Fritz Langís Metropolis is the Everymovie of the 20th century. Itís mythopŌic, with its core of classical archetype (Ouranos and Kronos, Oedipus, Orpheus, Pygmalion), Biblical reference (the Flood, the Tower of Babel, Moloch, the Crucifixion, the Whore of Babylon), and more-contemporary avatars (Joan of Arc, the Golem, Frankenstein, the Hunchback of Notre Dame, Wagnerís Ring). Itís psychoanalytic, with Lord of Metropolis Joh Fredersen and his rival in love, the inventor Rothwang, fixated on the dead Hel and Freder, the son of Joh and Hel, crippled by castration anxiety while Maria, the only woman of any consequence in the film, gets split into madonna and whore. Itís socio-economic, what with its depiction of the lumpen proletariat as a gray mass of undifferentiated prison matter living in the bowels of the earth while far above the Fathers (no Mothers in this movie) create "Eternal Gardens" for the "Sons" (no Daughters, either). That itís political goes without saying: over its 75-year history, itís been accused of promoting capitalism, communism, and fascism. But itís also been a pop-culture fountain of youth, getting raided by Gene Roddenberry (the "Cloud Minders" episode of Star Trek), George Lucas (Star Wars), Ridley Scott (Blade Runner), Madonna ("Express Yourself"), Queen ("Radio Ga Ga"), and many, many more.
In short, Metropolis has everything . . . except a story line that makes sense and a cast who can act. You could say that about Star Wars, of course. With all respect to George Lucas, however, Metropolis isnít just the Everymovie of the 20th century, itís the Antimovie of the 20th century. Not even Star Wars subverts everyday art ó or everyday life ó the way Metropolis does.
Yet for decades, itís been a museum piece, a shadow of its real self. About a fifth of the original has been lost; what remains has been restored to glory by a German effort led by the Friedrich-Wilhelm-Murnau-Stiftung. It premiered at the Berlin Film Festival last year (where the audience at the 1700-seat Berlinale-Palast overflowed into the aisles); now itís being distributed by Kino International. Barring the unlikely discovery of that lost footage, this is the best Metropolis youíll ever see, and youíll have two weeks to take it all in (plan to go more than once) at the Brattle Theatre beginning this Friday.
The history of Metropolis is almost as convoluted as its story line. Germanyís premier film studio, Universum-Film Aktiengesellschaft (Ufa), conceived it as the movie that would enable German cinema to break into the American market. Its cost (a staggering four million Reichsmark) was equaled only by its hype. In its technical and special effects, it was decades ahead of its time; Hollywood didnít catch up till the computer age. Yet the Berlin premiere, at the Ufa-Palast am Zoo on January 10, 1927, drew mixed reviews. And Metropolisís American distributor, Paramount, saw no reason to accord the film more than two hours of running time, so playwright Channing Pollock was hired to edit it from 4189 meters down to 3100. Ufa itself was hardly more optimistic: the version it distributed to the home market was just 3241 meters. (Itís difficult to talk about these lengths in terms of time because weíre not sure what speed the film was being shown at.) Even the original pruned-down negatives appear to be lost; the various versions that have survived include the 1984 Giorgio Moroder restoration, trimmed to 80-odd minutes and sporting a new soundtrack with songs by Freddie Mercury, Pat Benatar, Bonnie Tyler, Loverboy, and Adam Ant.
This new 3341-meter print has restored a small amount of footage and added intertitles that describe the missing action. At the Berlin Film Festival, a live orchestra performed a new score written by Bernd Schultheiss; on the Kino release, however, Berndt Heller leads the Saarland Radio Symphony in Gottfried Huppertzís 1927 score for piano or small orchestra, which underlines the action without being literal or obtrusive (the plainchant Dies Irae gets a workout). The Berlinale program book gives the running time as 2:26:30 at 20 frames per second; the Brattle will be screening its print at 24 frames per second (which looks hurried only when characters are in quick motion) for a running time of about 2:06.
The 100 or so meters of extra footage provide small but significant additions. We first see Freder in what, lined with classical statuary, anticipates the Olympic Stadium built for the 1936 Berlin Games, with Aryan-looking young men (no women) training for the 200-meter dash. When our hero, in white silk shirt and jodhpurs, does turn up at the "Club of the Sons" in the "Eternal Gardens," scantily clad ladies of the evening compete for his attention, since in Metropolis the role of women is to please men. Later, we learn that Rothwangís real goal is not the creation of the perfect machine worker but revenge on Joh Fredersen, who had a son by the woman Rothwang was in love with; Hel died in giving birth to Freder, and Rothwang has created a memorial to her memory. The added intertitles give weight to Frederís bond with dismissed official Josaphat and Worker 11811 (the one for whom Freder takes over at the "clock" machine); we also see Robot Maria in a slinky black dress driving men wild in the Yoshiwara pleasure quarter. The plot, such as it is, becomes a little clearer, but the real gain is the digital restoration of the image: what was fuzzy and indecipherable even on DVD now pops out at you in crisp black-and-white.
