Synopsis: Metropolis takes place in 2026, when the populace is divided between workers who must live in the dark underground and the rich who enjoy a futuristic city of splendor. The tense balance of these two societies is realized through images that are among the most famous of the 20th century, many of which presage such sci-fi landmarks as 2001: A Space Odyssey and Blade Runner. Lavish and spectacular, with elaborate sets and modern science fiction style, Metropolis stands today as the crowning achievement of the German silent cinema.
eyelights: the ginormous sets. the then-amazing special effects. the sociopolitical themes. the theatrical -but skilled- performances. the sweeping score.
eyesores: the theatricality of the performances. Hel’s “seductive” dance.
‘Metropolis’ is a 1927 German film, directed by Fritz Lang and penned in collaboration with his then-spouse, Thea von Harbou. At the time, it was one of -if not the– most expensive films ever made, costing an estimated 5 million Reichsmark (which, in today’s dollars, would apparently be in excess of 200 million dollars – although there are conflicting reports as to its adjusted cost). It’s also one of the first sci-fi films and it remains a highly influential one.
It wasn’t entirely appreciated upon release: although German audiences applauded it, some (North American) critics panned it, going so far as calling it silly. There is also some question as to how profitable the film was, with its wiki entry stating that it recouped a mere 75,000 Reichsmark in its initial release. It sounds insane that such a landmark film would flop to such a degree, but one thing that is certain is that it wasn’t successful enough to survive the passage of time.
‘Metropolis’ was co-financed by three studios, and they called the shots with respect to foreign distribution. Deciding that it was too long, at over two and half hours in length, they decided to re-edit it. Within a couple of months, for the American and UK releases, the film had been truncated to under two hours in length, severely altering the film’s plot and hobbling its coherence; ‘Metropolis’ no longer delivered Lang and von Harbou’s initial vision.
To make matters worse, like all good plastic surgery addicts, the distributors continued to edit the film down and, by 1936, the film had been tweaked to a mere length of 91 minutes!!! Thus, given the number of versions that were available, it’s quite conceivable -if not likely- that the worst reviews were of a seriously handicapped edit – after all, without few of its parts intact, ‘Metropolis’ would make very little sense.
In fact, the first time that I watched the film, it was the Giorgio Moroder’s 1984 cut of the film. Tinted, altered to include new special effects and featuring a brand new musical accompaniment of 1970s pop songs (performed by Moroder as well as Pat Benatar, Adam Ant, Loverboy, Freddie Mercury and many others), it was as kitschy as it was incongruous. And guess what? Moroder’s version was even shorter than the “official” ones that were floating around out there!
I don’t even know if I was able to get through it back then. I recall that it seemed incoherent to me. Being that I wasn’t nearly as patient then as I am now, having acquired more of a taste for cinema since, it’s possible that I didn’t make to the end. Still, a few years ago, having a better appreciation for its place in history, I wanted to give it a proper go of it, so I got what was then the most complete version available: Kino’s 2002 restoration, at 122 minutes in length (still approximately a half hour short!).
I was quite impressed. What helped is that Kino added detailed notes on their DVD to explain what was missing from the picture. Already, the film made more sense than the Moroder version, but, with explanatory notes, it was much clearer. I was quite pleased with having finally gotten around to seeing this classic. I was a fan – and that was before the 2008 discovery of most of the missing footage, found on a 16mm print in an Argentinian museum!
I was pretty excited, as were many cinephiles the world over. Even if I didn’t get a chance to see it on the big screen, I knew that this would eventually make its way onto DVD and BD at some point. I would get to see it. And, even though not all of the missing footage was salvageable, a good 25 minutes has been recovered – albeit in much poorer form than what existed currently. This meant that the film was almost whole again, some 80 years later.
Was it worth the wait?
It absolutely is! ‘Metropolis’ is an awe-inspiring cinematic masterpiece, and this version seals its reputation – finally, we can understand why its loss had been decried for so many years (something that was questionable when one only considered the truncated versions). It’s not just a marvel to behold from a technical standpoint, but it’s an epic tale with a sociopolitical message at its core: “There can be no understanding between the hands and the brain unless the heart acts as mediator.”
So what is it about?
‘Metropolis’ takes place in the then-distant future of 2026, in a sprawling city. In it, the élite live large well above ground and the common folk work and live underground. Our protagonist is Freder, the son of the city’s ruler, and he falls for Maria, one of the workers. In so doing, he becomes intrigued with the life that she and the others lead, deciding to switch places with a worker for a short time. Meanwhile, Joh, his father, schemes to stoke the fires of discontent in the lower levels so as to crush the dissenters once and for all. However, he hadn’t forseen the deceit in his midst…
While it may seem like a mundane plot, something we’ve seen time and time again in the decades since, it’s the way that it’s melded with various sociopolitical messages that makes it so delicious. At least, it is now ever relevant. At the time, however, it grew old on Fritz Lang himself, partly due to its popularity with some most unsavoury characters, such as Joseph Goebbels. Lang has since dismissed the film’s message of building bridges in society via “the heart” as naïve and unrealistic.
Still, beyond its sociopolitical aspect, what makes ‘Metropolis’ especially riveting is its scope, the way that it’s set-up, and just how successful it is in its delivery given its aspiration to grandeur – not just considering the time in which it was made, which makes it incredibly impressive, but even to this day. Here, Lang gives us a stylish, elaborate, multi-layered piece that flows exceptionally well throughout, that is absolutely brilliant in its construction.
It’s an ambitious film, but it never fails: the maquettes look very good, the sets are massive and designed with a unique flavour that is influential to this day, the camera work is creative and proficient, the cinematic wizardry is dated but still holds up, the staging of the choreographies and fight sequences is incredibly accurate, the soundtrack (which was then played live – it’s a silent film, after all) is phenomenal, and the screenplay manages to mix and match a handful of characters and plot points with skill.
Entire books have been written on the subject of Fritz Lang’s masterwork. It would be redundant for me to try to recapture all that has been said about it and do it justice. I simply would not do it with the appropriate eloquence. Let’s just leave it at this: To have a historical perspective of cinema, one must watch ‘Metropolis’. To get a sense of what terrific visual storytelling is, one must watch ‘Metropolis’. To truly understand the roots of modern science-fiction, one must watch ‘Metropolis’.
At least once in a lifetime, one should watch the full version of ‘Metropolis’. It’s a must-see.
Post scriptum: I think I’ll go get the Moroder version now. Even if it’s bad, it will be worth it.
Date of viewing: March 16, 2013