Entry updated 10 January 2022. Tagged: Film.
Film (1927). UFA. Directed by Fritz Lang. Written by Lang and Thea von Harbou. Cast includes Alfred Abel, Erwin Biswanger, Gustav Fröhlich, Heinrich George, Brigitte Helm, Rudolf Klein-Rogge. Theodor Loos and Fritz Rasp. Versions (selected) include original version 153 minutes; 1927 US Paramount version print 114 minutes; 1984 US reconstruction and adaptation by Giorgio Moroder 80 minutes; 2002 F W Murnau Stiftung reconstruction 123 minutes; 2010 reconstruction 145 minutes. Black and white.
Set in a vast City of the future whose society is divided into downtrodden workers, who live literally Underground, and a high-born ruling elite which literally occupies the higher levels of the city, Metropolis focuses on Freder (Froehlich), who falls in love with Maria (Helm), saintly protector of the workers' children and informal spiritual leader to the masses. But Freder's jealous father Fredersen (Abel), the industrialist master of the city, uses a Robot duplicate of Maria, built by malign Scientist Rotwang (Klein-Rogge), to incite the workers to self-destructive revolt (for reasons which are never entirely made clear; film and novel diverge on this point). The damage to the city's machinery caused by the rioting floods the lower levels, threatening the lives of the children, but they are saved by the real Maria. The film ends with the city's ruler being persuaded to shake hands with the workers' spokesman and promising that things will be better from now on.
Though often described as the first sf epic of the Cinema, this famous German film – of which no complete version now exists, though the 2010 composite comes within eight minutes of the original – has just as much in common with the cinema of the Gothic. Though set in a future visually emphasized by towering buildings and vast, brooding Machines, the City of Metropolis has an underworld dark and medieval in atmosphere, quite precisely literalizing, with cartoonish excess, the political arguments shaping the narrative, with the elite on high feasting on science-fictional technophilia while the Gothic grubs gnaw at the city's roots. The bridging figure is Rotwang, both scientist and sorcerer, one hand clean, the other deformed and gloved, accomplishing gleaming miracles of science while living in a bizarre house with a pentagram inscribed over the door. The story of Metropolis is trite and its politics ludicrously simplistic; but these flaws cannot detract from the sheer visual power of the film – a combination of the high Expressionistic sets (the work of art directors Otto Hunte, Erich Kettelhut and Karl Vollbrecht) and Lang's direction, particularly in the sequences involving the vast crowds which he uses as a kind of living clay with which to create giant fluid sculptures. Individual images, as when the apparently living Maria is burned to reveal the gleaming robot beneath, have been so well remembered as now to seem archetypes, alive still in the consciousness of filmgoers everywhere.
Metropolis, which was extremely expensive and not a financial success, almost bankrupted the studio that made it (UFA). The full version was only shown in Berlin for a few weeks in early 1927, and even the wider German release that year followed the cuts and associated plot changes made by US playwright Channing Pollock for Paramount. Pollock's version eliminated the figure of Hel, mother of Freder, vertex of a love-triangle involving Fredersen and Rotwang, and initial object of Rotwang's robotic resurrection; it also drastically pruned the subplots centred on secondary characters, and significantly shortened the climactic rescue sequence. For eighty years even restored archival versions were half an hour shorter than the original, until the 2008 discovery in Buenos Aires of a poor-quality 16mm second-generation copy of the long version made for a private collector; this footage was painstakingly cleaned up and integrated with the 2002 digital composite of fifteen existing archive copies to produce a near-complete version of Lang's original cut, though with two key scenes still missing and the cropped and degraded Argentine footage jarringly identifiable.
The 1984 US adaptation by Italian composer and producer Giorgio Moroder can be seen as a successful homage, with the newly tinted and subtitled print cleverly recut to match the fierce rock music (see SF Music) to which Moroder sets it. But the editing, for all its meticulousness, makes of Metropolis something rather different from Lang's version; the love story is central, and the hesitant Freder appears much more decisive, while much of the obliqueness and some of the ambiguity is gone. Yet amid the competing versions even Moroder's Metropolis is still a very strong film indeed, vividly renewed for its new generation.
The novelization is Metropolis (1926; trans 1927) by Thea von Harbou. [JB/PN/NL]
- Thomas Elsaesser. Metropolis (London: British Film Institute, 2000) [nonfiction: pb/]
- Michael Minden and Holger Bachmann, editor. Fritz Lang's Metropolis: Cinematic Visions of Technology and Fear (Rochester, New York: Camden House, 2000) [nonfiction: pb/]
- Jim Emerson. "Metropolis: A Profile of Science-Fiction's First Blockbuster Film" in Futures Past: 1927: Dawn of the SF Blockbuster (Indianapolis, Indiana: The Write Answer, 2021) [coll: pp 58-93: pb/]
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