And itís the image thatís the message in Metropolis. Although the new print makes the histrionic performances ó especially by plucked-from-the-extras Gustav Fröhlich as Freder and 17-year-old Brigitte Helm as Maria/Robot Maria ó seem more competent, acting isnít the point here, any more than it is in Star Wars. Metropolis is about archetypes, and Langís are even bigger than Lucasís. Joh (Johann, also Jehovah) Fredersen is the castrating/castrated Father/Dictator who rules from the Olympian heights of the penthouse office in the New Tower of Babel; bereaved of the Mother, he tries to flood his Creation and start over. The Son of this God, Freder, holds Worker 11811 in a pietą position before taking over the "clock" machine and himself being crucified on the dial of time; afterward he descends Orpheus-like into the catacombs of Metropolis to restore the Maiden/Mother to the world. And though the sight of the Father embracing the Maiden/Mother (actually itís Robot Maria) sends him into an Oedipal convulsion, he recovers in time to help the Maiden/Mother save Godís children from the Flood. Lucifer figure Rothwang would replace the Father as the Creator; heís Pygmalion, Frankenstein, the Golem, the Hunchback, the Monster/Bad Father from whom the Maiden must be rescued by the Son, the Dĺmonic Energy that must be destroyed. (The actor, Rudolf Klein-Rogge, is Langís Dr. Mabuse and also the Mabuse-like Haghi in Spies.) Maria, in addition to being Maiden and Mother, is John the Baptist baptizing Freder as the Mediator/Messiah. Robot Maria is the Whore of Babylon as she rises almost naked out of a salver decorated by her Beastís seven heads and supported by the Seven Deadly Sins from the Cathedral of Metropolis; when the mob turns against her, she becomes Joan of Arc.
The matrices of Metropolis, however, are the City and the Robot (just look at the posters). Metropolis is all vertical, a Pyramid erected by Hebrew slaves for the Egyptians, a Valhalla built by the giants for the Norse gods. Like the Tower of Babel, it aspires to Heaven, but its roots reach down to Hell. Men rule the penthouse, women the catacombs; buried in between are the gargoyle-studded Cathedral and, opposite, Rothwangís Gothic gingerbread house. The Robot (before Rothwang turns her into Maria) is annunciated by the pumping ziggurat pistons that kick-start Metropolis: sheís technology and sexuality ó especially female sexuality ó out of control. (Remember the cone breasts of Madonnaís "Blond Ambition" Tour?) For Rothwang and Joh Fredersen, sheís the ultimate fetish, the immortal image of a dead woman and thus the perfect receptacle of voyeuristic and narcissistic love; but when as Robot Maria she threatens to eat men the way the Moloch-like machines of Metropolis eat workers, the easily swayed mob (anticipating Langís M and Fury) burns her as a witch, and the melting of her flesh redefines her as Metropolisís fondest hope and greatest fear, the Machine in the Garden.
What finality could frame this fearful asymmetry? Metropolis concludes with Freder acting as the mediating "heart" between the "head" of the privileged and the "hands" of the workers as he persuades Joh Fredersen and machine foreman Groth to shake hands in front of the empty icon of the Cathedral while the workers robot-shuffle the way they did at the movieís beginning. Of course itís not convincing. And though Lang and his wife, Thea von Harbou, may have believed in their ending at the time, Metropolis isnít the only Lang film that wraps up in a perfunctory way. Spencer Tracyís day in court at the end of Fury lasts hardly a minute; George Raft and Sylvia Sidney become parents in less time than that at the end of You and Me; and then thereís the return-to-kill-Hitler epilogue of Man Hunt, the honeymoon epilogue of Ministry of Fear, and the Mexican-patio epilogue of Secret Beyond the Door. Langís endings donít provide answers any more than his films tell stories. Metropolis is to ordinary movies what antimatter is to matter; the mystery is why Ufa marketed it as a movie for the masses. Made to explore and not just to entertain, itís the movie that for 75 years now has challenged what movies are all about.