by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2002, 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved
The recent release of yet another “restoration” of Fritz Lang’s 1927 science-fiction epic Metropolis has led me to some interesting reflections on how a film that has been so brutally chopped up over the years and then laboriously put together again can change based on its current state of preservation and the balance of plot, visual, thematic and technical elements in each “new” version. Accordingly, here are some reflections of mine over a 17-year period of seeing three successive versions of Metropolis.
I ran a friend the film Metropolis, which I’d watched myself a few days before (oddly, I must not have noticed it before, but the print ran only 93 minutes — the film was originally two hours). At least the totally silent print (no added music score) meant that the noise pollution risk was zero (to borrow one of my friend’s favorite phrases). I was glad for a chance to see the film again and to notice things I missed the first time (like the all-too-brief shot — was it longer in the original version? — of the robot-Maria’s skin burning off as the workers destroy her at the stake); my friend was irritated by the apolitical ending and the fact that so many loose plot ends were left dangling (most notably the fate of the workers), but for the first hour, at least, he was gripped by the film. Interestingly, he’s done so much work in factory situations himself he could vividly imagine the noise all those machines were making, even though the film itself was silent (and it was interesting to note how director Fritz Lang used steam as a visual metaphor for industrial noise). I was irritated by Gustav Fröhlich’s bad silent acting as the son of the industrialist (Alfred Abel), especially by contrast with the excellent performances of the other three principals — Abel, Brigitte Helm as the two Marias (I pointed out the marvelous job she did of distinguishing, visually, between the two characters, altering her facial expressions appropriately so we could tell which Maria was the real one and which one was the robot), and Rudolf Klein-Rogge as the mad scientist who invented the robot. — 1/3/93
I ran Charles the silent print of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis and the 1940 RKO musical You’ll Find Out, co-starring Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi and Peter Lorre (the only time all three worked together) with Kay Kyser and his band, including his core singers: Ginny Simms, Sully Mason, Harry Babbitt and “Ish Kabibble,” a.k.a. Merwyn Bogue, a melody trumpeter who adopted this odd persona (midway between Moe Howard of the Three Stooges and Jerry Lewis) and, in the film’s quirkiest scene, mugged his way through a song called “The Bad Humor Man.” There were other songs, too — credited to composer Jimmy McHugh and lyricist “John Mercer” (I mentioned to Charles that on all previous occasions I’d seen him billed as Johnny Mercer, and Charles joked, “Oh, no — that was his father!”) — but I doubt that these would be the songs for which McHugh and Mercer would wish to be remembered. The film is rather slow-moving but cute and entertaining in its way, though Kyser’s humor (unlike Spike Jones’) dates pretty badly and the three horror stars are really wasted in a project like this.
Metropolis holds up quite well, though this print leaves a lot to be desired (the quality gets worse as the film progresses, and the last reel is an almost unwatchable sea of stark white faces and murky sets). What’s most interesting about this film is how many subsequent films it influenced — not only the obvious ones like Frankenstein (notably in the scene in which the mad scientist Rotwang makes over his robot in the image of Maria, the prophetess of the workers, which clearly had a lot to do with the creation sequence in Whale’s film) but later movies like Dr. Strangelove (Kubrick clearly borrowed some of the conception of his title character from Rotwang, who isn’t in a wheelchair but does have an artificial hand that he sometimes loses control of), Star Wars (the talking Droid C-3P0 is just a male version of Rotwang’s robot pre-transformation) and even the recent Titanic (in the scenes of the working people frantically trying to beat down barred gates to get out of the city that’s about to be flooded and kill them).
Also noteworthy is that, except for Gustav Frölich as the younger Fredersen (the son of the ruler of Metropolis, who was called “Joh Fredersen” in the Thea von Harbou script and in Lang’s cut, but got altered to “John Fredersen” in the U.S. and British prints), the acting is quite good, refreshingly free of the horrible mugging and overacting that all too frequently passed for a performance in silent films — though admittedly the characters are basically caricatures and there’s no place in this film for the best kind of silent dramatic acting, the kind Gloria Swanson and Greta Garbo did in their silent films. And, despite the poor quality of this print, the cinematography (by three cameramen — Karl Freund, Günther Rittau and Eugen Schuftan, the latter the special-effects man who actually invented the process screen specifically for this film) stands out — as do the set designs; it’s amusing to see Rotwang’s house, a Caligari-esque construction in the middle of all these ultra-modern Bauhaus-run-riot designs (and Rotwang’s antiquated nature is also shown by the fact that he wears a watch that goes to 12 — all the other clocks in the film operate according to a metric hour).
Metropolis is one of those films where the visual conception outweighs the problems with the story construction — the plot really makes very little sense, and when H. G. Wells called it “quite the silliest film” he may well have been thinking about all the scenes in which we see workers manipulating levers or handles on giant machines, without being given a clue as to exactly what it is they’re doing or why. (This film has as little to do with what actually goes on inside an industrial factory as Chaplin’s Modern Times — and at least in that film the deviations were acceptable and worked as comic exaggeration.) And it’s nice to see Alfred Abel as Joh Fredersen — the real Alfred Abel, out of his “Max Schreck” Dracula drag [sic]! — 10/28/98 [At the time I wrote this I believed the long-standing rumor that Max Schreck, the star of F. W. Murnau's unauthorized Dracula adaptation Nosferatu (1922), was really Abel in heavy makeup. I’ve since learned that, despite his phony-sounding name — the word “Schreck” means “terror” or “fright” in German — Max Schreck was real and made about 20 more films after his electrifying debut in Nosferatu.]
This morning Charles and I went to a film screening at the Landmark Hillcrest. The film was Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, in a laboriously reconstructed version from the Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau Foundation and Transit Film, distributed in the U.S. by Kino International — that runs a shade over two hours (40 minutes longer than the 85-minute version which for years has been the standard edition) and, though still frustratingly incomplete (the original director’s cut shown at the Berlin premiere in January 1927 was half an hour longer still and in this version the lacunae are filled in with intertitles explaining what the missing scenes were, which only makes it annoying that we still can’t see them — restorers Martin Koerber and Enno Patalas avoided the use of existing stills to try to fill in the gaps; ironically tonight Turner Classic Movies is showing an attempt to restore a totally lost silent film, Tod Browning’s London After Midnight, entirely with stills!), it’s a far, far better film than the Metropolis we’re used to (although, surprisingly for Kino, this version did not attempt to restore the original color tints). [I've since learned that this was because Lang didn’t like color tints, and the tints in his films when they were originally released without his approval.]
