REVIEW: Cinema Release: Metropolis

Film: Metropolis
Release date: 10th September 2010
Certificate: PG
Running time: 150 mins
Director: Fritz Lang
Starring: Alfred Abel, Gustav Fröhlich, Rudolf Klein-Rogge, Fritz Rasp, Theodor Loos
Genre: Action/Adventure/Drama/Romance/Sci-Fi/Thriller
Studio: Eureka!
Format: Cinema
Country: Germany

This iconic film of German cinema has not been seen in its entirety since initial screenings in Germany in early 1927, after which more than a quarter of the film was cut for its release the same year in America. The deleted footage was believed permanently lost until the discovery in 2008 of a duplicate negative of the film in Argentina. This new release follows restoration of the film carried out by the FW Murnau Foundation in Germany, with an additional 25 minutes of footage bringing a greater coherence to director Fritz Lang’s dystopian vision of the future.

In the year 2027, the city of Metropolis is divided between the upper world of the privileged, an Art Deco city of arrogantly looming skyscrapers, futuristic skyways, dazzling lights and decadent nightclubs, and a dark and cavernous underworld populated by workers whose lives are fodder for the barbaric machine lying at the heart of the superficially civilised city.

The central character, Freder (Gustav Fröhlich), is the son of the city’s architect and mastermind, Joh Fredersen (Alfred Abel). Freder’s life of decadence is shaken by the intrusion of a worker from the underworld, Maria (Brigitte Helm), into the city’s pleasure gardens. When Freder follows Maria back to the caverns of the machines, he unearths the monstrous reality of the city’s industrial heart. His discovery that something is rotten in the state of Metropolis leads him to confront his father and to go in search of Maria and, ultimately, some resolution between the master race above and the slaves below.

The city is thrown into further disarray by the robot created by the mad inventor, Rotwang (Rudolf Klein-Rogge). When Joh Fredersen witnesses Maria preaching to the workers, he fears that she may cause them to rise up against their masters, and so urges Rotwang to give the robot Maria’s features in order to sow distrust and discord among the workers.

Once the robot Maria is unleashed upon the city, like the biblical whore of Babylon, then all semblance of civilisation begins to break down. It is up to Freder to effect reconciliation between the upper and lower worlds (“the mediator between the head and the hands must be the heart”) and save Metropolis from destruction…

The film earned its legendary status through the gigantic ambitions of its set designs, technical innovations and grand social and moral themes. Production infamously went wildly over budget, with its initially estimated cost of 1.5 million marks coming closer to 6 million, taking a virtually unprecedented shooting time of nine months. Typically of German cinema of the time, it was filmed entirely within the controlled conditions of UFA’s massive studios, enabling meticulous artistic control of the film’s design. Many technical innovations were used, such as multiple exposure of the film negative to create compound images, and the use of mirrors to include scaled model sets within the same shot as real action. Despite the primitive nature of these techniques compared to the sophistication of CGI, they remain surprisingly effective – for example, the scene where Rotwang’s robot comes to life, turns slowly towards Fredersen and extends a hand towards him creates a genuine thrill and sense of unease.

The main effect of the additional footage is the greater prominence given to Freder’s relationships with three supporting male characters, who were reduced to extras in the cut version. Freder is shown to be capable of inspiring devoted loyalty from both his father’s former overseer, Josaphat (Theodor Loos), and from the downtrodden worker known as 11811 (Erwin Biswanger). The sinister Thin Man (Fritz Rasp) is sent by Joh Fredersen to spy on his son, his ruthlessness indicating the lengths to which the father will go to protect his inequitable empire. The fleshing out of these three characters’ relationships with Freder gives greater depth to his characterisation, and he appears more dynamic and heroic than in the truncated version of the film.

The ideology of Metropolis has created much debate concerning the film’s political stance. As the workers shuffle towards their morning shift, their rounded backs recall the stylised torsos of Soviet propaganda posters, but the heads of the workers are abjectly bowed rather than raised in pride. The proletariat seems alarmingly bendable to the will of others – whether to the impassioned, quasi-religious pleas of Maria, asking the workers to keep faith in the long awaited Mediator, who will bring social harmony to Metropolis; or to the demented sexual promise of the robot Maria, inciting the workers to revolt, to the musical accompaniment of an off-key Marsellaise. The workers trudge towards revolution with as much apparent mindlessness as they manifested in the drudgery of their working day. But the film seems to portray the privileged classes as equally powerless with regard to their own destiny. Even the path of Freder is touched by the fatalism characteristic of Lang’s films. Freder’s moral disgust, compassion for his fellow man, romantic love for Maria and rebellion against the city’s patriarch cast him in the role of a modern day Hamlet. His pre-figured destiny is not to heal the wounds of that society, but to effect a superficial reconciliation which merely casts a sentimental glow over the class divide.

The political equivocation of the film is mirrored by the ambiguity of its modernist set design, expressing both repulsion and fascination with the machine age. This ambiguity reflects the mood of the era, when the mechanised destruction of the Great War and the subsequent economic collapse of Germany contributed to modernism being fêted by violently opposing political and artistic groups. It’s therefore not surprising that the modernist aesthetics of Metropolis have led critics to make wildly varying judgements concerning Lang’s political intentions. The film’s resistance to definitive interpretation has only added to its status and fascination for generations of cinema viewers.

The restored footage gives modern audiences the chance to appreciate Lang’s vision as never before. Experience the full exhilaration of the film’s majestically soaring sets, dramatic music score and startling visual effects, and its larger than life performances, from Freder’s anguished moral indignation to Brigitte Helm’s magnificently twitching and demented portrayal of the evil robot. KR

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