Fritz Lang’s Issues: On Metropolis

Note: This is the hundred-and-forty-second in a series of historical/critical essays examining the best in film from each year. Essentially, I am watching films from the beginning of cinematic history that interest me and/or hold some critical or cultural impact. My personal, living list of favorites is being created at Mubi, showcasing five films per year. All this being explained, what follows is an examination of my second favorite 1927 film, METROPOLIS, directed by Fritz Lang.

“If Lang was explicit, Murnau was subjective.” I hate to quote myself, but it was a thought that struck me suddenly and potently as I rewatched METROPOLIS this week, and I tweeted it. The comparison is not totally fair, relevant, or necessary, except for the fact that I had just rewatched SUNRISE: A SONG OF TWO HUMANS (1927) a couple of weeks ago, to write on it for this series. But the relation is clear, as Fritz Lang and F.W. Murnau were two German silent directors now regarded as two of the greatest of all time. And in fact, the pair were expert visual communicators, imparting strong lessons and commentary on the very nature of humanity and our society.

Murnau was probably more considerate of the former, and Lang the latter. The two are not mutually exclusive, of course. But if watching SUNRISE just before METROPOLIS opened anything up for me, it made me realize that Lang, especially in his earlier years, hammered his points home. METROPOLIS, the great visual masterpiece, does not so much have a subtext as it does an overtext. It and Lang (and his then-wife and screenwriter Thea von Harbou) have received criticism for that over the years, but the movie isn’t weakened for it. Instead, METROPOLIS is a feverish, orgasmic explosion of political intent, an element that embarrassed Lang almost as soon as he finished the film. But that ferocity served to barrel METROPOLIS through history and upward to constant relevance.

Famously cut to pieces after a brief theatrical run in its full, Lang-approved form, METROPOLIS’ lost material has collectively become a Holy Grail for film historians and preservationists. As it is, the 2010 remaster of the film restored it to 148 minutes, ten minutes shy of its original 158 minute run time. Just to be clear, that is the version I am working from. But why did it get cut to pieces in the first place? Well, METROPOLIS was German mega-studio Ufa’s most expensive production, coming in at about 5 million Reichsmarks. It made about 75,000, a monumental flop that belies the film’s quality. Since it was also partially financed by American studio Paramount (METROPOLIS was conceived as a big-budget epic to rival Hollywood productions and capture an American audience), the capital they invested gave them the right to create a new version. That was the version most widely shown for decades, until a Giorgio Moroder-scored version was theatrically released in 1984 and a 2001 restoration brought it up to 124 minutes long.

In any event, METROPOLIS’ fraught history has yielded numerous opinions on the film over the years, even if it is now generally accepted to be a masterpiece. American critics of 1927 did not exactly love it, the Moroder version is, probably rightfully, dismissed, and still others deem the most complete version(s) of the film didactic and lacking subtlety. The film’s plot, accused (perhaps the wrong word for it) of harboring communist sentiments, does make its sympathies pretty clear. “The mediator between head and hands must be the heart” is reiterated throughout METROPOLIS, and when you see its lower-level working class rising up against their elite masters in the beautiful high rises of the city, it’s not difficult to get the message.

Lang would express regret about that quote, essentially saying it was too on the nose; the head is so obviously the capital, and the hands so clearly the workers. And the heart is not as simple an answer as we’d want to resolve such class-based strife. But this clear communication, supported as it was by the incredible images of METROPOLIS, is as refined a bit of cinematic storytelling as was and is possible. This got muddied throughout the decades by the lore and legacy surrounding the various versions of the film.

There has been special attention paid to METROPOLIS’ unprecedented effect on science fiction film, its brilliant architecture, its scale and special effects provided by Eugen Schüfftan, the so-called Schüfftan process that would provide visual solutions to filmmakers from Alfred Hitchcock to Peter Jackson, also giving rise to matte and bluescreen in between. The Machine Man, transformed into a seductive and dark doppelganger of Brigitte Helm’s Maria, is an iconic image. The factory transforming into the Moloch echoes CABIRIA (1914), replacing that movie’s seminal image within a greater film history context. The performances, from Alfred Abel to Gustav Fröhlich to the aforementioned Helm, are admirable. But it is in Rudolf Klein-Rogge’s Rotwang, Lang’s frequent collaborator and the ex-wife of von Harbou, that a second layer to the text of METROPOLIS can be found.

METROPOLIS may actually be Lang’s most Expressionist film, but in Rotwang’s abode, we find the mysticism and richness of Romanticism, an ever-dueling set of influences throughout most German filmmakers’ silent careers. He represents magic, his cottage-like home dwarfed in the corners of sleek skyscrapers. Pentagrams on doors that command themselves with no discernible technical influence drive the point home. Freder’s visions of Death, too, in a still standing “ancient” church remind one of the progress of humanity. It may be said that METROPOLIS is a commentary on scientific progress akin to a FRANKENSTEIN (1818), and while these elements indicate such a consideration, it is not its primary concern. Its commentary is neither condemning nor praising such progress; such a stand is taken in the film’s dealings with the nature of labor and capital. But the blend of the Romantic past with the Expressionist future can’t help but lend its aesthetic to the cause.

Ruminate on this, because it’s all I can find myself drawn to amid the earth-shattering conversations about the technical and historical implications of METROPOLIS: film language, at its best, convinces you of another reality, and in so doing, educate you on the rules of said reality and how to export those rules into yours. METROPOLIS used everything at current film language’s disposal, and more, to make a point, a compellingly argued, clear point. Watching a film should not be an exercise in logistics. It should be about feeling the passion of its makers and the story they are trying to tell wash over you. With METROPOLIS, Lang and Co. make that incredibly easy to do.

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