Through Fire, Water and…Brass Pipes (1968)

By 1968, Russian director Aleksandr Rou (Vassilisa the Beautiful) had permanently associated his name with cinematic fairy tales aimed at children. To Western audiences he is best known for his film Jack Frost (Father Frost, 1964) because of its inclusion in the canon of Mystery Science Theater 3000; and those familiar with that film may be interested in its follow-up, Through Fire, Water and…Brass Pipes (1968), which reunited Rou with leading lady and ballerina Natalya Sedykh and his favored Baba Yaga, Georgy Millyar. Of course, this is still a 60’s movie aimed at little Russian kids, and in contrast to the extravagant fantasy spectacles of Aleksandr Ptushko, Rou favors pantomime performances, special effects that run hot and cold (here, leaning toward the cold), and sometimes grating musical numbers. Which is not to say that the film isn’t fun – or interesting. In this entry in the Russian Fairy Tale Cinematic Universe (or RFTCU, as I’m coining it), we learn a bit more about Baba Yaga’s family, meet a new fabled villain, cheer for a very intelligent goat, enjoy a significant reference to the legendary hero featured in Ptushko’s film Sadko (1952), travel to an undersea kingdom, and witness a maiden sacrifice on cliffs overlooking the seashore in shots that resemble Clash of the Titans (1981). Of course, the film is bookended by Rou’s familiar babushka (here played by Anastasiya Zuyeva) leaning out a cottage window to tell us the story in rhyme.

The doomed wedding of Baba Yaga’s daughter (Vera Altayskaya) and Kaschei the Immortal (Georgy Millyar).

The opening is highly unusual for a Rou film. It begins, in fact, as a horror movie – the babushka can wait. A girl (Sedykh) is running through a birch forest clutching her goat. A wolf bares its teeth and lunges at her. The camera zooms into her sweaty face and her saucer eyes and the screen goes red – a very frightening, jarring introduction given the film’s intended audience. Then lushly animated opening credits spell out the title Through Fire, Water and…Brass Pipes. The babushka settles the audience down, and then, in a trope typical of Russian fairy tale films, little birds serenade a dirt-smudged young peasant boy, Vassya (Alexei Katyshev, of Rou’s Barbara the Fair with the Silken Hair). A raven warns of danger, and the birds swoop into hiding, many of them tucking under his overalls. He wards off the wolf, and meets the young woman he’s rescued, Alyonushka, and her goat, whom she’s nicknamed Whitey (well – it’s accurate). The wolf limps off into the woods where it reveals itself to be one of three “werewolf servants” of a sorcerer named Kaschei the Immortal (Millyar). Elsewhere, Baba Yaga (Millyar again) takes her flying mortar to her daughter’s wedding. The mortar sounds like a sputtering airplane and is covered with travel stickers like a vintage suitcase – a bit of anachronistic comedy straight out of Disney’s The Sword in the Stone (1963) – yet she’s still draped in the same old filthy rags, her ogre-like teeth jutting from her mouth. Her daughter (Vera Altayskaya of Rou’s Evenings on a Farm Near Dikanka) is just as ugly, and Kaschei is decked out like a German Kaiser. When a servant of the three-headed dragon Gorynych (featured in Sadko and Vassilisa the Beautiful) presents a wedding gift of apples that remove 100 years from one’s life, the 104-year-old bride doesn’t take a bite, but Kaschei does – looking every bit as old, but now sporting some facial hair. The improbably vain Kaschei declares that he’s too young for his bride now, and must find someone younger; he leaves the wedding in chaos.

Vassya (Alexei Katyshev) meets a drowned maiden (Tamara Nosova) in the Sea King’s realm.

That bride, naturally, will be Alyonushka, whom Kaschei kidnaps by tricking her into hitching a ride on a magical troika. Vassya, who has fallen in love with Alyonushka, sets off on a quest to find her (Whitey the Goat – who learns a few words of Russian – at his side). His first stop is a castle that’s in flames, the local squad of firemen, who sport roosters on their helmets, demonstrating a general incompetence before Vassya rushes into the fire to save the homely princess. (In a nice touch, the castle keep looks like a balalaika.) The king demands that he wed his daughter as a reward, but when Vassya states that he is engaged to someone else, the king takes the advice of three old women – actually Kaschei’s scheming werewolves – and has Vassya put into a sack and tossed into the sea. Breathing just fine underwater, Vassya meets drowned maidens who have been thrown from the cliffs of a nearby kingdom to satiate the Sea King (Pavel Pavlenko, Father Frost). To torment the Sea King, the drowned girls (played by the Pyatnitsky State Russian Folk Choir) will only perform the classic Russian folk song “Kalinka” and nothing else. Vassya bargains his way out of the king’s submerged palace by offering to teach him to read storybooks; the king rewards him with Sadko’s jacket (Sadko visited the undersea kingdom in the film of the same name). Vassya liberates the maidens and returns them to the surface world. While Alyonushka languishes in Kaschei’s cavern, her only companion a little mouse, Vassya finds himself betrothed to another princess, but he’s shaken out of his spell by Whitey the Goat and escapes back into the woods. At last he defeats Kaschei by following strict, magical instructions: walking backwards toward the Sacred Oak, he digs beneath it and uncovers a black egg, inside which is a needle which he breaks to kill the immortal sorcerer. He’s reunited with Alyonushka, having proven his devotion to her.

