At a time when most of the new releases (Marmaduke, Prince of Persia, Sex and the City 2, The A-Team, The Karate Kid) form the punchline to some obscene and heinous joke, it’s refreshing to reflect on some revivals, now in limited release. The first, Fritz Lang’s silent Metropolis, was, in scale, the Avatar of its day; unfortunately, this German Expressionist capstone was chopped up and bowdlerized, and thus a dud with its transatlantic audience in 1927. The new version, released by Kino International, and incorporating long-lost footage that was unearthed in an Argentine cellar in 2008, is the most complete version shown since the Berlin premiere.
For filmmakers, the silent era was like college or band camp: a time for experimentation. And if you were conducting your experiments in Weimar Germany, at the height of the Roaring ’20s—well, things were bound to get out of hand. Metropolis is what can result from handing an imaginative, impassioned, ambitious nutcase a heaping wad of filthy lucre. Set 100 years in the future—or, roughly 17 years from now—it’s a parable about class rapprochement that was flayed left (for depicting the proletariats as brutes) and right (for applying Marx’s view of history to the future). A certain éminence grise, one Herbert George Wells, lambasted this shaping of the things to come for, among other things, its vertical urban planning: Why hasn’t Metropolis gentrified, depositing its dregs into suburbs? Why haven’t the efficient machines outgrown their need for human operators? (Two decades thence, Orwell might have had an answer for him.) In what sort of vision of the future do we still bop around in Packards, with biplanes in every garage? Wells shanked the movie and twisted the knife: “Originality there is none, independent thought none.” Ouch! He must have read the intertitles but stewed up his own imaginary dystopias while Lang’s visuals played onscreen. Luis Buñuel, writing two years before he picked up a camera to shoot Un Chien Andalou, was more appreciative of Lang’s balls-to-the-wall formalism:
Those who understand cinema as an unassuming storytelling mechanism will be deeply disappointed in Metropolis. … But, if to the tale we prefer the “plastico-photogenic” background of the film, then Metropolis will fulfill our wildest dreams, will astonish us as the most astounding book of images it is possible to compose.
Forty years later, Andrew Sarris neatly summed up the film’s flaws:
Fritz Lang’s cinema is the cinema of the … fable, and the philosophical dissertation. … Lang’s plots generally go inexplicably … sentimental at the very end. His characters never develop with any psychological precision, and his world lacks the details of verisimilitude that are so important to realistic critics.
Right on, with one reservation: Metropolis is saccharine-sweet and sentimental throughout, like a river of simple syrup. (The mediator between the mind and hands must be the heart? Riiiight.) But I’ve doled out all this criticism of a classic for a reason: It wasn’t a classic when it came out; Metropolis was the UFA studio’s Heaven’s Gate. Nowadays, its place in the pantheon’s assured, if only for its influence—Star Wars to cyberpunk to animé, on down. And yet, in terms of substance, in terms of “verisimilitude” and “psychological precision,” this film’s no better than Slumdog Millionaire—and if that newer movie is going to end up in textbooks, like Metropolis has, it’ll likely be in reference to multiculturalism rather than technique. In 2001, Kubrick’s characters were about as lively as Civil War casualties, but he obsessed over the details of 21st-century life; Lang has no such fixations. I have no idea what the mediator, Freder, does in his spare time—aside from running track, and being chased by an all-girl flapper production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream that’s accoutered like the court at Versailles. There are no human voices like Peter Lorre’s wounded cry in M, which would have been spooky in silence, too.
But Lang’s voice comes through. Our admiration of his technique—of his indulgence in the potentialities of a high-tech medium—is mirrored in the movie. In a take off of Cubism, people literally blend into the urban landscape: The workers perform a pas de deux with their clock-like contraptions, even as the Moloch-machines suck ’em dry like industrial vampires. Kaleidoscoped eyes look lasciviously on as a femme bot makes a jive out of her conniptions. Her dance number is the most brilliant, flagrant curveball in the movie; she looks like a lady but gyrates her hips like the pistons that power Metropolis. It’s as kinky as a carburetor. And yet the rich—dressed to the nines like Gatsby’s meretricious gate crashers—fall over each other to nab Čapek’s coquette. The poor fall for her ruse, too, and even more embarrassingly. This robot is in the guise of Maria, the deposed saint who preaches pacifism; the original has been kidnapped by the android’s mad inventor, whose incomparable appellation is Rotwang. But Maria’s followers are insensitive to the switcheroo even as their Gandhi spouts off like Sarah Palin; she goes from Tolstoy to Stalin in the blink of a cybernetic eye. Clearly, Lang is enamored with technology to such a degree that his characters can’t distinguish flesh from steel; but he’s enamored, too, with the Bible, and its austere moral certitude. (As Buñuel grasps, “Metropolis is two films joined at the hip, but with divergent spiritual necessities that are diametrically opposed to each other.”) The parable that passes for a script is credited to Thea von Harbou, but Lang and his artisans (among the cinematographers was Karl Freund, who later filmed I Love Lucy) were clearly infected with its conflicting passions. Their visual aesthetic—Art Deco-Babylonian—is as retro-futuristic now as it was in 1927. The ideas are ancient, and yet the vision—the emotional extravagance—is ageless.
Continue reading “The Complete Metropolis”