*. Metropolis has gone through several notable cuts and restorations, so when reading about it (and much has been written) you have to check to see which version is being discussed because that will affect what’s being said.
*. The BFI Film Classics volume on Metropolis by Thomas Elsaesser, for example, was published in 2000 and so takes the 1987 “Munich version” as “to date the philologically most accurate print.” Meanwhile, I was surprised to find, reviewing Roger Ebert’s essay on Metropolis included in his first volume of Great Movies, that the best available version he could recommend was Giorgio Moroder’s 1984 disco remix (with the sound turned off).
*. Moroder’s is still a version worth watching (it was the first I saw), but it was superseded by the Munich version and then a painstakingly “Restored Authorized Edition” in 2001 (which won international acclaim) and then a “Complete Metropolis” released in 2010 including another twenty minutes of footage that had just been discovered in Argentina (in a really bad 16 mm print).
*. I’ve seen the Moroder version, the Restored Authorized Edition (where the commentary and liner notes both write off a quarter of the film as “irretrievably lost”) and finally the Complete Metropolis (where much of what had been irretrievably lost had been found, albeit in a damaged state). There are also other, mutilated versions out there that are of historical interest (like the American release version, which was substantially cut and re-written), but at some point you just have to go with what you have and the selections the editors and restorers have made. Due to the way it was filmed, there really is no ur-Metropolis anyway.
*. We might ask if the Complete Metropolis is now too long. Two and a half hours isn’t out of line for such a major production, but if you’re used to the earlier versions you might find yourself wondering if much has been added that was really necessary. For the most part the “new” stuff is transitional material concerning the investigations of the Thin Man, which is a sub-plot that doesn’t really go anywhere (in one of the few contemporary reviews of the film by someone who had seen both the initial release version and a cut version where this had been taken out it was felt to be no great loss). I do like seeing the giant head of Hel though, and there’s a sequence involving a closed gate at the top of a flight of stairs as the children are trying to escape the flooding city that’s worth seeing.
*. The standard critical line, which was taken from the start, is that Metropolis is full of striking, iconic visuals that dress up a simple, sentimental story. Luis Buñuel was one such early critic, and it’s worth quoting at length from his contemporary review: “Metropolis is not one film, Metropolis is two films joined by the belly, but with divergent, indeed extremely antagonistic, spiritual needs. Those who consider the cinema as a discreet teller of tales will suffer a profound disillusion with Metropolis. What it tells us is trivial, pretentious, pedantic, hackneyed romanticism. But if we put before the story the plastic-photogenic basis of the film, then Metropolis will come up to any standards, will overwhelm us as the most marvellous picture book imaginable.”
*. As a rejoinder to this two-film thesis (broadly, Fritz Lang’s direction good, Thea von Harbou’s screenplay bad) here is Elsaesser: “If the most frequent judgment, ever since its Berlin opening, has been: ‘great movie, shame about the story,’ this cannot be the whole truth, seeing how many ‘readings’ the story has by itself provoked. The pot-pourri of motifs may have been opportunist and calculating, gathering up many pseudo-philosophical, social-romantic, decadent-dystopic clichés that in the 20s were ‘in the air.’ Yet despite this apparently self-inflicted handicap, von Harbou’s plotting and Lang’s visualisation must have structured these banal and sentimental commonplaces in ways that successfully imparted the illusion if not exactly of ‘depth’ then of archetypal resonance, reaching down into shared sensibilities and widely-felt anxieties as only myths and fairy-tales tend to do.”
*. What Elsaesser’s getting at, and I think he makes a good point, is it is this “eclectic-encylopaedic scope of the film” that makes Metropolis what it is even more than its impressive visuals. Yes, much of the imagery has gone on to become iconic: the cityscapes with their air machines and buttress-like traffic arteries, the Heart Machine transforming into Moloch, Rotwang in his lab giving life to the mechanical Maria, the workers’ city being flooded. But that imagery is wed to a farrago of a host of timeless SF themes and technologies — the Morlocks (class stratification, with workers below and pleasure palaces above), the man-machine hybrids, the mad scientist, the video phones — with “the radical naivety of mythic clichés” in a way that Elsaesser likens to what George Lucas did with Star Wars. OK, there aren’t any spaceships or time machines or aliens in Metropolis, but it’s hard to think of another film that so defines the genre of science fiction, and it does so just as much for its story as for its look.
*. I like the invocation of Star Wars as another example of the primitive-futuristic SF hybrid. There may be something essential to SF in all of this: as when Shelley’s Frankenstein borrowed the folklore of the Golem, or when Isaac Asimov re-told the story of the decline and fall of the Roman empire in his Foundation novels. Rotwang’s gingerbread house in the middle of the metropolis is the physical embodiment of the fairy-tale in the consciousness of modern life.
