Politics & Policy

Twentieth-Century Ghost

The artistic and historical significance of Fritz Lang's Metropolis.

To H. G. Wells, it was the “silliest film,” a “soupy whirlpool” and a “pretentious stew.” Yet on a Saturday night in Manhattan this May, 84 years after Metropolis was shot, the line to see Fritz Lang’s legendary sci-fi drama stretched halfway down the block. To be fair to Wells, the version of the movie he saw had been hacked down from an initial running time of 153 minutes to around an hour and a half in a counterproductive attempt to make its plot more comprehensible. He would probably not, however, have been much more impressed had he attended Metropolis’s January1927 premiere. “The whole of Berlin” may have turned up to witness 153 minutes of a film intended to take German cinema to a whole new level, but by the end of those minutes much of Berlin was left thoroughly confused.

The managers of Germany’s UFA studios, the unfortunates who had spent nearly a year and a budget-busting 5 million reichsmarks (perhaps some $200 million today) on making Metropolis clearly knew that they had a problem on their hands even before their film was released and they marketed it as much as spectacle as cinema. A spread in the UFA magazine highlighted some of the movie’s vital (if not necessarily accurate) statistics: Seven hundred fifty children had, the publicists claimed, been used in the film’s making, along with “1,100 bald people, 100 Blacks, 25 Chinese, 3,500 pairs of shoes, 75 wigs” and, well, you get the picture. With 36,000 extras, how bad could Metropolis be? There was a tie-in novel by Lang’s wife, Thea von Harbou, that is, if anything, even more chaotic than the film, an overwrought mélange of pulp fiction, millennial raving, and begging-for-straitjacket hysteria that its author, at least, believed to have been art. Do not read it. I beg you.

UFA was not wrong. As story, Metropolis is a mess; as spectacle, it is superb, a glorious, oneiric depiction of a future urban dystopia (it’s set in 2026), part hive, part Manhattan, part megalopolis-of-the-future wow, and the inspiration for decades of cinematic cityscapes of not-yets to come, all the way from Just Imagine, a Depression-era musical comedy set in 1980, to Blade Runner, to the sadly underrated Dark City, to the sadly overrated Matrix trilogy. In a film where many characters fail to convince (the most striking exception to this is, tellingly, a robot), it is the city itself that is, like the Metropolis-influenced Gotham of the revived Batman franchise, the star.

But the future has a way of taking prophets by surprise. Within months of Metropolis’s opening, The Jazz Singer was released. This somewhat old-fashioned tale of a cantor’s son who performed in blackface heralded a technological change that was to drown out Lang’s suddenly dated depiction of modernity. Lang’s silent movie had been dumbed down overnight, its special effects eclipsed by the miracle of Vitaphone.

Metropolis faded from view. Its memory lingered, at least in cineaste lore, but the full breadth of Lang’s vision appeared to have vanished for good. All, it seemed, that remained was an abbreviation, a collection of truncated relics reasonably close to the bewildering 90 minutes of the international release. As for the rest, well, like the Weimar Berlin in which Metropolis had been filmed, it seemed to have been consigned to history. 

Then something changed. As Europeans emerged from the devastation of 1939–45, the rebuilding of their ruined cities evolved into projects more ambitious than the hasty patchwork repair of the immediate post-war years. Historic town centers were painstakingly restored in an attempt to retrieve, reconnect, and sometimes reimagine the brutally shattered past. The same impulses can be detected in the reconstruction of Metropolis. It was an effort that gathered pace in the 1960s, and included a longer restoration put together by the East German state Film Archive (1968–72), disco guru Giorgio Moroder’s controversial 1984 appropriation  (shorter, but with color tinting and a classically 1980s soundtrack), and, after years of restoration work by Enno Patalas, the director of Munich’s film museum, the “Munich” Metropolis of 1987.

That’s not the end of the story. Using the Munich version as their core, and scrounging up every additional scrap of footage they could find, a team of restorers was able to assemble the “definitive” (124 minute) Metropolis issued in this country in 2002 on a fine DVD by Kino International. And that was meant to be that.

“Definitive” is a dangerous word. Six years after the Kino release, a 16mm copy of Lang’s epic was located in the archives of the film museum in, of all places, Buenos Aires. The footage was scratched, grubby, and the wrong size (16mm rather than 35mm), but it was as close to the original length as anyone could ever have hoped. Two years of restoration work followed as sections of the Argentine find were woven into the earlier definitive version filling in nearly all the missing links. Even after restoration, they are not perfect, but in their misty, messy way they are an evocative reminder of the time passed since the footage was shot and lost. The resulting patchwork—147 minutes long—comes as close to what was shown that long-ago night in Berlin as, probably, anything we are ever likely to see.

