The philosophical thrust of Fritz Lang’s 1927 Metropolis has all the earmarks of a frenzied moment of “enlightenment” that one gets while under the influence of a hallucinogenic: it seems so PROFOUND in the moment, yet once the drug wears off, you may find yourself thinking, “God, it was so brilliant … why can’t I remember the whole of it? Something about … the heart needing to be the mediator … If only I could share the message I received, the entire world would be different!” It’s that damn Man from Porlock again. Why can’t he leave the inspired alone?
That being said, Metropolis, with its portrayal of a dystopian mechanized future, is a masterpiece, terrifying and brutal, with set pieces that boggle the mind, and massive crowd scenes that pulse with energy and chaos. Part of the fun of the movie is wondering: “How on earth did Lang pull this off??” Fritz Lang told Peter Bogdanovich:
I first came to America briefly in 1924 and it made a great impression on me. The first evening, when we arrived, we were still enemy aliens, so we couldn’t leave the ship. It was docked somewhere on the West Side of New York. I looked into the streets – the glaring lights and the tall buildings – and there I conceived Metropolis.
This is probably a bit of a white lie, or at least an exaggeration, and Lang probably already had the idea (if not the script) for Metropolis at that time, although, hey, he knows a better story when he makes one up.
Adolf Hitler loved Metropolis, and methinks he might have missed the point that Lang was making: that this was a BAD image of the future, this is NOT where we want to go. Kind of like my friend Beth, who was telling me about a guy she knew, and how he “felt validated by Archie Bunker – like, he doesn’t understand irony.” Leni Reifenstahl’s stunningly beautiful-looking and creepy Triumph of the Will, from 1935, showing the events of the 1934 Nuremberg Rally, owes much to Metropolis, with its scenes of athletic events in giant stadiums, a glorification of the body (as in the human body, as well as the body politic), and its message that strength and youth and “togetherness” were the only things valued by Germany at that time. There is a scene in Metropolis that takes place in an intimidating giant stadium, with high unbroken walls surrounding the track and field area, walls that seem to touch the sky, walls topped by giant statues hearkening back to the ancient times, bodies contorted into beautiful alienating poses of athletic prowess. This is an actual set. The camera sits far back, so that the athletes running the race are dwarfed by their surroundings. This type of energy is par for the course in totalitarian and fascist architecture, which is designed to tell the populace: “The State is bigger than you are. Submit.”
The science fiction aspect of Metropolis is so imitated now as to hardly be detectable at all. The “doubling” of Maria, the creation of a perfect human who is an arm of the State, calls to mind the replicants in Blade Runner, the endless “dormitory” of sleeping humans in The Matrix, and the terrifying face-swap in John Woo’s Face/Off. But again, the imitations run far and wide. The laboratory where “Maria” is created, with its cold clinical spaces, and buzzing neon, influenced the entire 20th century’s cinematic representations of the future. In Fritz Lang’s M, the terror is of the more human variety, with Peter Lorre’s child-killer on the loose, but there, the city too takes on terrifying aspects, with looming shadows and yawning alleyways, German Expressionism at its high point.
Metropolis tells the story of two cities that exist parallel to one another, with zero crossover. The people in the shining city above ground, centered around the magnificent Tower of Babel, are completely unaware of the “worker’s city” below ground, a land of slums and giant machines, the apparatus that keeps the city above working. Joh Federson (played by Alfred Abel) is the leader of the city aboveground, and he operates in a world high above the streets, his penthouses and giant offices staring out at the tops of the skyscrapers, with dirigibles and airplanes flying by, and giant causeways going between buildings, lined with moving cars. He has a vested interest in the status quo. His son, Freder, played with maniacal passion by Gustav FrÃ¶hlich, lives a life of ease and leisure time, running races at the stadium, and cavorting with naked girls in The Eternal Garden. Yet one fateful day, he gets a glimpse of Maria (played with startling power by Brigitte Helm), a schoolteacher from the worker’s city, who brings a group of children aboveground to look around. These people have never seen the sky, felt the air.
They have no business being up there, it is a security breach of the highest order, and they are shuffled back belowground, but not before Freder gets a glimpse of Maria, and literally swoons with love-at-first-sight. He must find her. He descends into the worker’s city below.
There he finds an astonishing world of machines as big as buildings, where men stand and work, all of them cogs in the giant wheel of production. There is an incredible shot (and I am so glad I saw this on the big screen yesterday – my first time with this particular film) of a wall of work stations (seen in first clip below jump), many-tiered, with men in black placed strategically all along it, and they are doing a synchronized dance of lever-pulling – to the left, to the right, back to the center, pulling all the way over to the right, back to the center, to the left – Each one is doing something different (some go to the right first, others to the left), yet the overall effect is one of dizzying synchronization. There are no individuals in this world. And yet, if one man steps away from his post for even a second, everything starts to fall apart, with drastic and apocalyptic consequences.
Turns out, Maria is a voice of the downtrodden. She gathers her followers in a decaying corner of the maze, and preaches of man’s dignity, and of the hope that someone, The One, will come and save them one day, redeem them.
But Rudolf Klein-Rogge, who plays Rotwang, the evil inventor of the underworld, has other plans. Maria has influence. She has a following. And so Metropolis becomes a despairing chase, as Rotwang pursues her through the worker’s city, hoping to experiment on her, and create the Robot of his dreams, someone who looks just like Maria, but who can influence her followers to evil, as opposed to good.
