Metropolis (1926/1927) ***½
Fritz Lang’s Metropolis had defeated me on more than one occasion by the time I got around to seeing the most recent restored version when it played the Senator theater in Baltimore. “Yes, it’s very pretty and all,” I would always find myself saying, “but would somebody please explain to me what the fuck is going on, or why I should even care?” As it turns out, there was a very good reason for my bafflement in the face of this movie all these years— what I’d been trying to watch was less than half of the original film! Is it any wonder that I couldn’t follow the results when some asshole (or succession of assholes) took a 210-minute movie and edited it down to a mere 80 minutes?! Now that I’ve had the chance to watch Metropolis in something approximating its intended form (nearly an hour’s worth of footage appears to have been permanently lost), I understand at last what all the hubbub is about. Lang arguably bit off rather more than he could comfortably chew here, but this is still an extremely impressive work.
In an unspecified country, in an unspecified future time, a brilliant engineer named Joh Fredersen (Alfred Abel, from Dr. Mabuse the Gambler) rules like a corporate CEO over his greatest creation, the city of Metropolis. At first glance, Metropolis looks like the perfect urban center— clean, well organized, architecturally stunning— but the city shows a different face to those willing to look quite literally below the surface. Just beneath the streets lies an immense complex of machinery which keeps Metropolis’s technological marvels running smoothly, and this machinery requires armies of laborers pulling ten-hour shifts to operate it. These people, whose bleak lives of robot-like drudgery contrast so sharply with those of the dandies one meets in the towers and boulevards of the city above, are relegated to a city of their own, a warren of subterranean tunnels separated from the sun and fresh air by hundreds of feet of earth and bedrock. It is a system that is just asking to be brought crashing down by revolution and mob violence.
Of course, the average citizen of Metropolis has no concept of any of this. They are content to live out their lives working cushy office jobs, partying in the Yoshiwara pleasure district, and sending their offspring to study and play in institutions with names like the Eternal Gardens and the Club of the Sons. It is in the latter two places that we encounter Freder Fredersen (Gustav Frohlich), the son of the great city’s master, who is about to have all his illusions shattered. It all begins when a lovely proletarian woman (Brigitte Helm, from Mistress of Atlantis and Gold) crashes the Eternal Gardens with about three dozen working-class children, whom she means to show how their “brothers” upstairs spend their lives. Freder is both smitten by the woman’s beauty and intensely moved by the spectacle of the children, none of whom, he realizes, will ever get to enjoy the fruits of their lifelong toil. Impulsively, Freder rushes off after the woman when she and her field-trippers are rousted from the gardens, but he loses track of her in the winding corridors of the power plant below the city. While Freder is trying to find his way back to the surface, he witnesses a deadly accident with one of the giant machines; an exhausted worker passes out at his station, causing a tremendous explosion. Overcome by the horror of the sight before him, Freder has a vivid hallucination of the burning machine as the arch-fiend Moloch, with the shift foremen as priests herding workers sacrificially into its gaping maw. When he has recovered sufficiently from the shock (both physical and mental), Freder heads back to the surface and orders his chauffeur to take him to his father’s office in the huge skyscraper known as the Tower of Babel.
Joh Fredersen proves to be concerned about the accident only insofar as it impedes the smooth functioning of Metropolis, and his reaction upon hearing his son’s tale is to berate his assistant, Josephat (Theodor Loos, from M and the 1935 remake of The Student of Prague), for his failure to learn about the situation and report on it to his employer. Joh responds the same way when Grot (Heinrich George, from the 1925 version of She, who would starve to death in a Soviet POW camp some fifteen years later), the foreman of the heart machine (apparently the city’s central power source), comes up to his office with some strange papers his men found on the bodies of the workers killed in the explosion, papers which seem to depict pieces of some enormous map. This time, in fact, Joh goes so far as to give Josephat the sack, condemning him to spend the rest of his days as a laborer in the underground city. Needless to say, none of this is quite the outpouring of compassion that Freder had expected from his dad, and he runs out of the office in hysterics. Joh dispassionately summons one of his agents (Fritz Rasp, of By Rocket to the Moon and The Sorcerer) to keep a close watch on Freder’s activities.
