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A Future Rediscovered

Metropolis (1927)

Kino International

"Metropolis," a German film made in 1927, was as groundbreaking in its time with its special effects as "Titanic" was in 1998. Although originally a flop at the box office, through the years "Metropolis" has grown in stature until it is now considered one of the most important and influential movies ever made, as much of a game-changer as "The Godfather" or "The Matrix." In fact, it's now impossible to see the movie with fresh eyes, as its imagery and ideas have been adapted, borrowed or outright stolen for countless films since then. For instance, there is the layered neon city of "Blade Runner," C-3PO, "Star Trek's" transporter beams, Nicole Kidman's first sequence in "Moulin Rouge!" – on second thought most 1920s nightclub sequences, the creation scenes in "The Fifth Element" and "Young Frankenstein," and any factories where nameless workers scurry underneath steaming behemoth machines. Another audience member even said of the lead actress, Brigitte Helm, “She looked just like Kate Bush” – which rather wonderfully missed the point.

"Metropolis" was edited down for length after its disastrous premiere, and the missing footage was long thought irredeemably lost. Its undeniable power meant it achieved its influence despite being a bit of a mess. Then in 2008 someone went through old film reels in an Argentinean museum. Nearly 30 minutes of missing footage, key to understanding some of the intricacies of the plot, have been restored and the re-release is to celebrate this fact. For the first time, we are able to see the movie almost as director Fritz Lang intended, and this is as close as we are ever likely to get to the film as it originally premiered.

I first saw "Metropolis" when I was 11 or 12, bored while babysitting. I remember the picture of the robot on the video box, and I remember how the actual film bewildered me to the point where I stopped watching about halfway through. I think my neighbors had a VHS transfer which hadn't bothered with a soundtrack, or if there was music this was certainly the first "silent" film I'd ever seen. So either way, it was too alienating. And frankly, at the time I wasn't mature enough to understand what was going on. But I remembered the robot, and the machines in the workers' city, and how they chewed up the slumped, exhausted workers who served them.

Watching it again, what fascinates is how the future looked from 1927. It's upsetting to see that even then, people knew how technology doubly alienates its users. First they become alienated from the people whose work creates the technology, as demonstrated by the fear in the upper city when the workers come up above ground. Secondly, the privileged consumers become alienated from each other, as the lonely Freder (Gustav Fröhlich) demonstrates when he tries to catch the eye of a woman applying makeup in a different taxi, and as when 11811 (Erwin Biswanger) struggles to blend in with the gilded jazz babies in the upper city. I'm sure if I had paid better attention in my political science classes in college, I could relate this to a philosophical theory of economics; but it's unlikely Lang and his co-screenwriter-wife Thea von Harbou were banging any specific theoretical drum.

To sum up the plot for curious babysitters: In their giant, neon-lit city, the lives of a gilded ruling class are made possible by thousands of workers who live in misery in a mirror city underground. Freder, the idealistic young son of the city's ruler Joh Fredersen (Alfred Abel), meets worker Maria (Helm, in a dazzling film debut in a tricky double role) when she sneaks some workers' children above ground so they can see the splendors. Entranced, Freder himself sneaks into the workers' city to find her, and learns she is preaching peaceful revolution. To stay near Maria, Freder switches identities with the worker 11811 and learns for the first time what it takes to enable his life of ease. When Joh learns where Freder has gone, he approaches Rotwang (Rudolf Klein-Rogge), a scientist creating a robot version of Hel, Freder's mother who died in childbirth after marrying Joh instead of Rotwang. In a further useful plot development, Hel just happens to be Maria's doppelganger. So Joh decides to use the robot to replace the real Maria and squash the potential revolution, not realising that his son and Maria have fallen in love.

The lost footage has been integrated without fuss, although the restorers have chosen not to remaster it, meaning it is of noticeably poorer quality. It was also trimmed (back then Argentinean screens showed on a different aspect ratio), so black borders have been added where the original negatives were altered. This new footage crucially explains how the two Marias are mistaken for each other, but also develops the subplots of the Thin Man (Fritz Rasp, who surely was the inspiration for the entire career of Edward Gorey), worker 11811 and their different run-ins with Josaphat (Theodor Loos), Joh’s bagman and the only person who knows what Freder is up to. One or two brief scenes are still missing, but the solution found by the restorers is elegantly simple: As the orchestral soundtrack continues, descriptive black-and-white title cards come up describing what is missing.

