1926; Not Rated; Running time varies with released versions—this
review published for the East Germany release of 115 minutes
Brigitte Helm: Maria
Alfred Abel: Joh Fredersen
Gustav Froehlich: Freder
Rudolf Klein-Rogge: Rotwang
Heinrich George: Grot
Produced and directed
by Fritz Lang; Screenwritten by Fritz Lang and
Thea Von Harbou
by DAVID KEYES
film is not of today or of the future.
Von Harbou's opening comments of "Metropolis"
It tells of no place.
It serves no tendency, party, or class.
It has a moral that grows on the pillar of understanding:
'The mediator between brain and muscle must be the heart.'"
writer Thea Von Harbou's sentences grace the screen like
obligatory words of wisdom, emphasizing the fine line between
two forces that hold the movie together. And what is said
of the film's message also applies to the people who made
it. Director Fritz Lang's mind imagined a place filled with
sharp vistas and evocative skylines, using the hands of
his crew, most notably effects artist Eugene Schuefftan
and cinematographer Karl Freund, to conceive his vision.
At the center of these complexities was Harbou, Lang's wife,
whose script offered the heart, and the source, of the importance
of the story. Together, they built a movie that took over
a year to make, was released in 1927, was met with critical
disappointment, and became hailed a masterpiece over half
a century later.
to imagine the trouble Fritz Lang and his crew had with
filming this landmark is not that difficult. Lang, who is
often described as "more of a tyrant than a director," got
the idea for the movie when he first saw the skylines of
New York. Like all first good ideas, however, he had to
make some revisions. As said by online "Metropolis" veteran
Douglas Quinn, "Lang had originally planned much more powerful
visions of evil forces being loosed by the creation of the
robot (such as demons breaking free of the Catholic Church,
which in the final version of the film is relegated to Freder's
fever-induced dream), but was fearful that the film's audience
wouldn't be able to understand his vision." This, he later
admits, is probably why Von Harbou's sentimental message
"has come to predominate the modern understanding of the
even with his vision shifted from original intentions, the
difficulty Lang faced in conceiving a movie out of his idea
was high; color, opticals, sound and visual effects had
not yet been integrated in movies (this was the 1920s, after
all). Ergo, like filmmakers before and after him, he cut
corners, worked night and day, and put his crew through
one year of chaos to ultimately achieve his goal. Supposedly
(although unconfirmed), the film was almost scrapped by
his studio, UFA, because of the tremendous budget, even
though it is still uncertain on how much the movie really
cost. After the film was finished, Lang's final version
was a little over 200 minutes--much longer than any film
of that time--and the studio re-cut the movie at his objection.
Alas, the cuts on the film were evident in 1927, because
the story had been fragmented and detached. Years later,
lost footage that was restored was incorporated into countless
'updated' versions, including one that was released to theaters
in the early 1980s that features a score of rock music,
rather than traditional classical. Although this particular
version is longer (about 150 minutes) and more favorable,
the music distracts from the images, and the attempt to
bring a colorish tint to the picture miserably fails.
movie stars a cast of (at the time) recognizable German
stars. At the center of these characters is Freder, son
of the Metropolis ruler. When the movie opens, we see him
frolicking in a "garden of pleasure," enjoying his life
and appearing normal. It isn't until Maria, a beautiful
woman from underneath the city, comes onto the surface with
the children of the workers that Freder becomes curious
about what goes on underground. Being asked why he made
the decision to go underneath, he announces, "I wanted to
know what my brothers look like." As a result of curiosity
and concern, Freder enters this subterranean city.
inquisition takes him through various situations, at first
with a machine explosion (in which workers are killed, taken
off the shift, and replaced without any response), later
in a cave (where he meets Maria and learns that she is telling
the workers that their "mediator" will come someday), and
finally at the lab of the mad scientist Rotwang (who plans
to replace Maria with a robot, influencing the workers to
destroy all the machines.) Freder sees all of these events
through the eyes of a confused child, so to speak. He does
not understand why these workers are "tortured" with 10-hour
shifts, nor does he understand why his father can be so
cold and cruel to these people, especially when he doesn't
even know them. It isn't until the workers destroy the machines
and flood their city (almost killing their children) that
Maria and Freder are able to bridge the gap between the
hand and the mind. As said in one of the last dialogue panels,
"There can be no understanding between the hands and the
brain unless the heart acts as mediator."
most exhilarating qualities in "Metropolis" are the fascinating
perceptions. The film, as with other silent classics like
"Nosferatu" and "The Cabinet Of Dr. Caligari," is a haunting
vision, with images that seem more like disturbing hallucinations.
There is, for instance, the shots of statues underneath
pillars depicting the seven deadly sins, the clock with
10 numbers on it instead of 12, the close-ups of the mad
scientist, and the experiment in which Maria's body is cloned
to fit the visage of a robot. All of them defy explanation,
and yet they were the inspiration for countless films to
come. Why filmmakers have seen "Metropolis" as a benchmark
for all the visionary richness of their own movies is hard
to explain, but easy to understand. They underscore a theme
greater than the movie itself, in which the world is an
awkward and disconnected place, bound by the strength of
workers and the intelligence of masterminds. The ignorance,
and the fear, keeps them separated from unity. Only the
hands of the mediator can liberate their differences.
believe it or not, there was a time when people felt that
this was simply a "silly" movie. The famous H.G. Wells,
for instance, wrote in his 1927 review, "This vertical social
stratification is stale old stuff." He later referred back
to the 1800s, in which he believed the film might have worked
when people were still separated by social, ethnic and religious
differences. At the time, his attacks appeared to be truthful.
Today, they take on different meaning.
results have proved repetitive in the cinema, especially
for pictures that have followed "Metropolis"s way of thinking
(most recently with Alex Proyas' "Dark City"). To justify
these events, we must examine the idea itself. Maybe some
people have difficulty appreciating these films because
they, like the story of "Metropolis" deciphers, are separated
by an independent belief or conviction. As the characters
in the Lang movie do not think with their heart, viewers
of these movies are at first unsure of how to respond to
a movie that is differently told and structured. Thus the
studios yank them from theaters, because they appear to
be failing. But through time, and patience, they find a
way back, serving as motivation to growing filmmakers, and
as a visual wonder to viewers.
believe it? Then consider the following observation: last
year on its release, "Dark City" was considered annoying,
nonsensical and disorganized. If that is true, then why
do we have "The Matrix?"
1999, David Keyes, Cinemaphile.org.
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