Metropolis (1927)

When it’s on: Friday, 6 March (1.00 am, Saturday)
Channel: Film4
IMDb Link

The first version of Metropolis I watched was the infamous Giorgio Moroder release from 1984, for which the synth pioneer provided a brand new score and sped up the film’s frame rate. Listening to the soundtrack now, it’s dated severely with the vocal stylings of Pat Benatar, Bonnie Tyler and Jon Anderson all very much of their time, though I rather like Love Kills by Freddie Mercury. Moroder also supervised the addition of limited colour, which generally comes across as gimmicky although the flash of liquid blue in the android Maria’s eyes when she/it awakens remains quite a haunting image. Naturally, the purists were appalled, but over time ‘Morodroplis’ has gained its apologists and one could argue it did the old thing a favour, dusting it off and reintroducing its visual splendour to a new audience of science fiction nuts.

For a kid from the Star Wars generation like me, there was always something a bit mystical about Metropolis. The release of The Return of the Jedi brought with it a slew of sci-fi related TV shows, which showcased histories of the genre in terms of their influence on the Lucas leviathan. Much of the content appeared to be a string of bad, often cheap special effects, especially when compared with the leaps in technology that had helped make Star Wars such a massive hit, but then they would take real steps back in time, to the early years of cinema, and show us scenes from Fritz Lang’s epic. Even then, it was a feast for the senses, those enormous towers and cityscapes, cars both on the streets and flying along highways in the skies, every inch a working municipality. The impression it made on George Lucas is clear enough, and resurfaced during those lurid Coruscant scenes in the Star Wars prequels. It was made all the more impressive because Lang was working with primitive technology and produced many effects using models and mirrors. What matters more is the vision, the attempt to create a ‘future’ that looked and felt realistic, as though people could really live the way they were being portrayed, and there’s little doubt Metropolis scored points here. Whatever your feelings about the film’s politics and values, there can be few doubts about its technical accomplishments. It looks amazing and even manages to outdo titles that came out much further down the line.

A box office bomb upon its release, Metropolis had its fair share of critical maulings (including an acerbic ‘no thank you’ from HG Wells, writing in The New York Times) and suffered a series of edits that ravaged its original running length. The distribution company had retained the rights to make cuts as it saw fit, in exchange for funding the project, so that when it was launched in American and British cinemas some forty minutes of footage had been excised and was, for many years, believed to be entirely lost. More worryingly, Metropolis fascinated the Nazis when they came to power in Germany. No less a figure than Joseph Goebbels applauded its message of social justice, and when the film’s writer, Thea von Harbou, became a paid up member of the party, the links between Metropolis and fascism loomed large. Thea’s political leanings put paid to her marriage with Lang. The director fled when the Nazis took control as, despite being a Roman Catholic, his mother had been Jewish before marrying and converting, and he knew that his heritage might very well do for him. In later years, he would disown Metropolis thanks to its dubious association with Nazi Germany.

There’s always someone who can tie the film’s political allegories to fascism. Personally, I have always thought it leans far more to the left, the basic concept of workers and owners realising their paths lie together to be a classic Socialist ideal, if not a universal one. Perhaps I’m naïve in that regard. Possibly, it’s like the film critic Siegfried Kracauer said, that Metropolis’s central message – There can be no understanding between the hands and the brain unless the heart acts as mediator – played up to the Nazis who often used direct emotional appeals in their speeches. Either that, or it’s just a good sentiment with which to underpin the film, and that seems a lot likelier to me, given it was made in the mid 1920s, when Germany was still very much a democratic republic and the Nazis a splinter faction struggling for recognition. All the same, the appeal to poor, downtrodden Germans of the time cannot be overstated. With unemployment and inflation rising at staggering rates, reparations to the victorious countries after World War One continuing remorselessly, and tariffs placed on German exported goods, the Weimar Republic was a state on the slide and festering with resentment. The film ends on a happy, positive note; Germany’s fate would turn out very differently.