In the first place, it makes a great deal more sense: the rather prickly relationship between Joh Fredersen, Master of Metropolis (Alfred Abel) and Rotwang the mad inventor of the robot “Machine Man” is explained by a backstory conflict between them over a woman named Hel. Rotwang was in love with Hel; Joh Fredersen seduced her away from him and married her, only to lose her when she died in childbirth while having Joh’s son Freder (shown on screen as an adult and played by Gustav Fröhlich). So there are really three conflicting interests, not two, at the root of the story: the one between the workers and the bosses and the one between Joh and Rotwang — and when Rotwang agrees to do Joh’s bidding and make his robot-person look like Maria (Brigitte Helm), the leader of the workers’ meetings and deliverer of peace-and-love sermons telling them to be patient and wait for a “mediator” (in the long version equated, even more than in the short one, with the Messiah), with the intent of getting the false Maria to lead a workers’ revolution and therefore a violent response from the system, we learn that Rotwang’s real interest is in demolishing not only the workers and their city but killing Freder as well as part of his long-delayed revenge against Joh for depriving him of Freder’s mother.
The restored Metropolis is vastly superior from the point of view of image quality — though a few of the scenes are still pretty grainy most of them are clear and bright, and the ending in particular (which in the videos I’ve seen is so faded and bleached out it’s almost impossible to tell what is supposed to be going on) is remarkably clear and easy to follow. It’s also greatly helped by having the original background score composed in 1927 by Gottfried Hüppertz, reconstructed and re-recorded in late 2001 and added to the film as a soundtrack (though whoever was running the film at Landmark this morning had the score at just a bit too loud a volume). What’s more important is the effect the restoration has on the rather muddled politics of the film. As is noted in the pressbook for the re-release, “The Left wing, appalled at the portrayal of an anger-blinded working class abandoning their children and destroying their own homes, found the film fascistic. The Right wing (and the UFA brass and Paramount, apparently), equally disturbed by the destructive revolt of Metropolis’ Lower City denizens, found the film borderline Communist.”
Certainly the politics of Metropolis tend both Left and Right; it’s hard to imagine a more perfect visual metaphor for the Marxist analysis of class than having the workers forced to live underground, dressed in drab costumes, marched in stiff platoons, driven literally to death in the machines and forced to do work so numbingly pointless even we can’t figure out what all that gear-turning and lever-pushing is actually supposed to accomplish, while the upper classes live high up in the sky, sit in palatial offices running things (in one of the restored scenes Joh Fredersen sits in front of a TV and a series of monitor screens flashing stock-market quotations, and one is reminded of how in a previous film, Dr. Mabuse, Lang had presented the stock market as a metaphor for the decadence of capitalism as a whole and had Mabuse — played by Rudolf Klein-Rogge, the same actor who played Rotwang here — rejoice in his ability to manipulate the market and use counterfeit currency to trash the entire German economy) and relax in decadent cabaret districts like Yoshiwara (again harking back to Mabuse and its reflection of the genuine cabaret scene in Weimar-era Berlin) and rather silly resorts like the Hanging Gardens — where Maria (the nice one) first confronts Freder with the sickly, starving children of the workers and says, “These are your brothers!” At the same time we see Freder for the first time running laps on a track in a giant alabaster-walled stadium that looks like something straight like Triumph of the Will and suggests the side of Lang that encouraged Joseph Goebbels to make him an offer of control over the entire German film industry right after the Nazis took power.
As I’ve mentioned before regarding Lang’s pre-Nazi German output, since Lang left Germany when the Nazis took power (in his own account because he had always been opposed to them; according to his “black” biographer, Patrick McGilligan, simply because he was worried that at any time he might be “outed” as having had a Jewish mother and found himself falling in the Nazi film hierarchy as fast as he had risen) and his screenwriter and wife, Thea von Harbou, stayed and worked in films throughout the Nazi era, it’s tempting and easy to blame everything bad or silly about their films together on her and credit the good stuff to him. It’s almost certainly Von Harbou who coined the motto that became the official theme of Metropolis — “The heart must be the mediator between the brain and the hands!” — which sounds good but means almost nothing (and to the extent that it does mean anything argues for a sort of paternalistic capitalism in which the workers aren’t worked too hard and their basic needs are taken care of while the elites still extract enormous amounts of surplus value from them and maintain their overall control of the economic and political system — not all that different, come to think of it, from the ideal Bismarck had for Germany when he first suppressed the Social Democratic Party and then had the Kaiser enact a good deal of their program, including guaranteed national health care, by royal fiat), and to the extent that Metropolis reflects Leftist ideas it’s through the visuals that it does so — through the casual disposability of the workers (when one dies in an industrial accident another is quickly installed to replace him so production can continue without stopping ) and the impassivity of Abel’s Joh Fredersen as he receives news and fires his assistant, Josaphat (Theodor Loos), for not having kept him sufficiently informed about the industrial accident and the workers’ unrest.
Certainly in an era in which the social advances of the post-war era of welfare capitalism are being steadily rolled back — in which, as Blase Bonpane noted in his speech at the Unitarian Church last night (more on that later), an increasing proportion of the homeless people living on L.A.’s streets or in their cars are actually working 40-hour-per-week jobs, and in which political leaders unabashedly celebrate an economic “boom” that renders most working people poorer than they were before, enthusiastically support tax cuts for the rich (a Los Angeles Times story this morning reveals that most of this year’s Democratic Senate candidates in open-seat races endorse the Bush tax cuts and say there is no disagreement between them and their Republican opponents on that issue!); in which corporate leaders who lay off massive numbers of workers are rewarded with personal bonuses while investors bid up the stock prices of companies that leave thousands unemployed; and in which the rich increasingly live in “gated communities” and never have to lay eyes on the victims of their economic policies — the world of Metropolis looks all too much like our own.
