Metropolis, a silent movie made 75 years ago in the infancy of the film medium, has been enshrined with the status of legend. But after its initial screenings in 1927, which ran 153 minutes, the film was mercilessly cut for commercial distribution and few have seen it in its entirety as intended by director Fritz Lang. Now a definitive restoration has been completed, with the advantage of complex digital technology applied with painstaking care, resulting in images of stunning clarity, allowing the art of the cinematography once again to be revealed. Although some footage has been irretrievably lost, the new restoration is as complete as is possible with the surviving elements; it’s running time is two hours.
It is a truly remarkable film that Lang made, all those years ago, drawing on a variety of disparate sources–biblical mythology, German mythology, Marxist themes, even the Frankenstein theme–all wrapped in a visionary science fiction fantasy world whose influence can be seen throughout the later history of film. The eponymous city was inspired by a visit Lang made to New York in 1924. On screen it takes on a massive scale with a pronounced art deco influence; one skyscraper surely was inspired by the Chrysler Building, especially appropriate to this tale with its combination sleek lines and gothic gargoyles.
The city of Metropolis, like worlds from German opera (Wagner, certainly; Strauss’ Die Frau ohne Schatten) is dichotomous, divided between the gods and the mortals, the high and the low. On the one hand, Lang pictures the idealized modernity of the highrise demesne, the home of the wealthy and privileged, with theaters, gardens and stadia. Below is the underground Lower City, where huge machines are manned by automaton-like workers, dressed in identical overalls, walking in lockstep, heads lowered in the dejection of the oppressed.(George Orwell wrote 1984 in 1949; surely he had seen Metropolis.)
Within this setting Lang tells the story of Freder Fredersen, the son of Joh Fredersen, ruler of the city. Freder’s heart is captured by Maria, a young woman from the Lower City, after seeing her showing some workers’ children the Upper City. He seeks her out in the Lower City, observing the workers, slaves to the unmerciful machines. When a machine explodes, Freder has a vision of Moloch, a god of fire associated with the sacrifice of children. Despite special effects techniques that were primitive in 1927 as compared to today, Lang’s imagery remains powerful and evocative.
Maria and Freder are both idealized, enveloped in goodness. She speaks to workers gathered in the catacombs under the city and tells them a mediator will come to save them. Freder is destined to be the mediator, in sympathy with the workers, but himself from the masters. It’s part the Christ story, part Siegfreid, and a sprinkling of Marx (just change the word "brother," used by the workers here, to "comrade"). Somehow all jells into its own saga of class warfare, good and evil, sin and redemption.
Then there is the scientist/inventor, Rotwang, who loved a woman, but lost her to Joh Fredersen. He has created a machine woman, a robot, losing his hand in the process–shades of Dr. Strangelove. He abducts Maria and in a scene that became the model for numerous later Frankenstein films, with test tubes bubbling and electrical charges crackling, he transmits an essence of Maria into the machine woman, who emerges as Maria’s double (played by the same actress), but programmed by Rotwang for his plot of revenge against Joh.
Metropolis must be seen in a way parallel to the way that one might see opera. Opera is stylized; built into it are conventions which are understood and accepted by the viewer as part of the art form. One doesn’t expect literal real life on the opera stage, but a conventionalized expression of themes about real life presented in the form of musical drama rich with emotion. Metropolis is made in the conventions of silent films; gestures are broad and points are made nonverbally. Metropolis emulates the grand sweep of opera, without the arias. It is even broken into sections with musically derived names: Prelude, Interlude, Intermezzo, Furioso. Its visuals seek the effect of the theatrical spectacles of grand opera (floods, explosions, lascivious dancing, the Tower of Babel, an auto da fe) and the original score which accompanies the film heightens the exaggerated emotions on screen.
The overriding theme of Metropolis is stated flat out on the screen: "The mediator between the brains and the hands must be the heart." Freder, the mediator, whose heart is full of love, mediates between the brains (the thinkers, the masters, the capitalists) and the hands (the doers, the workers). There’s an odd amalgam of naivete and sophistication in Metropolis, which must be evaluated in the context of its time. It was, after all, the first full length science fiction film ever made.