*. Are the mythic undertones religious, or more specifically Christian? This is a trickier question, as in the examples I’ve given (Shelley, Asimov, Lucas) religion is something that has largely been overcome or displaced (even in the Star Wars universe the Force turns out to have a genetic base that can be determined via blood test). In Metropolis I’m not sure any of the many Biblical underlayings have much resonance. Freder is crucified by the clock machine, which I guess is meant to suggest his sacrifice in descending into the workers’ city and taking on their suffering. Maria preaches in the Christian catacombs, but her sermon is just a trite retelling of the story of the Tower of Babel. The false Maria is presented as the Whore of Babylon perhaps because she represents the false god of technology and decadence in general. The seven deadlies have a memorable cameo, but are secular failings as much as they are sins. All of this seems both heavy-handed and superficial at the same time.
*. What about the politics? Here’s a way that the retro vision gets the movie into trouble. Personally, I find it a well-meant but reactionary film. Though when it was released UFA insisted that some of the subtitles had to be replaced because they were considered too revolutionary. So we do have to keep the moment of Metropolis in mind.
*. What I mean by a retro or reactionary vision is the sentimental presentation of the city’s elite as the “head” that has a responsibility to rule over the animalistic masses (the brainless “hands” that keep the city going). Joh Frederson (“Masterman” in the original American release, in case you might miss the point) is a true Randian figure, the John Galt of his day. Meanwhile, proles are just a bunch of apes who can’t stop dancing whenever they’re wrecking things. And holy Home Alone! They left all their children behind to be drowned! How could they ever hope to run a city when they can’t even take care of their own kids?
*. That epigraph — “the mediator between the head and hands must be the heart!” — is hard to take, as it still reinforces the notion of a natural hierarchy, that the workers are mere tools to be controlled by the head, or a force of nature that needs to be tamed (the flood of humanity, by the way, rising to the strains of the Marseillaise, which in Germany might have sounded more like a threat than an anthem of liberation). In any event, as soon as they get the pumps going and clear out the workers’ city you can be sure they’ll be heading back to the depths, “where they belong.” They’re not going to be visiting the Club of the Sons or the insipid Eternal Gardens again anytime soon.
*. As with any movie with so many different elements packed into it, it’s no surprise that they don’t all add up. And I think we have to admit that a lot of the tech stuff is window dressing that you can’t consider too carefully. To take just one other design element: why are the doorways so damn big? Are they planning a race of future Mastermen who will be twenty-feet tall?
*. The machinery in the sub-levels was taken to task for not having any clear purpose. I take it they are mostly just power generators, but in any event I think we’re supposed to recognize both the uselessness of the work being done by the prole-machines and our ignorance of it. We don’t know how any of our tech works today any better than people did back then.
*. I do like those teardrop-shaped cars and it’s disappointing we don’t get to see more of them.
*. Why is the false Maria debuted in front of the city’s elite? I don’t see the purpose of enflaming them in such a provocative way when her mission is to be a false prophet to the workers. Or is it just that she’s Pandora (Lulu, before Louise Brooks) and the girl can’t help it?
*. Then there’s Rotwang. He’s an odd duck, isn’t he? Pauline Kael: “a mad, medieval type like Dr. Caligari, with his mechanical arm, father to Dr. Strangelove.” In other words, the physical embodiment in one man of the movie’s mix of old and new. But what kind of a madman is he? Instead of raping Maria he turns her into his idealized sexbot, which he then looses on the city but doesn’t personally take any pleasure in. What’s going on there? Some kind of impotent revenge?
*. Why is the robot always called the Machine Man? It’s obviously feminine and is later made into a mechanical woman.
*. The score by Gottfried Huppertz is itself a landmark, one of the greatest ever composed. I was going to qualify that by adding “for a silent film,” but I’ll let it stand as is. And yet the film’s best known revival was with an ’80s pop soundtrack. It’s interesting how the story and its visuals could be that adaptable.
*. What about the style of the film? What can we call it? It’s been described as the “last Expressionist film” and “first New Objectivity film.” I think it’s a bad fit with both of those labels (the New Objectivity was basically a realistic movement, opposed to the emotional excesses of expressionism). As with the story itself, the visual style seems to me to be an odd mix of elements that don’t always fit together.
*. At times it is geometric, not in an expressionist or gothic way but in a less humanized, technological form. Even people are turned, again and again, into rising pyramids (something which clearly impressed Hitler). But at the same time Lang can go another route entirely, as in the pursuit of Maria through the catacombs until she is captured in the spotlight, or the false Maria’s dance dissolving into a kaleidoscope of leering suitors.
*. What of its legacy? Immediately, it was a disaster: one of the biggest box office bombs in history, with filming going way over schedule and over budget. UFA was nearly ruined. Today it’s a film that is still quoted, but there remains something about it that resists full digestion. The awkward shape of it makes it hard going down, and the fact that it survived so long only in fragmented form may have helped it in some ways. So much of what works feels more like a genre potboiler than a classic.
*. As a hubristic epic it recalls its own vision of the building of Babel. Kael thought it “a wonderful, stupefying folly.” It’s not one film, or even two films, but contains multitudes, and ranges from the primitive to the postmodern, and classicism to kitsch. Personally, I don’t find much of it very involving, and yet every time I see it I feel like I have to take a couple of steps back to take it all in. And even then, I go away with the sense that I’ve missed something new.