In Fritz Lang’s still visually astonishing 1927 proto-science fiction epic, “Metropolis”, a futuristic city-based society was presented to a contemporary audience as an allegory, telling how Man’s beguiling technological accomplishment risked coming at the expense of his ‘unity of being’. Eighty-three years later and the melodrama behind the message seems hokey, outdated and simplistic; yet no other film has captured, fashioned or defined an iconography to express our dreams and our nightmares as to the possible fate of our industrialised age, than this ravishing chiaroscuro vision from cinema’s silent era. Produced at Ufa by Erich Pommer -- expressionism’s patron saint during the Weimar Republic’s all too brief ‘golden era’ of economic stability and flourishing artistic creativity – Lang’s film, the most expensive of its age, was conceived as a grand gesture of concession to Hollywood’s cinema of spectacle, and flopped spectacularly after its initial screening to a German audience in 1927, thereafter succumbing to a somewhat ignoble fate that saw it end up confined to a re-edited, chopped-down and hacked-about limbo.
For many years, Hollywood appeared to have had the last say in defining how the film should be interpreted by excising those elements that seemed at the time to advocate Communism, and dispensing with all reference to an evocative subplot about the veiled, behind-closed-doors deification and worship of a deceased mother figure -- because that particular plot strand was deemed incomprehensible by playwright Channing Pollock, after he was assigned by Paramount to shorten the film’s two-and-a-half hour running time. As is well known, it was this shortened version which, for many years, became the only surviving reminder of Lang’s original concept, and was exported all around the world. During that time, the film’s beguiling, haunting imagery continued to exert an inestimable influence on the development of cinema and popular culture in many ways, and was overtly brought to the attention of cineastes again during the eighties and nineties by Giorgio Moroder and Madonna respectively; until, in 2002, Friedrich-Wilhelm-Murnau-Stiftung presented a painstakingly assembled cut of the most complete version yet -- composed like a mosaic of the best surviving footage, tracked down and incorporated from archives all over the world by German film historian Enno Patalas.
Here the matter appeared to rest. No-one expected any further developments in the story until, almost miraculously, a complete version of the 1927 original was suddenly discovered resting in a film museum in Argentina, in 2008. This surviving print, containing all the previously missing footage, existed only as a scratchy 16mm dupe negative copy, on to which, all the film-damage, marks, nicks and spoilage of the 35mm original had been dutifully copied, and where some of the upper portion of the image was still missing, making full film restoration an impossibility.
Nevertheless, a reconstructed, recombined version of Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis” now makes its way to the home viewing market and onto Blu-ray for the first time. Consisting of the print that was first fully restored in 2002, with the missing portions incorporated from the newly discovered 16mm material, and timed with a full, newly recorded orchestral rendering of Gottfried Huppertz’s original score (featured here in 5.1 Surround Sound), this release marks the most complete version of Lang’s masterpiece ever seen by anyone since the film’s German premiere -- only a few minutes shy at most of the original version’s running length, with just two scenes still missing because they were too damaged and depleted of image to be included (these are described at the appropriate juncture with intertitles) and a few other missing frames dotted throughout the film, during which the image momentarily goes black; again, missing because they could not be cleaned up enough for any image to be made discernable to the viewer.
On Blu-ray, the restored print is a marvel -- in pristine 1080p: looking richer and more detailed than ever, the amazing sets, models and the astonishing production design of the film all continue to exert their capacity for inducing an awe inspiring sense of wonderment in the viewer, but now with an even keener immediacy. The ridiculously elaborated splendour of the film’s imagery -- where vast lighted skyscrapers form towering modernist canyons clad in a shiny art deco vision of scientific theocracy, and monolithic concrete stadia look as though they were built by ancient gods to dwarf us speck-like humans with their grandiose mythic import -- is all rendered in crystal clear high definition, with a powerful clarity that now makes the film seem more vital than ever before. The added material is, of course, very, very damaged and marked, but it does present us with a scenario that now appears both more whole and complete, and yet curiously more gnomic and indecipherable -- a futurist parable clothed in religious symbolism that plays as a prophetic dream that’s endlessly open to re-interpretation.