So the hugely influential set design, art direction and visual effects are major reasons to see "Metropolis." But what makes the movie more than a well-designed curiosity is its theme of how humanity can be swallowed by technology. The point is explicitly made when Freder has a vision of rows of workers being eaten by a machine which has morphed into a death's-head. But it's also there in the work required of 11811, which is to stand in the center of a circle, numbered such as a giant clock from one to 60 and point two hands as on a clock to the numbers as they light up in pairs. When Freder takes over this pointless work – possibly modeled after 1923's "Safety Last!" – after just one shift he is near collapse. Anyone doing a mind-numbing job reliant on a machine of any kind can easily relate.

Of course, in first-world nations, the technology currently strangling us is mainly not in a dark satanic mill; it's the iPods, BlackBerrys and other socially-networked gizmos which need constant checking, constant updating and make us constantly plugged in. In other traditionally industralized parts of the world, the film remains entirely of the moment. Where are the children of the factory workers in the developing world? Who pays attention to the people who make our clothes, our gadgets and other wonderful toys?

Some of the acting, especially by Fröhlich and Helm, is the stereotypical hammy silent-film acting designed to impress in close-up but without any nuance underneath it. More experienced actors such as Abel and Loos were better able to clearly demonstrate an enormous amount of emotion with their faces and body language. But "Metropolis" is driven by its action, such as the chase scenes where Freder tries to rouse the workers from their joyless stupor, the dance scene where robot Maria captivates a club full of men, the mad-scientist scene where Rotwang is able to bring the robot to life, and when the workers slump in choreographed, horrific stupor in front of their dials and switches by their machines.

In every group scene there are up to thousands of people, such as when the robot Maria leads everyone from the Yoshiwara nightclub – a Japanese name to emphasize exotic decadence; but now that Anna May Wong's "Piccadilly" is out on DVD, less surprising for the 1920s that we might have thought – on a dizzy parade through the city's streets. When the workers and their wives pile into the elevators, hundreds of people climb over each other in their haste to riot, emptying out their city with cries of "Not one person has stayed behind!" In that sequence, it's obvious that although this city is the future, the gender roles of 1927 Germany are firmly in place – all the workers are men, and the worker's wives are only placed front and center when the entire city realizes they have abandoned their children to a grisly death.

The sequence with the workers' children is the most compelling in the film. Having been entirely forgotten by their rioting parents, the children congregate on high ground in the center of their city, which is beginning to flood. Maria, Freder and Josaphat have failed to prevent the riot; and as they realize they must avert the flood, the children crowd around them, arms outstretched. Perhaps the soundlessness is what makes it more affecting. The kids – the oldest of whom appear 13 or so – are splashing through steadily rising moving water. The little ones are dragged along by siblings, carried piggyback or passed overhead by taller girls with real fear on their faces. As they find an escape staircase and begin to climb, some enterprising boys scramble up the outside of the banisters. There were no special effects – these were real kids getting wet, caught in the crush and clearly scared. By modern contrast, something as emotionally manipulative as "Titanic" still had that small kernel of a remove, since we knew the peril was almost all in the C.G.I. and there were no kids featured in the deck sequence. Even Bollywood cast-of-thousands extravaganzas have modern health and safety regulations to abide by.

One is also struck by how much of the imagery of the film has become tainted by its similarity to images from the Holocaust: the slumped over rows of shuffling workers with shaved heads and striped uniforms, burning books, fat supervisors in military uniforms and hordes of dirty children silently begging with outstretched arms. Von Harbou, who also wrote the novel "Metropolis" is based on, did actually become a Nazi. After their divorce, Lang moved to the United States and made film noirs famous for their darkness and brutality, although his American work never achieved the success of his German films. It's he who filmed the scene in "The Big Heat" with Lee Marvin, Gloria Grahame and the coffeepot, a scene more talked about than watched.

Although many people have talked about "Metropolis," in honesty, many more will find it too dated to appreciate in 2010. It can be hard to get past the "silence," black-and-white film stock and 83-year-old fashions to relate to the characters and ideas within. For all the achievements in Lang's direction, in many places a little more subtlety would not have gone amiss, such as in the catacombs or when the workers riot at last. The special effects are not wonderful to eyes jaded by C.G.I., but they work and are not ridiculous. Maybe the fact that our imagination is required to make them truly effective makes them all the more compelling. But for any true student of cinema, "Metropolis" in this restored version really is a must-see.


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