Having conceived Babel, yet unable to build it themselves, they had thousands to build it for them. But those who toiled knew nothing of the dreams of those who planned. And the minds that planned the Tower of Babel cared nothing for the workers who built it. The hymns of praise of the few became the curses of the many…
The ‘complete’ version of the grandaddy of science fiction movies (as well as dystopian futures) have arrived. Clocking 150 minutes this is as complete as Fritz Lang’s movie will ever be after being truncated, butchered and re-arranged for more than a century. Its still barely coherent, but I’ve made peace with that.
Metropolis is, mayhaps, not the best place to start if you want to explore silent cinema, even if it does contain some of its most iconic imagery, including the ‘created human’, a robot (on which C-3PO was loosely modelled). To be honest, the movie has glaring flaws and has aged badly (and I don’t mean the scratches). Some of these flaws are inherent to most of silent cinema, but most are inherent to its story. Worse of all, the movie clobbers you on the head with its ‘message’, which sounds like it was pilfered from a fortune cookie (I’d like to credit Amazon.com staff reviewer, Richard T Jameson, for the latter observation in an otherwise very positive review).
In an unspecified year the vast city of Metropolis towers into the sky, its magnificence known to all. The success of the city is credited to Joh Fredersen, a Martin Scorcese look-alike plutocrat who is all but king of the city. In truth the city was built by the workers, who live in squalid rookeries beneath the city like rats and whose lives are ruled by a 10-hour clock denoting 10 hour shifts (its been suggested by some that the shifts are, in fact, 12 hours and that the 10 is just for show). Most of those living above ground, in a seemingly utopian paradise, are both oblivious and unfazed by the plight of the lowest class, including Freder, the son of Fredersen. One day, while playing in ‘The Garden of Delights’, a playground for the young of the super-rich, he sees a group of poor people walk into it lead by a beautiful lady called Maria, who declares to all that all are brothers and equals. Despite being shooed away by the attendants her beauty has captivated the young noble who goes in search of her. Very early in his search he comes the M machine. He is shocked by the work the others are experiencing. One man seems to experience a heart-attack while attending a special valve, and his death causes the machine to malfunction. At this stage Freder experience one of several visions (I suspect he’s clairvoyant, though no one seems to comment on that) where he sees the machines of Metropolis literally transform into Moloch, a deity named in the Old Testament whose worship was prohibited by Moses (on pain of death) due to its priests penchant for human sacrifice, particularly children. In one of the movie’s most startling images slaves are thrown alive into the burning mouth of Moloch (with the massive machine pistons vaguely visible behind the flames) only to find that the slaves begin wearing the uniforms of the workers. Even though the vision fades Freder is now aware of the reality behind the vision.
Galvanized by the disaster he seeks out his father in the ominously named “New Tower of Babel”, a large complex at the heart of the upper city. Joh Fredersen listen to his son’s pleas but is unmoved and believes that the class division of the city should remain in place, yet he is aware that the lower classes are dissatisfied with their slave-like existence. Many times strange maps have been confiscated from the pockets of workers and Master Joh Fredersen enlists the help of an old friend, Rottwang the Inventor, to solve the mystery of the maps. As Freder infiltrates the lower depths Joh learns that his old friend now resents him because they were both in love with the same woman. She had chosen Joh and died giving birth to Freder. Rottwang has constructed a robot replacement for him to love and is on the verge of completing her. Despite his bitterness he decides to help his old friend and discovers that the map is of the catacombs from the ancient city over which Metropolis is built, and both descend to them together. In the catacombs Freder and the other workers hear a sermon by Maria, who seems to be a preacher. She speaks that a Mediator is needed to make peace between Joh Fredersen and the workers, and Freder believes, having experienced the hardship of work in the machine district, is made to be the mediator. Joh, however, who has spied the woman preaching from a hidden viewpoint, orders Rottwang to put Maria’s face on the face of his android lady and use her to sow discord. If she can inspire an uprising he’d be justified in using force against workers. Too bad the inventor (and possibly immortal alchemist) has his own agenda.