Certainly Metropolis has its Right-wing elements as well. The workers are depicted as brainless, stupid, pathetic creatures in need of decisive leadership, for good or evil — indeed, it occurred to me that after September 11, 2001 (which happened during the final stages of the restoration project) Rotwang can be read as a prototype of Osama bin Laden, a terrorist whose schemes aim at destroying not just one set of workers or owners but the whole idea of industrial society (that peculiarly Gothic house he lives in and a quick insert showing his watch — it has a 12-hour dial even though the official time system of Metropolis is based on a 10-hour day — as well as his access to the 2000-year-old catacombs under Metropolis and the ossuaries that are part of them, in which he kidnaps the real Maria to transfer her appearance to his robot) indicate his association with pre-industrial civilization even while he is also a scientist with an ultra-high-tech laboratory in his complex. The religious allegories in Metropolis are as important as its political ones — indeed, in the full version they are far more explicitly Christian than in the short version, containing not only the Old Testament stories of Moloch and Babel but the Book of Revelation as well (used in a still-lost scene to refer to the false Maria and her otherwise inexplicable appearance in the Yoshiwara district to incite lust, murder and suicide among the young aristocratic blades on her way to the workers’ city to get them to sabotage their own city and thus kill themselves ) and hammering home with Von Harbou’s (or is it Lang’s?) typical lack of subtlety the idea that “mediator” = Messiah.
Metropolis in its restored version (it’s probably a misnomer to call this a “full” version since so much footage is still missing, but with the fill-in intertitles it’s probably as close as anyone is going to get to Lang’s and Von Harbou’s original concept now) is a far richer film than it is in the short version, it makes considerably more narrative sense and it’s also a considerably better piece of filmmaking: Paramount’s editor, Channing Pollock (who I hope is resting in the same circle of hell as Joseph W. Farnham, the MGM hack who similarly butchered Stroheim’s Greed), not only shortened the film but also recut it, eliminating a lot of Lang’s intercutting and making the film more static and quite a bit less exciting. Even Gustav Fröhlich’s performance, which has always bothered me — for someone who got such subtle acting out of virtually everyone else in the cast, Lang seemed to let him get away with some of the most horrible mugging and overacting in the entire silent era, and it was a surprise to read in the pressbook that Lang originally cast another actor in the role and Fröhlich was a mid-production replacement (how horrible could actor number one have been that Lang actually regarded Fröhlich as an improvement?) — seemed less offensive in the restored version, possibly because he got a long action scene during which he finally kills Rotwang at the end and he handled action better than he did anything else. As for the rest of the acting, it is great — especially the performance by 17-year-old newcomer Brigitte Helm, who acts the part of both Marias and is so wonderfully expressive in both roles she leaves absolutely no doubt which Maria she’s playing in any given scene (though for a film which was the most elaborate special-effects movie ever made to that time it seem bizarre that there is no scene in which the two Marias actually meet on screen).
One of the key factors in Metropolis is what a major influence it’s been on filmmakers since. Certainly James Whale absorbed a great deal from it — not only in the visualization of the creation of the monsters in Frankenstein and The Bride of Frankenstein but in the twitchy movements Brigitte Helm makes as the false Maria just before she is burned at the stake (and in a marvelous series of dissolves her skin literally burns off and reveals her robot core). Indeed, Whale actually considered Helm for the title character in Bride, but she had just married a German industrialist and retired from the screen (probably just as well, too, since Whale wanted the same actress to play Mary Shelley in the prologue and the Bride in the film proper, and while Helm would have done the Bride magnificently she couldn’t have played Mary Shelley without a British-accented speaking double!). Another peculiar film with a Metropolis ancestry is Edgar G. Ulmer’s The Black Cat (Universal, 1934); though nobody in the U.S. had seen a version of Metropolis with the Hel subplot, Ulmer had actually worked on Metropolis as a set designer and therefore knew all about that part of the story and clearly used it as the basis for The Black Cat, which also centers around the rivalry of two powerful men for a woman who died, and their desire to control her child (a daughter in The Black Cat, a son in Metropolis) for their own schemes against each other.
The press kit references the more recent films that have been influenced or inspired by Metropolis — Dr. Strangelove (Stanley Kubrick reportedly acknowledged that Rotwang’s missing right hand, and the black-gloved artificial hand that replaced it, inspired the similar accoutrement of his title character), Star Wars (especially in the design of the C-3PO robot), Blade Runner, Brazil, the Tim Burton Batman films, The Matrix and William Gibson’s novel Neuromancer. The imagery of Metropolis has also become iconic in music videos — the press kit mentions Madonna’s “Respect Yourself” (directed by future feature-film director David Fincher) but inexplicably leaves out Janet Jackson’s “Rhythm Nation” — and indeed disco producer Giorgio Moroder himself turned Metropolis into a feature-length music video in the early 1980’s, sticking on his own score featuring pop songs by Pat Benatar, Bonnie Tyler, Billy Squier, et al.
As I’ve mentioned earlier, a good case can be made for Lang as the greatest director of all time simply because he was “present at the creation” of so many different genres — the epic fantasy, the spy thriller, the action serial, the opera film, even the horror movie (though he didn’t direct The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari he did do a lot of the pre-production work on it and certainly left his mark on the finished product) — and while a good deal of Metropolis, including the handling of the crowds, the aura of sophisticated decadence and the inserts of historical or Biblical fantasy sequences into a modern (or futuristic) plot, shows the unmistakable influence of Cecil B. DeMille (who had a far better critical reputation in 1927 than he did later on!), and there’s also an almost Eisensteinian flair in some of the editing of Metropolis (especially in this restored version, which is cut far more creatively and dynamically than the short version), it’s clear far more filmmakers learned from Lang than taught him. — 10/31/02
“Metropolis,” the classic 1927 science-fiction allegorical film by Fritz Lang and Thea von Harbou, is playing at the Ken Cinema on Adams Avenue from November 8-14 in a newly restored, two-hour version that is vastly more entertaining and somewhat more progressive politically than the 85-minute version usually seen. The film remains important on its own merits as well as for its still-relevant political and social allegories and its overwhelming influence on later cinematic depictions of the future.