“Metropolis” was seen as rather a laughable vision of the future at the time. HG Wells was particularly scathing in his condemnation of an imagined society in which the workers apparently toil all day but make and consume nothing, and where glittering towers and ramp-ways stretch vertically and horizontally into infinity, yet people still have to climb vast flights of stone stairs rather than take escalators. Ironically though, the film often seems oddly and spookily prescient to the modern viewer, reverberating with recognisable images and disturbing unintended portents of the century’s coming catalogue of atrocities in the dim and distorted visions of the film’s effete hero, and in the telling compositions of Lang’s directorial imagination. Goebbels quoted from Thea von Harbou’s scenario; Albert Speer was influenced by the striking set designs of Otto Hunte, Erich Kettelhut and Karl Vollbrecht; and when the hero (the boyish Freder Frederson [Gustav Fröhlich]– son of the city’s autocratic ruler Joh Frederson [Alfred Abel]) descends into a cave-like underworld of darkness, the resulting imagery has horrific prophetic resonance: here, the worker class move in sluggish clockwork rhythms underground, operating vast machine faces driven by steam in order to keep the Metropolis running smoothly for the benefit of the elite of pleasure seekers who dwell on the surface. It is at this point that Freder is overcome by factory fumes and has a visionary epiphany in which the vast M-machine appears to him as the ancient god Morloch, swallowing up in a furnace the emaciated, shaven-headed slaves fed to it by a whip-wielding priestly cast of militaristic, Egyptian-like slave drivers – while in reality an industrial accident is taking the lives of many of these workers in an explosion.
Myth, religious parable and post Freudian dreamworks are merged with splendid images of Weimer fashions and modernist architecture, to create something that’s neither past, present, nor really the future, but offers hints of all three. Cinematographer Karl Freund took some of this bizarre expressionistic surrealism with him to the US where he eventually employed his skills in the Universal horror films of the thirties, but the Raygun Gothic aesthetic that underpins the snazzy art deco trappings of the laboratory where the film’s destructive genius, alchemist-cum-mad professor, Rotwang (Rudolf Klein-Rogge), creates a glittering metal humanoid robot in the film’s most enduring and influential sequence, lays the foundations of the entire horror and science fiction genres combined. The design of the robot is a more austere and cubist version of C-3PO, and the bolts of animated electrical discharge and the bubbling test tubes shown inside the laboratory lair have become the standard visual trappings associated with all hubristic, God-like ‘mad’ scientists on film, from “Frankenstein” onwards.
The visual influence of this film on science fiction runs too deep to plumb its depths completely: “Blade Runner” and just about every other dystopian vision of the future may owe it a great debt, but when the robot takes the image of Freder’s love, the saintly Maria (Brigette Helm), and contorts that image into the lascivious ‘whore of Babylon’ seen performing her crazed sex-fetish dance in the Metropolis’ decedent nightclub, the Yoshiwara, the resulting blinking, mascara-caked automaton image seems to constitute a startling anticipation of Malcolm McDowell’s droog make-up in “A Clockwork Orange”. Whereas, the underground catacombs in which Maria gives gentle sermons to the herd-like workers against an avant-garde backdrop of crucifixes, bears a marked similarity to the ape city in the sixties “Planet of the Apes” films … Everything here, in fact, seems to have had some sort of influence on some future aspect of cinema in general and the science fiction genre in particular.
At the heart of the story is the notion of a city divided between the knowledgeable class (the ‘head’) who live a life of luxury and ease in the vast futuristic city above ground, and the faceless workers (the ‘hands’) who live their empty lives underground in endless drudgery, working ten hour shifts of mind-numbing toil to keep the system ticking over. This seems like a version of Plato’s Republic, in which the state, mirroring the harmonious workings of the body and mind, places the attainment of knowledge of the virtues above placating the bodily desires, and in this way advocates authoritarianism -- the intellectual philosopher class ruling over the instinct-driven masses.
Above everyone, in fact, is just one man: the rather dour Joh Frederson, a Wizard of Oz-like leader who lives in the dominating New Tower of Babylon, from where he controls the entire city, Mabuse-like, with a surveillance monitoring system and a network of spies and informants led by the mysterious thin man (Fritz Rasp). Frederson mourns his wife Hel, who died giving birth to his son Freder. The young Freder, meanwhile, becomes entranced after the chance sighting of the virginal Maria, whom he first notices surrounded by adoring street urchins from the lower realms, in the Garden of Eternity. In other words, she becomes the missing mother figure, and also the virginal love interest, as well as saintly icon – three conflicting but inescapable roles in this developing Freudian psycho-sexual religious drama.
Frederson’s mother, Hel, had previously been the lover of the scientist Rotwang, but he eventually lost her to Joh Frederson, and after her death, the scientist set about creating an advanced android in her image, while secretly worshipping the dead woman like a deity in the form of a massive carved statue kept behind a velvet curtain. However, after his son becomes involved with Maria, who seems to have a strange hold over the workers in the 2000 year-old catacombs beneath the city, Joh Frederson persuades Rotwang to give his creation Maria’s image instead, intending to use her to incite the workers to riot so that he has a pretext for clamping down on them. Rotwang, though, bitterly resents Joh for the loss of Hel, and has his own counterplan to destroy the entire city.