In what is probably the most forward-looking element of the entire film, Freder spends the next several days on a project that anyone who spent much time among the radicals of the 1960’s would immediately recognize— he goes downstairs to experience the life of the oppressed first-hand. After catching up with Josephat and arranging for him to stay at his own apartment, Freder accosts a proletarian identified only by the number 11811 embroidered on his cap (Siegfried’s Erwin Biswanger), and offers to exchange lives with him for a while. 11811 is initially reluctant to leave his machine, but the more he thinks about it, the better the idea of going up to the surface to enjoy the high life sounds to him. Freder’s thinking is that 11811 will join up with him and Josephat later that night to talk over the issue of class stratification, but once he’s out of the newly minted idealist’s sight, 11811 skips off to Yoshiwara to spend all of the money he finds in Freder’s pockets. (The two men had switched clothes so as to draw the minimum possible attention to what they were up to.) And meanwhile, Joh’s spy drops in on Josephat at Freder’s place for a little chat.
It’s immediately clear, though, that Freder’s idealistic shenanigans don’t worry his father nearly as much as the maps the dead workers had been carrying around. In fact, similar diagrams have been showing up in the pockets of Joh’s workers for some time now, and the master of Metropolis is sure they spell trouble. Joh himself is entirely at a loss as to what they might mean, however, so he takes a few of them along on a visit to the home of the one man in Metropolis who is incontestably even more brilliant than he is— Rotwang the inventor (Rudolf Klein-Rogge, from The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, who had crossed paths with Alfred Abel once before in Dr. Mabuse the Gambler).
These two have a history together, and much of that history isn’t pretty. Rotwang and Fredersen had both loved the same woman when they were younger, and it was Fredersen who eventually won Hel’s heart. (Note that Hel appears to be named after the evil goddess who rules over the underworld in Germanic mythology [and from whose name the English word “Hell” derives]— this is not the first time Satanic themes and imagery have surfaced in Metropolis, and it won’t be the last either.) When Hel died, apparently soon after giving birth to Freder, Rotwang blamed Joh for her death, piling this reproach on top of the boiling resentment he already felt at having been outmaneuvered by his old rival. But in one sense, at least, Rotwang and Fredersen are now even— Fredersen has his son to remind him of his lost love while Rotwang has the mechanical woman he built in Hel’s image (also Brigitte Helm... and yes, there definitely is a reason for the dual casting). All this comes out in conversation when Fredersen goes to ask Rotwang’s help in identifying the strange maps, which the inventor says can be combined to form a plan of the 2000-year-old catacombs that riddle the earth between Metropolis and the workers’ underground city. And conveniently enough, Rotwang happens to have a trapdoor leading to these catacombs down in his basement. Would Fredersen like to go down and have a look?
Sure he would. And once there, Fredersen will discover at last just how close to oblivion his perfect city has come. The map-bearing workers have been using the catacombs as a meeting place for a quasi-revolutionary movement under the charismatic leadership of none other than the girl Freder saw at the Eternal Gardens. Maria, as she is somewhat heavy-handedly called, is viewed as a saintly figure by her followers, which is probably the main reason why she hasn’t yet alienated them with her constant exhortations to hold in check their desire to rise up and topple Metropolis. Maria’s mantra— “the mediator between the head and the hands must be the heart”— makes a certain amount of practical sense when you really think about it; the workers (the “hands”) would actually be much better served by cooperating with their overlords (the “head”) under a humane and benevolent social order than they would by simply tearing the existing order down and starting from scratch, but if that’s going to happen, some compassionate soul from upstairs (the “heart”) is going to have to take up their cause. Now, given that Freder Fredersen (still in his proletarian disguise) happens to be in attendance at the meeting on which his father is eavesdropping, do you think you have some idea of where this all might be headed? Of course you do. But Freder’s dad likes the social order fine just the way it is, and he thinks he’s figured out the perfect way to stop Maria’s nascent revolution in its tracks. Fredersen commissions Rotwang to rebuild his robot in the image of Maria, and send it forth to discredit the real Maria in the eyes of her followers by destroying her saintly reputation. Obviously the actual article will have to be gotten out of the way for this to work, but Fredersen believes Rotwang is perfectly equal to that task as well. The only problem with this, as far as Fredersen is concerned, is that Rotwang, despite his apparently cooperative demeanor, has an agenda of his own for which a duplicate of Maria will be equally useful. After all, the proles are too poor to spend much time in Yoshiwara, where the robot Maria takes a job as an exotic dancer (in an especially stark inversion of the real Maria’s public image, her act has her posing as the Whore of Babylon), so Mechamaria’s reputation-sullying behavior is likely to reach its intended audience only as a series of garbled rumors. But if Maria were suddenly to change her tune and begin advocating the violent overthrow of Fredersen and his system, a great many people down in the underground city are liable to listen closely and like what they hear...