Restored Print of “Metropolis” Plays at Ken Cinema Nov. 8-14
by MARK GABRISH CONLAN
Once upon a time — in early 1925, to be exact — German film producer Erich Pommer, director Fritz Lang, screenwriter/novelist Thea von Harbou (then Mrs. Lang) and the company they worked for, UFA (Universum-Film Aktiengesellschaft) set out to make the greatest film of all time. It would be a monumental epic of a near future in which an aloof upper class of aristocrats lived in giant skyscrapers, hung out in lavish cabarets, stadiums and outdoor resorts and ran the world in their spare time, while the workers who made their lifestyle possible toiled in regimented drudgery and lived in crude apartments underground. It would involve an unprecedented array of special effects — including elaborate miniatures and a device for combining them with live actors called the process screen, which quickly became a basic tool of movie production but was actually invented for this film. It would be a masterly combination of all the genres in which director Lang had already shown himself expert — the epic, the thriller, the horror film, the Jazz-age spectacle of romantic decadence — and it would be based on a recently published von Harbou novel called “Metropolis.”
Unfortunately, the versions of “Metropolis” that have circulated throughout the world in the 75 years since it was finally finished and released in January 1927 have been pale echoes of the original filmmakers’ conception. After its first few weeks of release in Germany, the studio ordered major cuts in the film to bring its running time down from 2 1/2 to 2 hours. Once Paramount, UFA’s producing partner and the U.S. distributor, got hold of it, they assigned a playwright named Channing Pollock to cut it still further, to 85 minutes. He did this by removing much of the thriller-type action that punctuated the original, virtually all of the romantic decadence and depiction of the cabaret scene of the future, and much of the backstory that explained who the leading characters were, how they related to each other and what their motivations were in the sequences that did survive the cuts.
What remained of the story of “Metropolis” involved Joh Fredersen (Alfred Abel), master of the super-city of Metropolis, whose son Freder (Gustav Fröhlich) — a rather silly-looking figure in puttees and polo boots — is playing in the lavish Eternal Gardens one day when he is angrily confronted by Maria (Brigitte Helm), a sort of Christian social activist who has brought a collection of bedraggled-looking workers’ children up to the upper city. “Look! These are your brothers!” she tells him. Freder is sufficiently moved — or is he just bored with his pointless upper-class aristocratic lifestyle? — to descend to the workers’ underground city and check the conditions out for himself. He witnesses an industrial accident at one of the giant machines that maintain Metropolis and has a vision of the machine as Moloch, feeding on the bodies of workers piled into its fire-breathing mouth. Later he takes the place of a worker at another machine and gets an invitation to a secret meeting at which Maria preaches a sermon, telling the workers to bide their time, endure their condition and wait for a “mediator” who will join the owners’ brains and the workers’ hands with the heart.
Meanwhile, Joh is in touch with Rotwang (Rudolf Klein-Rogge), an eccentric inventor who has invented a robot that will do away with the need for a human workforce altogether. Joh instructs Rotwang to make the robot look like Maria and use the cyber-Maria to get the workers to launch a revolution, which in turn will give him the excuse to use force against them. (Though this is nowhere specified in the film, the chilling implication is that this revolt will give Joh an excuse to slaughter the entire working-class population and replace them with Rotwang’s robots.) The workers obediently destroy the machines that maintain not only the aristocrats’ city but their own as well, and without the machines to hold them back giant floods break out all over Metropolis, threatening to drown the entire worker population, until Maria — the real one — leads them to safety after they’ve realized their mistake. The workers lynch the robot Maria and burn her at the stake (whereupon her synthetic skin covering melts away and reveals her metal body underneath), and the real Maria reconciles Joh, his son and Grot (Heinrich George), the workers’ foreman, telling them, “Between the brain that plans and the hands that build there must be a mediator. That mediator must be the heart!”
Since the East German film archive started reassembling “Metropolis” from the various extant versions in 1968, there have been various attempts to restore the film to something like Lang’s and von Harbou’s original conception. The version now in circulation, put together by a German company called Transit Film in association with the Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau Foundation and distributed in the U.S. by Kino International, is by far the most ambitious. It runs for slightly over two hours and incorporates all the “Metropolis” footage known to exist. It is also accompanied by the original musical score, composed by Gottfried Hüppertz in 1926 for live performance along with the silent film — and a vast improvement over the rather cheesy accompaniments on previous video versions of “Metropolis” and the disco-rock score Giorgio Moroder supplied for a 1984 theatrical reissue of the cut version. Finally, a digital restoration job has been done so that the film itself looks clear and bright; while there is occasional grain in some of the images, for the most part the stunning cinematography by Gunther Rittau, Karl Freund and Eugen Shufftan glows as it hasn’t since the film was new. Though major scenes are still missing, the restoration team has been able to fill in the gaps of the film through lengthened intertitles explaining what was supposed to happen in them.
The result of the restoration is a far richer — and politically edgier — “Metropolis.” While much of the film can only be read allegorically — the workers depicted on their jobs seem to have nothing to do but move levers and switches back and forth according to the signals given them by flashing lights, which serves as a metaphor for the mindless monotony of assembly-line work but doesn’t look as if it’s accomplishing anything useful — the characters and their motivations are much clearer and the film in its restored form makes a good deal more dramatic sense. We learn, for example, that 20 years before the action we see Joh Fredersen and Rotwang were rivals for the affections of a woman named Hel. She married Joh and died giving birth to their son Freder, but Rotwang never forgave Joh for stealing her and in fact began his robot project as a way of constructing a replica of his lost love.
Through the restored footage we get a much more logical view of the ending. There are no longer just two clashing agendas in the film, but three: Maria’s desire for a “mediator” to secure the workers’ liberation, Joh’s desire for an excuse to repress the workers’ movement by turning it violent and then using violence against it — and Rotwang’s motivation, which is to destroy Joh’s world and his son as revenge for his years-before loss of Hel’s love to Joh. This deepens the allegory of “Metropolis” in a way that became particularly relevant after the September 11, 2001 attacks (which occurred while the restoration was in post-production): Rotwang emerges as a bin Laden-style terrorist who seeks to destroy the industrial world — but who, like bin Laden, sees no contradiction in using the highest of high-tech to eliminate the world that created it and revert his era’s society to a pre-industrial age.
