An Appreciation – Metropolis
In 2008, one of the great discoveries in cinema lore took place in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Hidden in a stack of canisters was a 16mm duplicate copy of Fritz Lang’s science fiction masterpiece, Metropolis (1927). Horribly scratched and weathered through time, it contained possibly the only remaining complete version of the silent film thought to be lost forever. This revelation ranks as one of the most important finds in history, rivaled perhaps only by the missing footage from Orson Welles’s The Magnificent Ambersons (1942). Supported by the existence of Lang’s complete script, we are now able to see his vision closer than ever before. Not only do we get to see nearly half an hour’s worth of story and plot development, but the additional footage also adds a greater historical context to the piece. It works as both an influential benchmark of storytelling and a powerful testament for film preservation.
How Metropolis still even exists comes as something of a miracle. Considered a flop upon initial release, it has since gone through numerous trims and edits as it was passed on throughout the years. Studios tried to mold it to fit their own purposes. Archivists attempted to put a version together using whatever footage remained. Even Giorgio Moroder put his own unique, pop-musical twist to it in the 1980s. To further complicate matters, Lang and his director of photography (Karl Freund) shot the film using three separate cameras simultaneously. This meant three different negatives could be used for the same scene. We may never see the same takes used for the first release version ever again. In an interesting bit of trivia, the film was greatly admired by Adolf Hitler and the Nazi party, but Lang fled to Paris before he could be recruited for their propaganda work (Leni Riefenstahl would eventually be hired to make 1935’s Triumph of the Will). After the war, pieces of Metropolis would be confiscated and taken to different parts of the world, locked away for nearly seventy years.
All this was running through my head as I watched the recently restored version. It’s a saddening fact that the majority of silent cinema has been destroyed. If things had turned out slightly differently, this could have been one of those titles fallen victim to oblivion. The evidence of that is apparent all throughout. Added footage holds heavy lines and dirt marks, the transfer from the 16mm negative presents ratio distortions (black boxes obscuring part of the frame), and certain segments are so damaged that it’s difficult to see exactly what’s happening in a shot. And there’s the issue of scenes still incomplete, needing title cards to describe specific plot developments. However, the “problems” here are a reminder of the tireless efforts made to reconstruct the work into a whole. I’m sure computer technology could digitally correct many of the issues, but the circumstances that tore the film to pieces and the work to correct it is just as important as the story it’s telling.
And what a story it is. Arguably the first great science fiction masterwork, it’s difficult to measure just how influential Metropolis has been. The references are numerous and ongoing, even into modern cinema. The robot, featured in nearly every movie poster for the film, was an inspiration for the design of C-3PO in the Star Wars saga. Its ability to take human form would have a ripple effect on Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982). The vast towers that make up the cityscape were an achievement in architectural design. This is perhaps the biggest source of inspiration for sci-fi storytellers, as many would consciously (or even unconsciously) borrow from it. From these art deco styles would emerge the worlds of Alex Proyas’s Dark City (1998), Superman’s Metropolis (appropriately titled), and Batman’s Gotham City. The battle between man and machine, and man’s loss of identity inside a growing industrial landscape, would have an effect on Lana and Andy Wachoski’s Matrix series, as well as the futuristic society of Terry Gilliam’s Brazil (1985). Filmmakers have called back to this work a countless number of times, and I’m sure they will continue to do so for a long while.
For such a compelling work, the story itself is fairly straightforward and simple. Title cards remind us regularly of the central theme, “The mediator between the hand and the brain is the heart.” Here the “brain” and the “hand” are represented by two distinct worlds: those of the upper class thinkers and planners living above the Earth’s surface, and the hardworking laborers that sweat in the underground factories, providing electricity to the city. Their contrasts are like day and night. Above, the upper classes live within high skyscrapers, visit beautiful gardens, and perform sports in large stadiums. They have the ability to freely think and be creative, yet do not have the prowess to put their ideas into concrete actions. That is where the underground workers come in. Unable to create on their own, the factory workers are relegated to operating machinery, stepping together in perfect symmetry. Lang isn’t subtle with his allegory. The workers operate in sync, as though they are a part of the machine themselves. The way they pull and push levers don’t really make any logical sense, but the message is clear. During one scene, a character hallucinates a gigantic machine with the face of a monster, gobbling up workers by the dozens.
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