Directed by Fritz Lang. Starring Alfred Abel, Brigitte Helm, Gustav Fröhlich, Rudolf Klein-Rogge PG cert, Lisburn Omniplex, Antrim; Queen’s, Belfast; IFI/Swan/Vue, Dublin; Limerick Omniplex, 150 min
Eighty-three years on, Fritz Lang’s visionary, mind-blowing Metropolisremains a big-screen must-see, writes TARA BRADY
REVOLUTIONARY, astounding and madly influential: when Fritz Lang’s Metropolisfirst hit the nickelodeons in 1927, audiences and critics scarcely knew what to make of it; HG Wells dismissed its science fiction as “foolishness, cliche, platitude, and muddlement about mechanical progress and progress in general”. Baffled paying punters stayed away; distributors got busy with the scissors.
Metropolisis a freaky dystopian adventure painted in extravagant allegorical strokes from a bold expressionist palate. In the intervening years, its fantastic oddness has gained many ardent admirers and allowed for any number of projections and interpretations. Noted movie buff Joseph Goebbels adored it and promptly adopted the mantra that “the political bourgeoisie is about to leave the stage of history”.
The future Nazi minister of propaganda’s response is hardly surprising. Written by Lang and his wife (and frequent collaborator) Theo von Harbou during the Weimar years, the film’s political naivety is charming, vaguely sinister and maddeningly contradictory. Tellingly, Lang, who was of Jewish ancestry, would separate from von Harbou when she joined the Nazi Party three years later.
In this uneasy dialectical spirit, the futuristic city-state of the title is divided into a neat dichotomy. Above ground we find a ruling elite, with their glittering world of skyscrapers and decadent shenanigans. Beneath, workers toil in the very bowels of the earth.
These radically different worlds collide when Freder (Gustav Fröhlich), the son of Metropolis’s dictator, catches sight of Maria (Brigitte Helm), a dazzling, virtuous schoolteacher from the wrong side of the tracks. Smitten, he follows her down into the underworld and soon learns the terrible truth behind his own luxurious existence. Workers face appalling, inhumane conditions. Indeed, it does not take long for the young would-be swain to witness an explosion that kills dozens of unfortunate labourers.
Conflicting plans, however, are afoot. As the workers plot against the Heart Machine – the primary electrical generator for the city above – Freder’s father (Alfred Abel) is conspiring with Rotwang (Rudolf Klein-Rogge), a mad scientist. The latter hopes to control the population with a robotic clone of Maria (Helm again), a hoochie- cooch provocateur designed to drive the male proletariat into a frenzy.
More than eight decades and countless revisions after its initial release, Metropolisstill packs a unique wallop. In technical terms, the film’s status is unarguable. Over here is the first use of miniatures; over there about 40,000 extras. And few actors will ever equal Brigitte Helm’s duelling performances.
Mostly, however, Metropolishas, in its weirdly Luddite yet technophile way, lasted as a monument to modernity. Like Henry Adams, the film testifies to the end of the age of the Virgin and the brave new world of the Dynamo.
This new print, restored using a recently discovered 16mm transfer including 25 additional minutes not seen since the film’s premiere, promises to deliver the Metropolisthat Lang originally intended. Sadly, that does not mean it is the most satisfying version. Too often, inter-titles informing us of missing scenes, not to mention the jolting transitions between crisp monochrome and scratchy old reels, take us out of the movie.
But any cut of Metropolisis mandatory viewing for anyone interested in film, technology or not being a complete baboon. Likewise any opportunity to see the film on the big screen must be jumped on. But this 150-minute cut, though a commendably scholarly project and a valuable artifact, loses the ebb and flow of many shorter versions. We don’t want no education; we’re here to get lost in Herr Lang’s vision and Fraulein Helm’s preternaturally expressive eyes.