The politics of “Metropolis” remain fairly muddled even with the restored footage. In some ways the film is more anti-capitalist than before. Not only does the visual distinction between the airy, luxurious urban environment of the ruling class and the drab, military-style existence of the workers register as powerfully as ever as a visual metaphor for the class struggle, the increased footage devoted to the aristocracy at play — especially the now-lengthier sequences in which the false Maria dances at a cabaret in the Yoshiwara entertainment district of upper-class Metropolis and inflames the passions of the young aristocrats on her way to sabotage the hopes of the workers by leading them to their self-destructive revolution — clearly indicates their decadence and social uselessness.
Yet the film is also profoundly authoritarian — enough so that Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels was willing to offer Lang the directorship of the entire German film industry on the strength of it and Lang’s previous nationalistic epic, “Die Nibelungen” (a two-part production based on the same folk epic as Wagner’s “Ring des Nibelungen”). The workers in “Metropolis” are shown much the way the Nazis — or the Leninists — saw them, as mindless brutes in need of leadership from above. They follow the teachings of the false Maria and obediently destroy the machines necessary for their own survival with the same intensity and commitment they earlier followed the teachings of the real Maria — which aren’t a self-actualizing call to nonviolent resistance in the Gandhian sense but an explicitly Christian (more so in the restored version than in the short one) call for patience, hope and non-resistance.
Even von Harbou’s oft-repeated slogan about the heart being the necessary mediator between the brain and hands seems to argue, not for a workers’ revolution or even a social democracy, but for a paternalistic sort of capitalism in which the ruling class will continue to run things as it wants and control the lion’s share of economic resources, while sharing enough of the surplus value with the workers who produced it to keep them out of privation and give them a minimum level of comfort. It’s an ideology that would have been familiar to Germans of Lang’s time from their history books; Chancellor Otto von Bismarck had done virtually the same thing in the 1870’s when he first suppressed the German Social Democratic Party and then enacted into law many of its principal demands, including a minimum wage and universal access to health care.
It’s also pretty much how most Western capitalist countries were run in the 1950’s, when union representation of the workforce was at its peak and capitalists accepted the welfare state and the minimum wage as part of a social contract to buy off the white working classes and blunt potential revolutionary movements — until the social classes that had been left out of this grand bargain, notably women and people of color, demanded equal rights in the 1960’s; middle- and upper-class white youth, following the development of Freder Fredersen in the film, joined these movements and started others expressing their own alienation — and the ruling class responded in the early 1970’s by breaking the social contract, smashing unions, driving wages down, exporting jobs to Third World countries and essentially attempting to shove the working classes back into subsistence and wage-slavery.
One aspect of “Metropolis” that comes across even more strongly in the restored version is that Lang’s and von Harbou’s intent was as much a religious allegory as a political one. Even in the cut version Biblical references figured heavily in the plot — including Freder’s vision of a machine that goes haywire and kills its operator as the pagan god Moloch demanding human sacrifices; and Maria’s sermon on the Tower of Babel as an example of what goes wrong when the ruling-class brains who plan a great project and the workers they need to build it don’t have a mediator between them to reconcile their class interests. The restored version contains religious scenes which were either cut to the bone in the short version or eliminated entirely — including scenes with figures representing the Grim Reaper and the Seven Deadly Sins, as well as excerpts from the Book of Revelation which give us a context in which to see the false Maria’s seductive dance of death among the young aristocrats.
Like other films that suffered mutilation at the hands of executives at the corporations which financed them, including Erich von Stroheim’s “Greed” and Orson Welles’ “The Magnificent Ambersons,” “Metropolis” retained a good deal of its power even in cut form. Certainly few films have had so great an impact on later productions. In the 1930’s, director James Whale drew heavily on “Metropolis” for “Frankenstein” and “The Bride of Frankenstein,” not only blatantly copying the creation of the false Maria for his monster-creation scenes but even directing Elsa Lanchester, who played the title role in “Bride,” to act it with some of the twitchy gestures Brigitte Helm had used as the false Maria. (Whale even offered the part in “The Bride of Frankenstein” to Helm, but she’d just been married and refused to leave Germany.) Edgar G. Ulmer, who had worked on “Metropolis” as a set designer, spun an entire horror film — “The Black Cat” (1934) — out of the deleted Hel subplot of “Metropolis.”
Throughout the 1930’s there were many futuristic films that drew on the designs of “Metropolis,” including the 1936 British film “Transatlantic Tunnel” and even “Things to Come” — which author H. G. Wells intended as an answer film to “Metropolis,” which he’d hated but couldn’t help being influenced by (and the politics of “Metropolis,” screwed up as they are, are far more progressive than those of “Things to Come,” which obnoxiously and self-righteously holds up science and “progress” as absolute social goods — despite the ostensibly socialist politics of its author, “Things to Come” can be read as the sort of propaganda film Joh Fredersen could have commissioned to justify his policies!). More recent filmmakers who have drawn from “Metropolis” include Stanley Kubrick (who made the title character of “Dr. Strangelove” a man with a black-gloved artificial hand in place of the one he’d lost earlier, a gimmick he admitted ripping off from Lang’s Rotwang), George Lucas (the robot C-3PO in “Star Wars” was copied directly from the pre-transformation robot in “Metropolis”) and just about everyone who’s made a movie set in a dystopian future — Ridley Scott (“Blade Runner”), Terry Gilliam (“Brazil”), Tim Burton (the first two “Batman” films in the current cycle) and David Fincher (Madonna’s “Respect Yourself” music video).
Not only has the iconography of “Metropolis” featured prominently in music videos — one major example is Janet Jackson’s “Rhythm Nation” — in 1984 Giorgio Moroder took the cut version of “Metropolis” itself and turned it into essentially a feature-length music video, drawing on rock artists like Pat Benatar and Billy Squier to accompany it with their songs. It’s also interesting to note that “Metropolis” was filmed before any of the major dystopian science-fiction novels — Eugen Zamyatin’s “We,” Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World,” George Orwell’s “1984” — were written, and the highly stratified worlds of “We” and “Brave New World,” with their purposeless aristocrats and mindless drone workers supporting them, certainly could well have been inspired by the Lang/von Harbou film.