Fittingly enough, the new reunited Metropolis premiered earlier this year in the reunited Berlin that had too once seemed like an impossible dream. The movie arrived in the United States in April, debuting—where else—at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre. By May, it had made its way to New York City (the night I saw it, the film was introduced by the endearingly modest director of the Buenos Aires museum) and will, doubtless, once again become a regular on the art-house circuit. A DVD is not far behind.

Gaps have been filled, and subplots added. With the additions, the film makes a bit more sense than before. A bit. Metropolis remains a city where the economics fail (as Wells pointed out) to hang together, and its supposedly sophisticated machines are oddly clumsy, closer to treadmills than agents of production. Meanwhile, the Bildungsroman that lies at the movie’s heart, the awakening of the son of the city’s presiding genius to the injustice and oppression that are the essence of Metropolis, is muddied by apocalyptic mysticism, suggestions of magic, and a psychologically fraught love story involving the son, his father, his dead mother, a mad scientist, the holy Madonna-like Maria, and Futura, her disturbing “machine woman” robot doppelganger. The conclusion is as sappy as it is unconvincing, a sentimental submission to some sort of organic unity between all classes that helps explain why Goebbels was a fan (interestingly, Thea von Harbou later became a Nazi), but didn’t do much for me.

But not to worry—dazzlingly shot, frantically kinetic, and brilliantly edited, this is a film that can be enjoyed for its imagery alone, from the remarkable shots of Metropolis, to the portrayal of the flood that all but sweeps the city away, to the most famous sequence of all, the coming to life of the robot, a gorgeous deco goddess encircled by electric halos as she gradually assumes the form of the virginal Maria to become the whore—complete at one moment with Babylonian headgear—who will seduce the city into erotic and then self-destructive frenzy. Oh yes, a monk is also involved, and statues of the seven deadly sins come to life.

No wonder Wells, whose science-fiction vision was shortly to shift to an enlightened “air dictatorship” (Things to Come) run by clean-limbed flyboys in jackboots, disapproved, but then, for all its status as one of the first great sci-fi films, Metropolis was in reality something very different. It was not so much an anticipation of the future as a reflection of its own epoch. The greatest science-fiction movies, 2001, Blade Runner, the Soviet Solaris, are in many respects beyond their time — beyond any time. Any dates they include are there just for decoration. Not so with Metropolis. By setting the film in 2026, exactly a century after it was shot, Lang was guiding the audience back to their own time, an impression only reinforced by the costumes worn by the cast — and even the cars. “1926 models or earlier,” sniffed Wells. The notorious scenes shot in and around the Yoshiwara nightclub district conjure up images not of some 21st-century pleasure dome, but of the wicked delights of Weimar at its exuberant, brittle peak.

For Lang was making his movie during the brief interlude when it seemed as if Germany’s fragile democracy might survive, a fact that might have influenced the film’s message of reconciliation between the lower city’s (the proletariat lives a subterranean existence) crushed and regimented workers and those who — in all senses — lived above them. At the same time, to watch the sequences when the mob careens behind Maria/Futura, a pied piper bewitching them into a riot that can only lead to their doom, is to witness the anxieties of an era (less than ten years after the Bolshevik Revolution) all too conscious of where the failure to narrow too wide a gap between labor and capital might lead and, for that matter, of just how dangerously malleable the masses could be.

Within a few years, of course, Germany had found its pied piper, and the consequences of the lethal dance in which he led his people cannot help but shape how we view this film today. The horrors anticipated by Lang’s images of shaven-headed workers marching into the fiery maw of the machine-god Moloch are too obvious to need explanation, but the plight of the children trapped by the floodwaters rising in Metropolis’s underground city also seems like an uncanny foreshadowing of another tragedy, the fate of the thousands drowned when Hitler ordered the flooding of the Berlin subway system in April 1945. Even looking at the cast, one cannot help but wonder how many of those 36,000 extras, or the 750 children — in their twenties by the time of the war — were to perish in the course of Hitler’s rule, whether as victims, perpetrators, or, sometimes, both. As for Lang, Roman Catholic of partly Jewish descent, he rejected what he claimed was Goebbels’s invitation of a senior position within the Reich’s movie industry and decamped for France and thence to the United States and a second, Hollywood, career, leaving Metropolis behind him. It was lost, he later said.

But sometimes Atlantis can rise again.

— Andrew Stuttaford is a contributing editor of National Review Online.

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