Vassya breaks the egg to discover Kaschei’s hidden weakness.

Though the sets and matte paintings can look flimsy or unconvincing at times – Rou has made better-looking films – this is another imaginatively designed production modeled closely on storybook illustrations. Most effective is the fairy tale logic of the climax, even though its abruptness robs us of a proper farewell to Kaschei or Baba Yaga. Another unusual detail is Kaschei’s method of spying on Vassya’s progress, a ripe apple spinning in a golden saucer that becomes his magical looking-glass. In the Sea King’s realm, Rou overlays rippling water over the image, an effect that is inadequate and yet suitably surreal. The wedding of Baba Yaga’s daughter is a particular delight, the wedding party consisting of fanged witches and monsters, the set dressed with bones and skulls. Through Fire, Water and…Brass Pipes was released on an English-friendly DVD in 2000 from Ruscico, and if you dig through the awkwardly arranged special features you can find some behind the scenes footage, including the rotund Rou overseeing every detail of the set design and some production sketches that would make a beautiful storybook of their own.


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Metropolis (1927)

Even in its near-complete 2010 restoration and running 150 minutes, Fritz Lang’s Silent epic Metropolis (1927) is possessed of churning, frenetic energy, like an industrial works geared to explode. It is a machine; a machine movie about other machines. And it’s running efficiently at the outset, a bright and sparkling city of skyscrapers, automobile skyways, neon signs and low-flying private planes dwarfed by the “New Tower of Babel,” all of it the construction of Joh Fredersen (Alfred Abel, Dr. Mabuse: The Gambler). Only when the Eternal Gardens, a sanctuary for the privileged, is invaded by a poor girl named Maria (Brigitte Helm, L’argent), escorting a flock of dirt-smudged children into the sacred grounds to prove a point (“Look! These are your brothers!”), does the machine begin to malfunction and set a course for self-destruction. Transfixed by Maria is Fredersen’s son Freder (Gustav Fröhlich, Asphalt), who follows her into the industrial world beneath Metropolis where grim laborers endure 10-hour workdays of grueling physical hardship within colossal machines. Freder nobly trades places with one of these unfortunates and learns that Maria has been organizing the workers and preaching to them – for the audience she recounts the Biblical story of the Tower of Babel. Meanwhile, Fredersen visits Rotwang (Rudolf Klein-Rogge, Lang’s Dr. Mabuse), who is nearing completion of a “Machine-Man” in his laboratory modeled after Fredersen’s late wife Hel, whom Rotwang desired. After Rotwang helps Fredersen discover the secret catacombs where Maria is organizing the workers, Fredersen convinces Rotwang to cast his robot in the likeness of Maria so he can infiltrate and control this movement. Rotwang agrees, secretly planning to use the false Maria to destroy Fredersen’s beloved Metropolis. This is not to mention a further array of characters: Freder’s downcast and unfavored brother Josaphat (Theodor Loos, M); the Thin Man (Fritz Rasp, Diary of a Lost Girl), whom Fredersen hires to trail Freder; the worker Georgy (Erwin Biswanger, Die Nibelungen) who trades identities with Freder and becomes dazzled by the sinful thrills of the club called Yoshiwara; or Grot (Heinrich George, She), who guards the Heart-Machine that keeps Metropolis stable. All these characters will crash into each other, the Heart will be stopped, and the city will come tumbling down. Lang orchestrates the destruction with glee.

Rotwang’s robot begins its transformation.