Despite the inconsistencies and authoritarian aspects of the politics of “Metropolis,” the film is as relevant today as it ever was. Certainly in an era in which the social advances of the post-war era of welfare capitalism are being steadily rolled back — in which, as Latin American solidarity activist Blase Bonpane noted in his speech at the First Unitarian-Universalist Church in San Diego October 30, an increasing proportion of the homeless people living on L.A.’s streets or in their cars are actually working 40-hour-per-week jobs, and in which political leaders unabashedly celebrate an economic “boom” that renders most working people poorer than they were before and enthusiastically support tax cuts for the rich (a October 31 Los Angeles Times story reveals that most of this year’s Democratic Senate candidates in open-seat races endorse the Bush tax cuts and say there is no disagreement between them and their Republican opponents on that issue!); in which corporate leaders who lay off massive numbers of workers are rewarded with personal bonuses while investors bid up the stock prices of companies that leave thousands unemployed; and in which the rich increasingly live in “gated communities” and never have to lay eyes on the victims of their economic policies — the world of “Metropolis” looks all too much like our own.
But “Metropolis” is more than a political or religious allegory, more than an interesting bit of futurism. It’s also a damned good movie. Though there are strong influences from Cecil B. DeMille in Lang’s direction — including the religious allegories and the insertion of historical scenes (like the vision of the Tower of Babel) meant to shed lights on the character and values conflicts in the film’s main story — DeMille was hardly as embarrassing a model in 1925, when he was still considered one of the most sophisticated directors in film, than he was later on when his name was associated only with leaden religious spectacles like “Samson and Delilah” and the 1956 “Ten Commandments” (a remake of a DeMille silent from 1923 that’s far better!). In shortening the film Channing Pollock also re-edited it; the restored version has considerably more suspense editing and cross-cutting (reminding us that Lang was making Hitchcock-style movies before Hitchcock was!) and is simply more exciting to watch.
With one major exception, “Metropolis” is also quite well acted — and even that exception, Gustav Fröhlich as Freder, is far less embarrassing and twitty in the restored version than he was in the short one. (It helps that he gets a nice exciting action scene at the end in which he throws Rotwang to his death from a balcony.) Alfred Abel’s Joh is the epitome of the impersonal, amoral capitalist who sees his workers as just that many more natural resources needed for production. Rudolf Klein-Rogge’s Rotwang is the template virtually all actors who’ve played mad scientists since have filled in, and Fritz Rasp’s character as the sinister detective Joh hires to keep an eye on his son — who had so little footage remaining in the cut version his function in the plot was virtually indecipherable — is used to far more chilling effect in the restored version.
Clearly, though, the finest performance is turned in by 17-year-old Brigitte Helm, making her film debut. Like everyone else in the cast, she suffered from Lang’s browbeating and endless retaking in search of perfection (it’s ironic that a film about the exploitation of workers by unfeeling capitalists was made by a director who was every bit as heedless of the welfare of his cast and crew as Joh Fredersen was of his workforce!), including long sessions in the metal robot suit that virtually killed her from the heat and lack of air. But her acting as both the real and false Marias is magnificent, her performance leaving the audience in absolutely no doubt which one she’s supposed to be in any given scene. It does seem odd, though, that in a film which otherwise pushed special-effects technology farther than any film had before, there is no scene in which the two Marias meet on screen.
“Metropolis” is a film well worth seeing — for its audacity in conception and design; for its ongoing (if muddled) political, social and spiritual relevance; and, most of all, as sheer entertainment, an example of what a powerful medium the silent film could be in the hands of masters like Lang and von Harbou. (Since Lang fled Germany when the Nazis came to power while von Harbou stayed and prospered in the Nazi-controlled German film industry of the late 1930’s, it’s tempting to attribute all the progressive aspects of their films together to him and blame all the reactionary ones on her, but the evidence suggests that they worked together throughout and that Lang was politically naïve about the Nazis and fled them only because he was part-Jewish rather than because he opposed them on principle.) If you’ve never seen “Metropolis” before, you owe it to yourself to see it now; if you’re familiar with the cut version, seeing this restoration will open your eyes and make you think you’re discovering it for the first time. — 11/1/02
Anyway, once I got my journal finished I started writing a long article on Metropolis and the recent restoration so I could post it to the IMC site — and naturally for that audience I emphasized the politics of the piece and how the restoration made the film seem at least somewhat more progressive than it had been in the cut version (even though it also restored an early scene of Gustav Fröhlich at play in the giant stadium of upper-class Metropolis that looked like a preliminary study for Triumph of the Will and the general penchant of the Nazis for gargantuan architecture). I also found myself wondering why nobody at Transit Film or the Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau Foundation thought of restoring some of the lost scenes in the Yoshiwara entertainment district by splicing in similar footage from Lang’s earlier film Dr. Mabuse. Certainly the lavish upper-class cabaret production numbers from that film would have fit stylistically — and though to my knowledge no one working on film restoration has yet thought of filling in missing scenes from a film by inserting scenes of similar content and style from another, extant film by the same director, it’s quite a standard practice in restoring incomplete or partially lost compositions: to fill in missing themes by inserting similar music by the same composer.
At the same time I shudder to suggest this if only because it’s a technique that could easily be misused to create fictitious collage films that never existed in the mind of their director of record even if all the footage they contain was shot by him (also a technique that has its antecedents in the music world; fictitious works cobbled together from existing pieces, like Rosenthal’s Gaïté Parisienne from Offenbach and Lanchbery’s — or was it Sargent’s — Pineapple Poll from Sullivan, abound, especially in the ballet world — and Stravinsky had the embarrassment of composing the ballet The Fairy’s Kiss based on themes allegedly by Pergolesi which turned out to be fakes from other composers attributed to Pergolesi by his publishers after his death!) — indeed, when I mentioned this possibility to Charles he joked that it sounded like something Ed Wood would have thought up! — 11/2/02
Fritz Lang’s monumental 1927 science-fiction epic Metropolis seems to have gone through so many versions — progressively getting shorter and shorter from its 160-minute Berlin premiere version to the 129-minute version generally released in Europe and the 90-minute hack job Channing Pollock prepared for the U.S. release by Paramount (one of the companies credited with the original production, along with the German UFA studio that actually filmed it, is something called “Parufamet” — a joint venture of UFA, Paramount and MGM that controlled UFA’s American distribution, though Paramount got their “pick” of UFA’s output and thereby had the inside track in signing UFA’s stars, including Emil Jannings and Marlene Dietrich, to U.S. contracts) that for years was the only Metropolis known to exist. (It was the one on the public-domain videos and DVD’s until the German company Transit Film and the American distributor, Kino, used some highly dubious maneuvering to reassert a copyright not only on the restorations but on the original film itself.)