It has almost always been a rare thing to encounter a movie that attempts to work on as large a scale as Metropolis, but films of its type are virtually extinct today. The sheer number of twists and subplots is absolutely dizzying, and to some extent, I can understand why distributors looking to turn a profit on Metropolis in the notoriously lowbrow American market would be tempted to get out their scissors. The problem is that what has happened to this movie over the years is not so much editing as it is vandalism. Many of the cuts (some of which have resulted in the permanent loss of the footage in question) are simply baffling: the entire subplot concerning the man Fredersen sends to spy on his son; the scenes explaining the origin of Rotwang’s enmity toward the city’s ruler; such key elements of the movie’s climax as the struggle between the rival geniuses that allows the real Maria to escape from Rotwang’s clutches. The effect of all this tampering is that English-speaking audiences have hitherto been exposed to Metropolis only as a disordered jumble of seemingly random images, linked together by only the most tenuous hints of a story. And with Hollywood’s rise to something approaching total hegemony over world cinema, it eventually became impossible to find a complete print of this movie even in its country of origin! But now that has finally changed, at least to the maximum extent that the existing prints and negatives will allow. The restoration of Metropolis undertaken by Kino International and the F. W. Murnau Foundation contains something like 150 minutes of original footage, and uses a combination of stills and intertitles to fill the viewer in on the action in those scenes which could not be reconstructed (one assumes that a few copies of the original screenplay have survived to make this possible). As a result, we can see at last that Metropolis not only has a coherent story, but one which takes on an amazing array of themes and genres. In addition to the obvious strain of polemical dystopian sci-fi and the similarly obvious element of Frankensteinian mad science, there is a strong current of religious allegory that had been mostly obscured by the extensive cuts over the years, which surprisingly sits side-by-side with an equally pronounced fixation on black magic and Satanism. Unfortunately, all these angles are played in an extremely overwrought manner. Lang spends so much time harping on “The mediator between head and hands must be the heart” that you’ll probably be sorely tempted to start shouting, “Alright— we get the point already!” by the end of the second reel, and the religious symbolism is way over the top. I mean, come on— we’ve got a saint named Maria urging reliance on a mediator for a peaceful route to the salvation of the downtrodden, and holding secret meetings in catacombs that are said to have last seen use 2000 years ago!
Then again, once you get past the extent to which overdoing it abounds in Metropolis, you might be surprised at how well the disparate threads of the story hang together. Everything is put together with great care, and hardly a minute is wasted anywhere; you hardly even notice what an extremely long movie Metropolis is. Most of the performances are (by silent standards, anyway) relatively well under control, and overall, the movie is just beautiful to behold. What impresses me most, however, is the modernity of the story, especially as concerns the character of Freder Fredersen. The naively idealistic scion of an incalculably wealthy family who rebels against his upbringing to embrace radical politics is a character type that still has resonance today, regardless of one’s ideological outlook. Such a person might be described as a hero, a betrayer, or a contemptible dilettante depending on whom you ask, but the archetype is still instantly recognizable, and still capable of evoking a strong audience reaction. The one really discordant note in Metropolis (for me at least) has to do with Brigitte Helm’s performance. Don’t get me wrong— she’s a remarkable actress, especially considering that she was only seventeen years old in 1926, and she really does turn Maria and Mechamaria into sharply distinct characters. You always know which one she’s supposed to be within seconds of her appearance on the screen. The trouble is that we’re supposed to like the real Maria and hate/fear her robot double, but I found myself doing something close to the opposite. I found the lascivious, rabble-rousing Mechamaria far more charismatic and attractive a character than the blandly noble actual article; given the choice between the two of them, I’d definitely sign up with the proletarian troglodytes and take to the streets in a robot-led mob rather than sit around in a cave, twiddling my thumbs until the day Maria’s much-vaunted Mediator finally deigns to put in an appearance. But even so, the restored Metropolis is definitely worth a look, especially if you, like me, have ever sat down to watch one of the previously available versions and ended up wondering just what in the hell all the fuss was about.