What I have just written hardly scratches the surface of the movie’s extended plot, side characters, themes and motifs. The movie is truly epic in its scope and its understandable why it was one of the most expensive films of its time; 36 000 extras, massive multi-level sets and special effects like no other before it. All of this useless if the film itself is no good; it is a good film, though it can be patchy at times. Visually the movie is stunning and differentiates between two main visual motifs; a clash of the modern and the old. The ‘machine district’ (what I assume is the buffer layer between upper Metropolis and the worker city) is the newest in technology of the time the film was made, only enlarged and exaggerated. The nightclubs and office blocks of the upper level was also inspired by New York, at that time the most modern city in the world. Yet everywhere there are leftovers of an ancient world; Rottwang’s house was “overlooked by the centuries” and seems out of place amongst the skyscrapers, and an ancient Gothic Cathedral is located in the heart of the city. While visiting the Cathedral Freder sees carved depictions of the Seven Deadly Sins surrounded by Death, not long after a monk has read from Revelations; these sins he actually embraced but rejects after meeting Maria. Freder, it seems, wants to embrace a less materialistic, hedonistic lifestyle. Decadence, hedonism and the re-arrangement of social structure is a very real theme in Weimar Era Germany and was the center subject of Fritz Lang’s previous two-part crime epic, Mabuse the Gambler.
The movie has a strong religious motifs, particularly Judeo-Christian, though I would not call it a religious movie. Like an anime, the religious iconography, though effective and more thoughtfully applied than in your run-off-the-mill Shōnen series, is still haphazard at times. That said, it does bring us to the appeal of the second half of the movie, where everything literally descends into something comparable to a fever dream, filled with religious imagery from Revelations taking literal forms.
But the movie is ultimately political, and it reflects its times in many ways. In the 1920’s there was the constant fear of Communist revolutions like the violent one experienced in Russia, and this was fueling fear and loathing in many people across Europe. In Germany in particular political discord between the Left and the Right, with socialists (both moderate and communist) being attacked by the Sturmabteilung (who was an arm of the fledgeling Nazi Party). I suppose Fritz Lang and his wife / co-writer, Thea von Harbau, wanted to appeal to both sides of the political aisle while condemning totalitarianism, oppression, violent worker revolutions, capitalism and class division. It is possible the message got lost when the movie was cut short by more than an hour, and its possible no-one took what was left seriously because it was delivered so ridiculously. It is also possible that movie was shortened because it may have seem pro-socialist at the time, which might explain why both Hitler and Goebbels loved the edited version. Lang himself said he dislikes the movie and was not particularly fond of it, though he has always been bitter about it being butchered by both Ufa and Paramount.
The biggest problem the movie has is something many other silent movies have, and that is ridiculous acting. Whereas Joh Fredersen’s role is played by Alfred Abel in a very an understated way (for silent films) Gustav Frohlich plays the role of Freder like he’s milking a giant cow, and so does Rudolf Klein-Rogge in the role of Rotwang, but he has oodles more screen presence and gets away with it. Even Brigitte Helm, who plays both the good Maria and her evil duplicate, at times does this (indeed, she goes all out when playing the evil version that it seems funnier than it should be at times). More problematic is the actual plot, which can be hard to follow. It would have been hard to follow in a movie with sound, and in a silent movie it takes a great deal of concentration. The newest ‘complete’ version (a misnomer, by the way) is easier to follow, though. Most cuts were completely reconstructed and re-arranged, and when a restoration was attempted too much footage was lost (the average cut ran less than 90 minutes). In 2008, though, in an Argentinian film vault, a 97% complete 16mm copy was found (that’s my estimate, though) and it was added to the film. The 30 minutes or so added for the 2010 version help make sense of many scenes, including why Rottwang wants to exhibit his robot in an erotic dance (something that puzzled me a great deal in the last reconstruction, and still seems kind of weird) and makes the movie flow more naturally, even if it looks like someone used the reels for toilet paper. Like the earlier version the parts that are missing are described in a font different from those used for the inter-titles. A simpler plot would have been better, I think, and a more thoughtful approach to the politics would have helped too.
Yet, despite all these flaws, it is impossible for me not to be impressed by this movie. I tend to consider silent films a completely different medium than I would a ‘talking picture’ (which includes everything from Casablanca to Avatar) and the strongest ones are those who make use of their visuals, and it is its visual presentation that makes Metropolis last in an era of digital eye-candy. There is power in the images, there are imagination, drive and beauty, and it is good at its heart.