25 April 2005 | ignatz928
Watch the Kino DVD!
Technically speaking, I have seen this Fritz Lang silent sci-fi before, but this was the first time I saw it in any shape by which I could fairly evaluate it. I had previously watched Metropolis on a public domain VHS from the 80s. The print was terribly scratched and while there were a few memorable images, the story was so incoherent that their context was usually unclear. Though this was clearly not the best way to see Metropolis, I was still left with an impression of this supposed classic as a dusty museum piece that was praised by critics because they were expected to like it. So finally seeing a restored and expanded copy was as much as a revelation as seeing Once Upon a Time in the West letter boxed in how it led me to reevaluate my opinion of the movie. The movie is a strange mixture of political speculation political parable, apocalyptic fantasy, and religious allegory. It depicts a futuristic city that is divided between the wretched workers, who toil in the depths tending the machines, and the upper classes, who dwell in luxury up in the skyscrapers. The hero, the idle, pampered son of the city's supervisor Joh Fredersen, changes his ways and becomes concerned with the plight of the lower classes after catching a glimpse of Maria, the Madonna of the workers. His father, meanwhile, is plotting to thwart Maria with the help of the mad scientist Rotwang, who has discovered how to create robot replicas of human beings. One of the most surprising things about watching this version is just how much I didn't see. In addition to restoring scenes to the film, the DVD also includes inter titles to explain pieces of the plot that cannot be found in any version. With these changes, the story becomes much clearer, particularly the machinations of Rotwang and the master of Metropolis. Perhaps most importantly, a whole new subplot is added involving the hero's dead mother Hel, who was loved by both his father and Rotwang. With this clarification of the back-story, the close but adversarial relationship between Rotwang and Fredersen becomes much clearer. In some ways it recalls the family back-story of the Star Wars movies. Of course, the real strength of Metropolis isn't the story, which is pretty silly and probably wouldn't have worked in anything but a silent film, but its amazing visuals, which in their scale and ambitiousness look forward to 2001 and Blade Runner. Actually, though in most respects silent films now look primitive, one area in which they have the edge over modern film-making is in their frequently grandiose production design. Metropolis employs huge sets to show the hellish factories of the subterranean world. The models of the city's towering skyscrapers are also surprisingly convincing for a 1920s film. Even beyond the expansive production design and (for the time) special effects, Lang's visuals are all consistently inventive. The robot Maria provides some of the movie's most iconic images, including her transformation into a human being. In a later scene, she performs for upper-class men in a nightclub, and as she performs a striptease that in 1920s Germany was apparently seen as very decadent, the screen is filled with wet staring eyeballs. A sign of Lang's visual lavishness, and the studio's, that he doesn't hesitate to throw in lavish dream and hallucination sequences to drive home a point or illustrate a character's state of mind. For instance, when the hero first enters the subterranean city and sees rows upon rows of workers toiling on huge machines, he imagines the furnace transforming into a monstrous idol's head into which the workers are being sacrificed. At another point, while he's sick in bed he imagines statues of the Seven Deadly Sins coming to life and advancing out from a wall in a cathedral. When Maria preaches her message of peace and understanding to the workers, she tells them the story of the Tower of Babel of a management vs. labor parable, and Lang gives us spectacular images of the tower's construction and fall. In a sound film many of these scenes would have seemed redundant and over-literal, but they're what silent cinema does best -tell a story without the advantage- or obstacle- of dialogue. The story is a little slow to start, but once it picks up Metropolis becomes one of the most directly involving silent films that I've seen. In addition to being a pioneering example of the cinematic possibilities of science fiction, Metropolis also has to be one of the earliest disaster films, as the workers riot and sabotage the machines, endangering the entire city. Lang creates a sense of rising fury and nihilism in the last hour that in a strange way reminded me of what was going to happen to Germany in less than 20 years.