The idea that the city represents varying levels and depths of the human psyche and soul is closer to being a traditional Gothic motif than a futuristic one, but it is amply borne out by the preponderance of incongruous Gothic imagery displayed throughout the film. Rotwang even lives in a shadowy, fairy tale hovel, plonked right in the middle of a futuristic city street, and an ornate Medieval Cathedral foretells the coming of the false Maria with haunting moving statutory depicting the seven deadly sins. The underground catacombs where the desire-led workers hang out, placated for the moment by the good Maria’s religious parables and myths that tell of the coming of a mediator (Freder) who will join together the head and the hands of the city with its heart, are all set to explode in pent up sexual confusion when Rotwang’s robot – once meant to hold the image of his lover (and Freder’s true mother), but now bearing the image of the saint-mother-virgin figure that is Maria -- is set loose in the city to cause havoc, inciting the workers of the underground levels to riot and sending the sons of the elite class into destructive sexual paroxysms at the seedily glitzy Yoshiwara club.
Brigette Helm gives quite a remarkable performance in a film that’s often marred for a present day audience by the overt theatricality of the outmoded style of acting it contains. Her duel role as the two Marias (and it is also she we are seeing encased within that uncomfortable android suit as well) is an amazing tour de force of a performance. The moment the film’s rather soppy, floppy-haired hero, Freder, first sees the false Maria flirting with his father before she’s set loose in the Yoshiwara to perform her disturbing, frenzied mechanical sex dance, is the moment the film suddenly transmogrifies from grandiose cinematic spectacle into utterly deranged surrealist nightmare of the Freudian unconscious. The film literally goes absolutely nuts, mad with its multifarious Oedipalian ramifications, as it becomes overloaded with symbolism and heady allegorical allusions. Primitive atavism is invoked as the city descends into a Jungian chaos of flame and flood, and the workers (who seem comically easily led by anyone who cares to have a go at it) blame Maria for the ensuing woe. Finally, in a weird coming together of Gothic horror and sci-fi images, they seek to burn her at the stake, but capture the false Maria instead, revealing the technological android creation beneath the skin of this primitive witch substitute.
There is approximately 25 minutes of new material in this new reconstructed version, incorporating the subplot about Joh and Rotwang’s rivalry over Hel; the swapping of the identities of Freder and one of the workers from the underground realm, and his subsequent experiences in the city above ground; and far more footage to flesh out the role of the thin man – the spy who previously has had merely a decorative role in the film, but now appears in several intriguing scenes. The story of the discovery of this new footage and the film’s subsequent reconstruction is told in a 53 minute German-produced documentary, “Die Reise nach Metropolis”. The film now plays for 150 minutes and the disc comes with an excellent commentary/discussion by fans and critics David Kalat and Jonathan Rosenbaum, crammed full of insights, production history and critical analysis -- the two barely pause for breath for the entire two-and-a-half hours it takes to watch the whole thing. The original German intertitles are included on screen, together with newly translated English subtitles, and a 56 page book full of amazing stills and poster art work, contains some excellent writing on various aspects of the film and its history. Jonathan Rosenbaum kicks things off with a nicely written piece on the film and its various versions, and their critical legacy; Luis Buñuel’s 1927 review is reprinted, as is an contemporary interview with Fritz Lang. Karen Naundorf’s piece for Sight and Sound, written soon after the discovery of the 16mm print, is reproduced, and restoration notes by Martin Koerber also appear.
The disc is available to buy in separate DVD and Blu-ray versions with a wraparound embossed sleeve, plus a limited edition Steelbook Dual Format version will also be released.
“Metropolis” ends with an absurdly optimistic concluding scene in which everybody shakes hands and agrees to be nice to each-other from now on. Like the end of David Lynch’s “Blue Velvet”, it seems embarrassingly kitsch and is impossible to take seriously considering the disaster movie proportioned catastrophe that we’ve just seen unleashed by the combined madness of the scientist-magician Rotwang, Joh Frederson’s dictatorial authoritarianism, and the mob-like herd mentality of the underground workers. The scientist and his robot-cum-witch creation are made scape goats that cop all the blame, when just about everybody seems equally culpable, and the others apparently go back to business as usual, with no indication that Joh Frederson is to be held at all responsible for facilitating such a large-scale loss of life.
Perhaps “Metropolis” is trying hard by this point to be a Hollywood-style spectacle, with a similarly sugary ending; but it didn’t fool anyone at the time, of course. Instead, its legacy is much more enduring and important than the ephemeral success conferred by a box office hit, and will continue to be so. Its magnificent imagery is as awe inspiring, as weird and strange and dreamlike as it has ever appeared, and the dreams it relates will last as long as film; for they are still being retold in countless permutations, by all the many works which owe at least some of their appeal to the innovations of this, Fritz Lang’s timeless masterpiece of silent cinema.