Various “new” versions appeared in the 1980’s and 1990’s, including the controversial one released in 1984 for which disco/rock producer Giorgio Moroder wrote a new score, including pop songs specially written for the project by Moroder, Freddie Mercury and Pete Bellotte and recorded by Queen, Billy Squier, Bonnie Tyler, Pat Benatar, Loverboy and other then-popular pop/rock artists; I never saw this version, though Charles did). Then in 2002 the German Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau Foundation issued a 140-minute version, complete with a re-recording of the original musical score by Gottfried Hüppertz (who had previously scored Lang’s Die Nibelungen and gave both that project and Metropolis appropriate big-orchestra music that sounded vaguely like Wagner but didn’t actually quote any of Wagner’s motifs or themes), that was billed as the most complete Metropolis we would ever get: this version had been pieced together from whatever material on Metropolis existed in various film archives and the images were digitally restored to a pristine sheen that made the film look better than it ever had since it was new.
In 2009 yet more Metropolis material came to light in the form of a nearly complete print, about 20 minutes longer than the 2002 version, discovered in a film archive in Buenos Aires. Unfortunately, that version survived only on 16 mm — a reduction print made for preservation purposes from a theatrical original shown in Argentina in the late 1920’s and early 1930’s (silent films remained a viable commercial product in South America much longer than they did in most of the rest of the world, and South American audiences got to see some late silents that were never released in the U.S., including Erich von Stroheim’s The Honeymoon and Queen Kelly) — and the picture quality was grainy, scratchy and generally terrible. The Murnau Foundation, Transit Film and Kino have now produced yet another Metropolis, splicing the Argentinian footage in sequence in what is otherwise the 2002 restoration but not attempting to bring up the picture quality to match — so every time a “new” sequence cuts in, not only is the difference in picture quality readily obvious but the top and left side of the screen are masked to cover for the difference between 35 mm and 16 mm aperture ratios.
The result is a version of the film that is fascinating to the historian and film buff — especially appealing to people already familiar with the film from one of the previous versions — and two long sequences, in which the worker Gyorgi a.k.a. 11811 (Erwin Biswanger), having traded places with Freder Fredersen (Gustav Fröhlich), upper-class twit son of Joh Fredersen (Alfred Abel), gets sidetracked by an invitation to visit the wide-open Yoshiwara cabaret district; and one in which Freder is stalked by “The Thin Man” (Fritz Rasp), a private detective hired by his father, are both welcome additions to the film and flesh out key plot points missing in the footage assembled in 2002. (They also contribute to the sense that there is at least something of a middle class in this world; previous versions, especially the 90-minute one, made it look like there were just a handful of aristocrats at the top and a vast majority of workers down below.) However, one key sequence — a fight between Joh Fredersen and the mad scientist Rotwang (Rudolf Klein-Rogge), triggered when Joh realizes he’s just been a pawn in Rotwang’s scheme to destroy Metropolis out of revenge for Joh having seduced Rotwang’s girlfriend Hel from him years before (she married Joh and died giving birth to their son Freder, and Rotwang has built a shrine to her) — is still missing and had to be filled in with explanatory titles.
Also, much of the “new” footage spliced in from the Argentine print consists of single shots or pairs of shots in long-established sequences and look like the kind of thing directors routinely trim from their films during the editing and previewing processes to make scenes move faster and make their dramatic points quicker. Had the restorers done a better job of improving the rediscovered footage and incorporating it less jarringly into the whole, I’d probably be kinder to this version than I’m feeling now — but though much of the new footage is nice to have (and some of the additions do help make the ending more coherent), this version is not the major revelation the 2002 restoration was and frankly I’d probably recommend the 2002 version over this one to anyone who hasn’t seen Metropolis before.
As for the film itself, it remains one of the greatest movies ever made and an almost incalculable influence on movies to come — though Duncan Shepherd published a somewhat dismissive review of the new version in the current issue of the San Diego Reader, arguing that The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari was a more influential film long-term than Metropolis and deserves at least as honored a position in film history. I can see his point — one could make the case that Caligari was more significant as an influence on later filmmakers in the 1920’s, 1930’s and 1940’s (it was the first true horror film and its deliberately stylized sets and lighting anticipated the so-called “German look” that became the basis for film noir), but Metropolis has become more important over the years, especially since the rising interest in science fiction in the late 1930’s and 1940’s finally started to get translated to film in the 1950’s and, alongside all the cheap sci-fi/horror movies, one had relatively serious productions like Destination Moon, The Thing, The Day the Earth Stood Still, It Came from Outer Space and Forbidden Planet that boldly went to at least some of the places Lang and his writer and then-wife Thea von Harbou had gone in Metropolis (and, two films later, in Woman on the Moon, their pioneering space-travel movie and the best film about space exploration until Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey 40 years later).
Certainly Metropolis was a pioneering film technically, probably using more special effects than anything made to that time and introducing such effects as the process screen as well as perfecting glass paintings and an elaborate process involving mirrors and direct mattes named after the special-effects wizard, Eugen Schufftan (who, I regret to note, is not listed on the credits of the current version even though his genius helped make this film what it is). Metropolis is certainly an “effects movie” in the depth and precision of the opticals and the elaborateness of its production, and yet it’s far more than an “effects movie” in the sense we know (and loathe) the term today. It’s also a film about real issues, and while its political implications — though far clearer in both the 2002 restoration and the current version than they were in the cut one by which most of us got to know it in the first place — remain a bit murky, it’s certainly a film that not only depicts class conflicts but dramatizes them in powerful visual images. It’s a classic in the sense that it is both very much of its time — anyone even remotely familiar with the economic, political, social and cultural history of Weimar-era Germany will be able to get a good idea of how its original audience related to it and what elements of the story most directly related to what members of the home audience were going through — and for all time: in an era in which economic inequality is steadily increasing, one watches the zombie-like workers being shuffled off to their pointless gigs deep in the bowels of the earth while the children of the elite play in the elaborate gardens and stadia of the upper reaches of Metropolis and can’t help but think this is something that’s going on now.