Yet the film’s length and overtly allegorical nature worked against it; the film was poorly received on release and survived only briefly in its original form. A German film that was partly intended to win over American audiences with its spectacle, it was exported to a Hollywood that demanded big cuts. Given the variable rates of speed that silent films could be projected, it is more helpful to express the length in meters rather than running time; Metropolis was shortened from its premiere length of 4,189 meters to about 3,100 meters, sacrificing significant character motivation and a great deal of coherency. In Germany it was withdrawn and also cut, to 3,241 meters. But even in this maimed form, the power of the film’s imagery was enough to cement it in the imagination of pop culture. Movies borrowed from it; they also reacted against it (see H.G. Wells’ Things to Come). Rotwang’s robot, before it takes the likeness of Maria, has become one of the most immortal sights offered by the cinema, and frequently appears on the covers of books chronicling the history of science fiction film – she even directly influenced the design of C-3PO. (She was also ahead of her time, not just a robot but an android, and thus holds up much better to 21st century eyes than the boxy robots of 1954’s Gog, or, for that matter, the Daleks of the past or present Doctor Who.) The impossible skyscrapers and their implicit futurism became a required shorthand for any utopian or dystopian SF film to follow; never mind that Lang was merely drawing from the sights of his trip to New York City. Rotwang became a number of mad scientists that followed, not least Dr. Strangelove. The machines that power Metropolis, which also count the 10-hour workday, were resurrected for music videos and TV commercials. Not bad for a film that couldn’t be properly viewed for 83 years. Following a number of valiant attempts at reconstruction using scattered recovered footage from different uncovered versions of the film, photographs of deleted scenes, censorship cards featuring detailed story notes and the full text of the intertitles, and even screenwriter Thea von Harbou’s original novelization, in 2010 the film was finally restored to nearly its original length (only a few minutes’ worth of footage is still missing). The source was a print of the Latin American export of the film, which had found its way from a private collector into an Argentinian film archive. Though the original 35mm print had been destroyed due to the dangers of storing flammable nitrate film, prior to this the archive had transferred this long cut of Metropolis to 16mm. In fact, the entire film was a different Metropolis than had been seen before: Lang shot his scenes using multiple cameras aligned side by side, and thus the Latin American Metropolis used slightly different angles but also some different takes of the same scene. But what was most valuable to Metropolis historians were the missing scenes, and when viewed in context, the story suddenly acquired a cohesive narrative and substantive meaning that had been missing during all those decades that the shorter cut had stubbornly become a classic.

The false Maria (Brigitte Helm) introduces herself to the Yoshiwara club.

This year marks the film’s 90th anniversary, and the U.K.’s Masters of Cinema label has just released a definitive three-disc set, presenting not just the miraculous 2010 restoration, but also the prior restoration from 2001 and the 90-minute, midnight movie 1984 cut by composer Giorgio Moroder. Checking in with these different incarnations of Metropolis is to step through the history of the film’s re-emergence and piece-by-piece reassembly. Moroder’s film is of particular note, since it uniquely straddled the line between sincere restoration attempt (it really was the best and most accurate presentation of the film’s story for many years) and pop art appropriation. Moroder added his synthesizer scoring and laced in songs from Freddie Mercury, Adam Ant, Pat Benatar, Bonnie Tyler, Loverboy, Billy Squier, Jon Anderson, and Cycle V. The footage was presented tinted, with many scenes colorized in stylistic ways, most notably in Rotwang’s laboratory. Essentially, Moroder was making a silent film accessible to younger audiences by transforming it into a 90-minute rock musical/music video. For a long while, the VHS was a video store staple and quite possibly the easiest way to see Metropolis (apart from cheapo, barely watchable public domain releases – some, I can vouch, without any score at all) – and then it vanished until a Blu-ray release in recent years. It’s nice to see it here, although it’s less likely you’ll be checking in with Disc Three’s 2001 restoration, since it’s long since been overshadowed by the superior 2010 version. Most of all the value of the Masters of Cinema release is its comprehensive look at a film that never quite got its due until very recently, and yet, somehow, still conquered the world. You may still argue that the film’s ending is pat and naïve, that the characters are paper-thin, that the narrative doesn’t hold a candle to the spectacular sights, that perhaps the movie is more machine than human. And yet, in a way, Metropolis is still everywhere, and in looking closer at the 2010 restored cut, even through the shower curtain of scratches worn into the Argentine print and preserved in amber in its 16mm, you can see Lang’s youthful energy, astonishing Brigitte Helm twisting her body into severe angles in a machine’s notion of dancing sexy, the occultism of Rotwang’s lab clashing with the eerie, German Expressionism in the Biblical images, the fiery furnaces of the Lower City and the crashing Flood that deluges in the last act and sweeps the teeming extras together, and you can see that this is what filmmaking is supposed to be: original celluloid mythmaking.

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