coincidentally, in 1983, Moroder worked on a dystopian water-borne disaster, scoring “Flashdance,” which drenched Jennifer Beals’ exotic hoofing. Roger Ebert remembered a movie “so loaded down with artificial screenplay contrivances and flashy production numbers that it’s waterlogged.”
“Metropolis” and “Blade Runner” are equally celebrated for creating and perfecting what might be called the “sexy robot” genre, still a mainstay at the multiplex. (Check your local listings, again, for “Ex Machina,” still in theaters — “To erase the line between man and machine is to obscure the line between men and gods,” the tagline warns.)
Maschinenmensch of “Metropolis” erases the line between “man” and “machine” by jamming both nouns into a German mouthful. Just as the movie’s urban visions seem quaint by modern standards, director Lang’s machine-human — a glowing, radiating, demi-corseted demagogue luring basement laborers into rising floodwaters — invites a modern cross between the silver-hued Hula-Hoop and grinder girls sparking David Letterman’s “Will It Float?” shenanigans.
The subterranean workers mistake the menacing Maschinenmensch for their saintly heroine Maria — an easy error, since they’re played by the same actress. With underwater engines jamming, bulkheads collapsing and surging currents everywhere, the real Maria saves the day with a last-minute rescue that’s part faithful Lenore in Beethoven’s opera Fidelio and somehow Shelley Winters’ heroic swim from the disaster film “The Poseidon Adventure” (1972) — two epics with great singing.
Guest conductor Cristian Măcelaru and the CSO offer plenty more musical tension when “Metropolis” unspools at Orchestra Hall. Stick to the balconies (seats still available!) and bring a towel.
Andrew Huckman is a Chicago-based lawyer and writer.