The conception Lang and von Harbou brought to this movie is overwhelming, even though the politics remain murky — at times this seems to be a Left-wing film in its depiction of workers’ alienation and oppression under capitalism, and in particular in the coldness with which Joh Fredersen (Alfred Abel) reacts to the news that hundreds of workers have just died in an industrial accident. At other times this seems to be a Right-wing film in depicting the workers as mindless brutes, easily manipulated by the superior beings, and instead of showing the workers themselves making their own revolution (as a socialist director like Eisenstein would have done with this premise), they’re shown dependent on inspiration from above: on the Christ-like teachings of the prophetess Maria (Brigitte Helm), who carefully steers them away from violent revolution (or even nonviolent resistance — Gandhi in drag she is not) and towards a patient, Christian-style waiting for a messiah (a “mediator,” as von Harbou’s script calls him) who will bring together the brains of the capitalists and the hands of the workers into a new order governed by the heart … which in practice appears to be a paternalistic sort of capitalism in which the owners give the workers a better life but retain control of the means of production as well as the lion’s share of the profits (not that different from the social welfare states that existed in most of the developed world from the end of World War II until the early 1970’s, when the world’s capitalists — and America’s capitalists in particular — decided that buying off the working class was a luxury they could no longer afford).
The film outright condemns revolution — and yet at the same time it occurred to me this time around (as it hadn’t before) that the rebellion led by the false Maria (the robot created by Rotwang and, at Joh Fredersen’s insistence, given the appearance of the real Maria to lead the workers in a suicidal revolt and discredit the real one’s Christian-style call for patience and nonviolence) is almost a caricature of Nazism. The working class in Metropolis is shown as precariously pitched between appeals to peace, love and brotherhood and appeals to war, hate and bigotry — and as we all know, six years after this film was made war, hate and bigotry won out over peace, love and brotherhood in Germany’s actual politics. The ravings of the false Maria (vividly played by Brigitte Helm, who played the character in all three incarnations — the real Maria, the robot made to look like Maria and the robot in its “normal” metallic state — and had to suffer the acute heat and discomfort of being in the metal suit, something a stunt double would have usually done) seem uncannily close to Hitler’s well-known gestures as a public speaker, and though Lang’s later biographers have pretty much discredited his claim to have always opposed the Nazis on principle, in this film (as in his later German ones, particularly M) there’s a clear implication that he feared the power of charismatic personalities to lead masses of people in ways detrimental to their better natures and even their own self-interest.
Certainly there’s enough in Metropolis that it’s easy to see why Joseph Goebbels liked the film so much he was willing to put Lang in charge of the entire German film industry (Lang turned down the offer and fled to France, he said because he hated the Nazis and later biographers have found was because he was worried that he was part-Jewish and he’d be found out) — the opening scene in the giant stadium where Freder is running a track race against the other sons of Metropolis’s elite is uncannily premonitory of the grandiose stadia the Nazis built for real and which were showcased similarly in Triumph of the Will — yet, as he did when he green-lighted the 1943 Titanic (which Goebbels saw as a Germans-good, British-bad parable and only realized once it was made was actually a movie about a stupid hierarchy leading innocent people to a preventable disaster), Goebbels must have watched Metropolis very selectively and “got” only those elements that accorded with his ideology, missing completely those that challenged it (and it’s the unwittingly anti-Nazi parts that give the film most of its interest today). As I’ve pointed out before when I’ve written about Lang, the fact that he left Germany when the Nazis took over, while von Harbou stayed and worked in the Nazi-controlled film industry, has led a lot of film writers into the trap of attributing everything good about his films with Von Harbou to him and blaming her for the sentimentality, easy moralism (all that stuff about the heart being the mediator between the head and the hands) and other weaknesses in them.
Metropolis bounces back and forth between profundity and banality, between simple-minded ideas and surprisingly intense and complex observations about politics and human psychology, and some of the restored scenes in this latest version (like the duel fought on the dance floor at Yoshiwara between two men who’ve been inflamed into sexual jealousy by the false Maria) tip the balance towards almost absurd melodrama even while others deepen some of the peripheral characters — particularly Josaphat (Theodor Loos), the assistant Joh Fredersen fires and Freder takes in (who in this version hugs Freder so intensely they almost seem like Gay lovers) and the “Thin Man” (who rises from being Joh’s detective to replacing Josaphat as his assistant) as well as Gyorgi (who’s shown in the new footage as having much more of a relationship with Freder and thereby making his sacrifice at the end, when he dies after taking a thrown knife intended for Freder, more believable and moving). It remains a magisterial film, somewhat frustrating at times, though one negative of the restorations is that the one weak link in the cast — Gustav Fröhlich’s overwrought, preposterous performance as Freder — seem even weaker.
Lang got virtually everyone else in his cast to underact (except for Klein-Rogge, playing a blatantly theatrical character — his black-gloved artificial arm and his difficulty in controlling it make it seem as if Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove is yet another film that borrowed from Metropolis — just as Edgar G. Ulmer, who worked on Metropolis as a set designer, seems to have borrowed the Joh/Rotwang/Hel love triangle for his 1934 film The Black Cat); what was his problem with Fröhlich, who turned in the sort of scenery-chewing flopping around a lot of people who’ve never seen a silent film start-to-finish think they were all acted like? It’s a real pity that for his masterpiece Lang couldn’t have got Willy Fritsch for this role; Fritsch played the male leads in Lang’s next two films, Spies (the grandfather of all James Bond movies) and Woman in the Moon and was a far stronger and better looking actor. Still, Metropolis as it stands remains an overwhelming movie — as witness the audience reaction: instead of bounding for the door during the closing credits a lot of people at the Ken Cinema last night remained in their seats, less to watch the final roll (which was mostly acknowledging the people who’d worked on the restorations, as the key people who made the film originally had been credited up front) than, I suspect, to process what they had just seen and recover from it enough to rejoin the real world. — 6/8/10