Metropolis takes place within a city of the future, possibly the year 2000. Though the film was written before Lang’s visit to New York in 1924, it seems certain that his experience of sailing into the harbour and witnessing the skyscraper skyline had a profound effect on how he wanted it to look. In this dystopian vision of things to come, mankind has fallen into two distinct strata – the rich and ruling classes, who live in idle decadence above ground within gorgeous gardens and the dubious Yoshiwara nightclub, and the workers, made to spend ten hour shifts in backbreaking labour to keep the machines running before going to their dour, uniform homes in an especially built underground city. Masterminding it all is the austere Joh Fredersen (Alfred Abel), whilst his son Freder (Gustav Frohlich) is allowed to indulge his lavish excesses in the pleasure gardens. It’s here that he meets Maria (Brigitte Helm), a young woman from below who has brought the children up to see how the ‘other half’ live and declares them to be their brothers. She’s moved along, but Freder is transfixed, both with her virginal beauty and the message she carries, and he quickly descends to the depths in order to find her. What he discovers is the misery of the workers, men killed when a huge machine explodes (Lang added realism to the effect by making the extras fall about the studio whilst filming, sometimes suspending them on wires to have them really thrown back). Freder sees a vision of the machine as Moloch, a god from antiquity that worshippers appeased with human sacrifices. For Freder, the analogy is clear enough. The machines, driven by the greed of the rich, are Moloch, the workers the sacrificial lambs.

Maria spends her spare time inciting the unsettled masses to remain patient, arguing that in the end their masters will collapse, comparing their plight to the Biblical Tower of Babel story. She prophesises the emergence of a mediator who will join both classes, the brain and the hands together. But Fredersen has other ideas. Seeing her message as undermining his essential vision, he resolves to ruin her reputation. Visiting his old friend, the eccentric inventor Rotwang (Rudolf Klein-Rogge), he learns of the existence of an android, a ‘machine human’, and orders for it to be given Maria’s face so that it can ruin her reputation. Rotwang agrees, yet he has other ideas, blaming Fredersen for the death of his long lost love, Hel (Fredersen married her, and then she died giving birth to Freder) and programming the robot to destroy the son in order to break the father’s heart.

Maria is kidnapped by Rotwang and her likeness duly transferred to the machine, which ‘awakens’ with her features, but because it’s a machine carries none of her compassion and kindness, just evil. Let loose on the people, it spreads sedition and exhorts the workers to destroy their machines. In the meantime, Freder, in disguise as a worker, sets off in pursuit of the real Maria, whilst the city around them starts to collapse.

At 145 minutes, Metropolis is a long haul, telling a big, wide ranging fable to compare with any old D. W. Griffith saga. A lot of money was invested in it, the studio’s aim being to gain international recognition, though ironically it was only much later that its merits as a landmark piece of film making were properly assessed. Viewers can look at it in one of two ways. On the one hand, Metropolis is simply a good science fiction yarn. It looks great, even now, those fantastic futuristic designs, plus the iconic work on the machine human, earning it legions of admirers and copies/rip offs in a host of later movies. The social comment aspects are a little more troublesome. Some of the allegories are so heavy handed to have even the most patient viewers throwing their hands in the air, exasperated, and declaring ‘YES WE GET IT!’ Others, the Moloch vision, are handled really well and remain rather haunting and sinister.

The acting takes the form of the very physical performing that belongs firmly within the silent era. Much expansive gesticulating, characters fleeing in bundles of flailing limbs to emphasise the desperation of their situation. The best is probably Abel, so often inscrutable until the life of his son is mortally threatened and then the frosty veneer cracks. Helm is brilliant also. Clearly a beauty, she was 19 and in her first film role. She gets across the two dynamics of her personality, the light, ‘good’ half as personified in the real Maria, along with the squinting evil of her android doppelganger. Frohlich was an extra on the Metropolis set but impressed Lang to the extent that he dismissed his original choice for Freder and had him play it instead. All actors, along with the 36,000 extras, most of whom were impoverished Germans living in the Potsdam area and only too happy to accept a wage for appearing, were treated appallingly by the demanding Lang, who insisted on everything looking as realistic as possible. Helm’s dress was set alight when her character was burned at the stake. Frohlich suffered multiple injuries thanks to the director’s exacting ways.

This restored version of the film was only possible because of the chance discovery of a complete copy in Buenos Aires in 2008. Cleaning it was an arduous process, and not entirely a successful one, given the frequent cuts from crystal clear footage to far grainier images at regular intervals. It will probably never get any better than that. More importantly, recent versions of Metropolis come with the original score by Gottfried Huppertz, which is a real thing of beauty. Channeling the epic operas of Wagner, the misery of the workers juxtaposes to magnificent effect with the city’s splendour, and there is some wonderful riffing on Le Marseillaise as the downtrodden turn to revolution.

