Revisiting Metropolis on the big screen

Fritz Lang’s 1927 classic Metropolis returns to the cinema in a newly restored, extended re-issue. Here’s our review of one of sci-fi’s key movies...

Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927)

On paper, Fritz Lang’s 1927 silent film Metropolis must have read like the work of a madman. Here was a movie that lasted two-and-a-half hours in an era when films typically ran for less than 90 minutes. That employed almost 40,000 extras, required the building of vast sets, an entire city replicated in miniature, and a baroque robot out of materials never before used.

It was a film that, at a time when films often cost about as much to make as a theatrical production, swallowed an estimated budget of over 5 million reichsmarks, making it the most expensive feature yet made by a considerable margin.

Fritz Lang’s Metropolis was an insanely, audaciously inventive film, establishing the framework for science fiction cinema when such a genre barely even existed. Its depiction of a vast city of skyscrapers, monorails and neon set the template for filmmakers that followed, from Jean-Luc Godard’s Alphaville to Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner. The influence of its beautiful, almost sexy humanoid robot can be seen in the ungainly lines of Star Wars‘ C3PO, and the macho swagger of RoboCop.

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Far from being a critical and financial success, Metropolis was hacked apart by editors after theatre owners complained about its excessive length, while some critics completely dismissed it,most notably, H.G. Wells, who described it as “foolishness”. (Ironically, Wells would later write the screenplay for a futuristic epic of his own, Things To Come, whose towering cities clearly owed a debt to Lang’s.)

For a film that has become an icon of sci-fi cinema, it’s remarkable to note that, in the eight decades since its release, only a handful of people have seen Metropolis in its original, uncut state. Chunks of lost footage have since been rediscovered and replaced, and the movie has been reissued several times, including the infamous 1984 version, which added a distracting synth score by Giorgio Moroder. But it’s only in the last two years that Metropolis has been restored to something approaching its initial form.

Thanks to a chance discovery of a severely damaged but complete 16mm print of the movie in Buenos Aires, the newly restored, 150 minute version of Metropolis now appearing in cinemas is the closest we currently have to the film Fritz Lang intended, complete with composer Gottfried Huppertz’s original score, and those 80s Moroder memories can, thankfully, be put to rest.

The Film

With a spectacular orchestral boom, Metropolis opens with a vast cityscape that reaches for the clouds. Far below, dejected workers shuffle among subterranean corridors. As much a part of the brutal pistons and gears that power the city’s monorails and neon signs, it’s the proletariat’s job to keep these monstrous machines churning.

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The upper classes, meanwhile, are literally upper class, and enjoy a godlike existence in the metropolis’ rooftop gardens, cavorting among the fountains and white peacocks in a recreation of Bosch’s Garden Of Earthly Delights. They’re blissfully ignorant of the oppressed masses kilometres beneath their feet, until one day their festivities are interrupted by Maria, an eerily serene matriarchal figure to the lower orders, who takes a huddled group of children on a guided tour of the city’s utopian upper floors.

Spotting the crowd of rag-clad oiks in their midst, the garden’s upper classes are frozen with horror, and Maria’s tour is abruptly cut short by a couple of security guards. Freder Fredersen, meanwhile, the toff son of the city’s despotic ruler Joh, is immediately besotted by Maria and sets off into the metrpolis’ bowels to find her.

There, he sees first-hand the Sisyphean labours of the workers in the machine room, where men stand before clock-like workstations in continuous ten hour shifts. As one elderly worker exhaustedly loses concentration, the colossal machine before him overheats, the subsequent explosion sending bodies flying back like rag dolls.

In a bravura setpiece, Freder has a vision of the engine-like reactor transforming into a vast Hebrew god, greedily devouring a mindless procession of sacrificial victims. With this image still etched in his brain, Freder rushes back upstairs to tell his father, Joh, of the horrible treatment he’s just seen. Chillingly indifferent, Joh dismissively says the workers are “where they belong”.

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Still determined to find Maria, and enlisting the help of disgraced civil servant Josaphat, Freder heads back underground, trading places with an exhausted worker and taking up a position in front one of the city’s clock-like workstations. His shift over, Freder discovers that Maria is, in fact, a kind of priestess to the downtrodden masses, a female John the Baptist who predicts the coming of a saviour who will act as a mediator between the upper and lower classes.

Meanwhile, Freder’s father, upon learning of her message of hope, orders a mad scientist called Rotwang to give his robot invention (here called a Maschinenmensch) Maria’s likeness, hoping to breed discontent among the poor.

Rotwang, however, has other ideas, and instead programmes his simulacrum to stir up the masses into a rebellious frenzy, triggering a series of events that threaten to destroy the metropolis entirely.

Viewed in 2010, Lang’s silent movie has taken on an eerie, other-worldly aura that sets it apart from any sci-fi dystopia made before or since. This could partly be due to its odd mixture of science and the occult. Rotwang’s lab, tucked away in what, from the outside, looks like a fairy tale ginger bread house, is filled with pentagrams and esoteric literature, as well as bubbling test tubes and arcs of electricity.

Mostly, however, Metropolis‘ spooky aura is derived from its stunning expressionist visuals, which at times border on the breathtaking. From the extraordinary opening vistas to the colossal closing riot that takes in thousands of extras and huge sets, Metropolis‘ visual power remains remarkably undimmed. And in this newly restored edition, Lang’s film is more coherent and beautiful to look at than ever, with only one significant scene (a struggle between Joh and the crazed Rotwang) still tragically missing.

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The film’s weakest area, however, is arguably the naivety of its politics. Its lowly populace is depicted as a bovine, superstitious and alarmingly gullible herd, who, at the film’s rushed conclusion, forget about decades of oppression and poor treatment within the space of a few minutes.

In this respect, Metropolis is like an arthouse art deco Avatar, its downtrodden populace the film’s equivalent of Unobtanium. And just as James Cameron’s hugely expensive picture reduces concerns about ecology and modern war to a pulp battle between soldiers and blue tree people, Metropolis appears to suggest, in its ridiculous “heads and hands need a heart” message, that the despotic attitude of its upper classes, and their years of cruelty and oppression, were a mere cultural misunderstanding that could be resolved with a handshake.

In fairness to Lang, even he was dissatisfied with this aspect of his film, and stated in a later interview with Peter Bogdanovich that “I was not so politically minded in those days as I am now. You cannot make a social-conscious picture in which you say that the intermediary between the hand and the brain is the heart. I mean, that’s a fairy tale, definitely.”

Iffy politics aside, Metropolis stands as a classic of science fiction cinema. Astounding in its visual creativity, it quite rightly stands as one of the most significant films of the 20th century.

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5 stars