Stirred by the visionary power of "Dark City," I
revisited Fritz Lang's "Metropolis" and once again fell under its
eerie spell. The movie has a plot that defies common sense, but its very
discontinuity is a strength. It makes "Metropolis" hallucinatory--a nightmare
without the reassurance of a steadying story line. Few films have ever been
more visually exhilarating.
considered the first great science-fiction film, "Metropolis" (1927)
fixed for the rest of the century the image of a futuristic city as a hell of
scientific progress and human despair. From this film, in various ways,
descended not only “Dark City” but “Blade Runner,” “The Fifth Element,”
“Alphaville,” “Escape From L.A.,” “Gattaca,” and Batman's Gotham City. The
laboratory of its evil genius, Rotwang, created the visual look of mad
scientists for decades to come, especially after it was mirrored in “Bride of
Frankenstein” (1935). And the device of the “false Maria,” the robot who looks
like a human being, inspired the “Replicants” of “Blade Runner.” Even Rotwang's
artificial hand was given homage in “Dr. Strangelove.”
many of these movies have in common is a loner hero who discovers the inner
workings of the future society, penetrating the system that would control the
population. Even Batman's villains are the descendants of Rotwang, giggling as
they pull the levels that will enforce their will. The buried message is
powerful: Science and industry will become the weapons of demagogues.
employed vast sets, 25,000 extras and astonishing special effects to create two
worlds: the great city of Metropolis, with its stadiums, skyscrapers and
expressways in the sky, and the subterranean workers’ city, where the clock
face shows 10 hours to cram another day into the work week. Lang's film is the
summit of German Expressionism, the combination of stylized sets, dramatic
camera angles, bold shadows and frankly artificial theatrics.
production itself made even Stanley Kubrick's mania for control look benign.
According to Patrick McGilligan's book Fritz Lang: The Nature of the Beast, the
extras were hurled into violent mob scenes, made to stand for hours in cold
water and handled more like props than human beings. The heroine was made to
jump from high places, and when she was burned at a stake, Lang used real flames.
The irony was that Lang's directorial style was not unlike the approach of the
villain in his film.
story tells of a great city whose two halves--the pampered citizens of the
surface and the slaves of the depths--are ignorant of one another. The city is
run by the ruthless Joh Fredersen (Alfred Abel), a businessman-dictator. His
son Freder (Gustav Froehlich) is in the Pleasure Gardens one day when Maria
(Brigitte Helm), a woman from the subterranean city, brings a group of workers'
children to the surface. Freder, struck by Maria’s beauty and astonished to
learn of the life led by the workers, seeks out the demented genius Rotwang
(Rudolf Klein-Rogge), who knows the secrets of the lower world.
follows is Freder's descent into the depths and his attempts to help the
workers, who are rallied by the revolutionary Maria. Meanwhile, Rotwang devises
a robot, captures the real Maria, and transfers her face to the robot--so that
the workers, still following Maria, can be fooled and controlled. (The
electrical arcs, bubbling beakers, glowing rings of light and mad scientist
props in the transformation sequence have influenced a thousand films.)
develops this story with scenes of astonishing originality. Consider the first
glimpse of the underground power plant, with workers straining to move heavy
dial hands back and forth. What they're doing makes no logical sense, but
visually the connection is obvious: They are controlled like hands on a clock.
And when the machinery explodes, Freder has a vision in which the machinery
turns into an obscene devouring monster.
dramatic visual sequences: a chase scene in the darkened catacombs, with the
real Maria pursued by Rotwang (the beam of his light is like a club to bludgeon
her). The image of the Tower of Babel as Maria addresses the workers. Their
faces, arrayed in darkness from the top to the bottom of the screen. The doors
in Rotwang's house, opening and closing on their own. The lascivious dance of
the false Maria, as the workers look on, the screen filled with large, wet,
staring eyeballs. The flood of the lower city and the undulating arms of the
children flocking to Maria to be saved.
gaps and logical puzzles of the story (some caused by clumsy re-editing after
the film left Lang's hands) are swept away by this torrent of images. “To enjoy
the film, the viewer must observe but never think,” the critic Arthur Lennig
said, and Pauline Kael contrasted its “moments of almost incredible beauty and
power” with “absurd ineptitudes.” Even when the plot seems adrift, the movie
itself never lacks confidence: The city and system are so overpowering they
dwarf any merely logical problems. Although Lang saw his movie as
anti-authoritarian, the Nazis liked it enough to offer him control of their
film industry (he fled to America instead). Some of the ideas in “Metropolis”
seem echoed in Leni Riefenstahl's pro-Hitler “Triumph of the
Will”(1935)--where, of course, they have lost their irony.
of what we see in “Metropolis” doesn't exist except in visual trickery. The
special effects were the work of Eugene Schuefftan, who later worked in Hollywood
as the cinematographer of “Lilith” and “The Hustler.” According to Magill's
Survey of Cinema, his photographic system “allowed people and miniature sets to
be combined in a single shot, through the use of mirrors, rather than
laboratory work.” Other effects were created in the camera by cinematographer
result was astonishing for its time. Without all of the digital tricks of
today, “Metropolis” fills the imagination. Today the effects look like effects,
but that's their appeal. Looking at the original “King Kong” not long ago, I
found that its effects, primitive by modern standards, gained a certain weird
effectiveness. Because they looked strange and unworldly compared to the slick,
utterly convincing effects that are now possible, they were more evocative: The
effects in movies like “Jurassic Park” and “Titanic” are done so well, by
comparison, that we simply think we are looking at real things, which is not
quite the same kind of fun.
has not existed for years in the version that Lang completed. It was chopped by
distributors, censors and exhibitors, key footage was lost, and only by
referring to the novelization of the story by Thea vonHarbou can various story
gaps be explained. In 1984 a reconstructed version was released, adding footage
gathered from Germany and Australia to existing prints, and that version,
produced by Giorgio Moroder, was color tinted “according to Lang's original
intentions” and given an MTV-style musical score. This is the version most
often seen today.
quite reasonably object to it, but one can turn off the sound and dial down the
color to create a silent black-and-white print. I am not crazy about the
soundtrack, but in watching the Moroder version I enjoyed the tinting and felt
that Lang's vision was so powerful it swept aside the quibbles: It's better to
see this well-restored print with all the available footage than to stand
entirely on principle.
does what many great films do, creating a time, place and characters so
striking that they become part of our arsenal of images for imagining the
world. The ideas of “Metropolis” have been so often absorbed into popular
culture that its horrific future city is almost a given (when Albert Brooks
dared to create an alternative utopian future in 1991 with “Defending Your
Life,” it seemed wrong, somehow, without Satanic urban hellscapes). Lang filmed
for nearly a year, driven by obsession, often cruel to his colleagues, a
perfectionist madman, and the result is one of those seminal films without
which the others cannot be fully appreciated.