For me, Metropolis isn’t quite a masterpiece. It isn’t even Lang’s best film; that vote goes to the superior and chilling M. However, it’s impact over the years since its release cannot be over-emphasised. It can be detected in almost every science fiction film, from the design of Star Wars’ C-3PO to the nightmare vision of future Los Angeles in Blade Runner and Rotwang’s laboratory, with its levers, switches and chemicals, turning up in many a Frankenstein feature or indeed any featuring a mad scientist. Despite the borrowing, copying and downright stealing of ideas and concepts, there’s nothing quite like it and experiencing it, at least once, is well worth anyone’s time.

Metropolis: ****

10 Replies to “Metropolis (1927)”

  1. Good, thorough stuff, Mike. I’m a massive fan of Lang’s work and firmly believe he’s one of the finest directors ever to contribute to the medium. Having said that, I do find Metropolis a bit of a slog overall – some of the visuals are indeed jaw-dropping and highly influential but I find the film quite heavy going.
    I think many would agree with you that M represents the best of Lang, but I’m going to break ranks here and declare that, as far as I’m concerned, his American films are generally superior. I feel he really honed his skills when he moved to Hollywood and produced films which bore his unique stamp and continue to move me and stimulate me to this day.

    1. Thanks Colin. I’ve found Metropolis has become a sacred cow in many ways, revered to the point where it’s almost critic proof, whereas in reality it’s a flawed picture and at times, as you say, heavy going. Incidentally the scenes featuring grainier film stock just highlighted how amazing a job they’d done on the restoration elsewhere. Some of it was incredibly sharp, a great effort.

      I know you’re a fan of Lang’s American films and agree there are some bleak master works from that period. I was completely blown away by M however; besides everything else I’ll never listen to “In the Hall of the Mountain King” in quite the same way again.

      1. Don’t get me wrong – I think M is an excellent film and a very important one too. I just feel Lang’s work became more complex and layered after the move to the States.

      2. I do hope they start showing more of his American films on TV over here so I can cover them on the site. I have considered a number on non-televised entries, breaking the fourth wall if you like, but once I start doing that the entire structure of the site is no more, civilisation collapses, etc, plus it’s sort of nice to have what I write about dictated to me by the schedules. Seeing a silent film on TV, let alone a silent made in another country, was a rare treat really.

      3. I find silent film a bit of a challenge myself but I agree it’s wonderful to see such material broadcast to allow a wider audience to stumble on it or take a chance on it.

      4. Agreed, strange how I remember many more silents being shown when I was a kid (and I’m not that old!) – regular servings of Chaplin for a start, also Lon Chaney horrors. I don’t know what’s changed but few people seem bothered now and even the success of The Artist has changed nothing.

      5. Completely different scheduling criteria, I guess. The likes of Harold Lloyd, L&H and Chaplin were certainly shown when I was a kid – I’m 46 now – and i also recall some Chaney silents, Hunchback and Phantom anyway.

      6. I guess that’s true, just seems a shame that anything from more than ten years ago is shoved into the fringe. The Harold Lloyd films I remember came with a comic voiceover and sound effects – couldn’t take away the genius of his work though.

  2. It’s remarkable how influential individual films can be, especially in science-fiction. Later ones feed off each other in a way, but nonetheless the likes of Star Wars, Blade Runner and The Matrix remain game changers… and yet pretty much all of it can be traced back to Metropolis. Or Flash Gordon, I guess.

    It’s difficult to imagine something having the same impact as any of those now, thanks to the sheer volume of huge movies released — they’re here and they’re gone, replaced a week or two later with the next mega-budgeted effects showcase. And smaller movies, if they manage to get attention at all, don’t really have the budget to be influential, as it were. I guess everything will now stay the same forever… (Of course, I’m joking. Hopefully.)

    Anyway, I haven’t watched Metropolis in yonks — certainly, it was before they discovered the missing footage. Nor Flash Gordon, now I come to mention it. Must get round to both.

  3. Thanks Bob. Flash Gordon huh? That takes me back to weekday evenings, fifteen minute chunks of episodes, cliffhangers, spaceships spitting out sparks as they fly, etc. I don’t know if I’d dare revisit it – I loved it, but I wonder if the old charm would still be there if I saw it again now.

    I’m not sure about The Matrix, but I think Blade Runner was a bit of a flop, wasn’t it, certainly when it was first released. Same with Metropolis. Perhaps that’s the problem with some of these films. Visionary certainly, but they were a hell of a gamble back when all that really matters upon release is bums on seats. Little wonder most blockbusters play it painstakingly safe instead, easy to churn out another Transformers (for example) and count the beans rather than take a chance. Would Metropolis’s backers, who took a real dive in 1927, really be delighted about how it’s perceived now, it would they regret having taken the loss?

    Something like Star Wars is a rare thing indeed, I guess.

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