The plot is pretty standard, but I am saying that from my 21st century perspective, with things like Avatar and Blade Runner to look at, clear and open nods to the huge influence that was Metropolis. What is incredible here is not just how prescient Lang was, about the way things were going in Germany at that time, mechanization run riot (true of the wider world as well, but far more sinister in Germany), but also in the sheer scope of the movie, the hugeness of the scenes and set-pieces, the management of thousands (what look like thousands, anyway – apparently Lang used up to 30,000 people in some of the crowd scenes) of extras, and the creation of a futuristic world just close enough to our own to creep us out for all time. It is a cautionary tale. There is obviously no CGI here. What was created was either miniatures, or matte paintings used as backdrops, and they are obviously artificial, but that just adds to the power of what we are seeing. Of course the world looks a bit “off”. It IS a bit “off”. The buildings seem cold and empty, certainly not places where individuals actually live, with family pictures on the wall, and dirty dishes in the sink. The buildings ARE their surface, there to intimidate, impress, and dazzle. The “transformation” of Maria into her robot (or should I say avatar) is beautifully done, (see clip below), and devastating when you realize that it is too late, that Maria has been co-opted by the State. It is not just her I am sad for, it is the followers who huddled around her in the shadows, gaining hope and comfort from her words.
It’s a stunning accomplishment and the fantastical scenes just pile on, one after the other after the other, with not one moment where the tension lets up, where the action sags.
The worker’s city is flooded, when the reservoirs burst, and Maria climbs up on a statue in the middle of the slum buildings, and starts to bang on the gong, to alert the populace. Water starts to creep up through the sidewalks, at first a trickle, then a flood, and children come running from all directions, and try to clamber up onto the statue with Maria, their wet dirty hands grasping up at her. The scene goes on far longer than you would expert, there is no catharsis, no let-up, no deus ex machina, and slowly, we see the buildings collapse from water damage, the floods rising up so that the children are basically swimming, holding onto one another in an extended awful life-raft. It is an incredible sequence. What we are seeing is really happening. There are no tricks here. These actors and extras are really going through all of this. The coordination it took must have been insane. But there are so many more. Freder, looking for Maria, finds himself trapped in the Inventor’s solitary house, a brilliantly conceived space, where doors have no knobs, and once they close, there is no way out – an Alice in Wonderland nod, as Freder looks around a room, with 5 or 6 closed doors, and desperately tries to bash his way through one, then another, then another. There is a frightening moment when the machine overheats and actually becomes a gaping-mawed monster, swallowing bald and naked anonymous men into its depths.
The acting is great, with powerful representations of the pantomime style at that time, Brigitte Helm committing to her gyrations of fear and passion in a crazy angular way that makes it seem she is made of rubber. As she is pursued by the wild-eyed inventor, she crouches in the shadows, cringing from his torch-light, with glimmering huge eyes, and a slanted back with angular arms, a true “portrait” of terror, recognizable to anyone of any culture anywhere. She’s a master at that kind of gesturally-based acting and response. Her role is a double role: Maria and the Robot, and there is a scene where she, looking just like the gentle prophet from before, is now writhing about onstage, naked from the waistup, with glimmering stars over her breasts, as panting animalistic men crush in closer and closer, and it’s a devastating commentary on the power wielded by sex, first of all, but also how dehumanized the world in Metropolis is, how vulnerable any individual is to corruption. The corruption of Maria is imposed from the outside, but it is no less important, or worthy of examination.
This is powerful stuff, highly prophetic of the cataclysm approaching Europe yet again in the late 1920s, something that Lang obviously sensed and internalized.
Fritz Lang’s original version was butchered by the studios at the time, and there is still lost footage, even in this “complete” version. It is hard to know if it will ever be found. In the “complete Metropolis“, the still-missing scenes are described briefly by title-cards with a different font (at first I was afraid I wouldn’t notice the font-change, but no worries: it is completely obvious by that time in the viewing) – and the existence of said scenes is guessed at because of, along with other things, a novelization of the movie that came out around that time. The quality of the found footage is not nearly as pristine as the rest of the film, and the aspect ratio is different from the rest, but no matter: it is good to have it all back together now.
Metropolis is a work for the ages. I am pretty deadened to CGI now (was never a big fan in the first place, the effects often come off as cold, or lifeless) – and seeing Metropolis, and what Lang was able to create, is nothing short of breathtaking. The “heart is the mediator” theme is left to reverb, strangely, and perhaps we are meant to feel hopeful. I, however, do not. I have been shown too much horror in the film, I have seen children climbing up stairwells screaming in fear, I have seen men shuffle through a tunnel deadened and de-individuated, I have seen the dehumanization gleaming in the eyes of those who want to shatter civilization and humanism. It is all well and good to say that yes, we need the head, and yes, we need the hands but we need the heart as well, and we will be lost as a civilization if we do not find a place for the Heart. As mediator. However, Fritz Lang, a pessimistic man, and not surprising when you think of what he had seen and experienced, doesn’t seem to hold out too much hope that the Heart can make any difference whatsoever.
New Yorkers: Metropolis runs at the Film Forum until May 20th. Information here.