The October Challenge: Metropolis

I don’t remember the first time I saw Metropolis (1927, directed by Fritz Lang). If I had to guess, I’d say I saw a showing on public television sometime in the late 1970s or early 1980s. I’m sure that my first viewing was a chopped up public domain print. I don’t ever remember seeing a pristine version of the film, and none longer than about 90 minutes. Metropolis, for me, has always been a confusion of images: indelible, sure, but not a coherent narrative. I never got around to seeing the restoration from the early parts of the 2000s, the one finished just before they found an almost-complete print of the film in Buenos Aires. When I heard that the new restoration, including the newly found footage, would be playing near me, I jumped at the chance.


All roads, it seems, lead to Metropolis. Watching it anew in a more or less complete form with an occasionally pristine image (the new footage is noticeably damaged), two things become clear to me: first, I’ve never actually seen Metropolis before, and two, huge chunks of cinema aren’t even imaginable without this film. On the first point: I’ve seen shadows masquerading as Metropolis–public domain prints that look to have been mastered through a slurry of dirty water, with jump cuts moving almost randomly to points in the narrative without putting the scenes in any kind of context. The restoration is startling both for the clarity of its image and for the clarity of its narrative. On the second point, Metropolis is the primary point of reference for films ranging from Frankenstein to Batman. No science fiction film made since its release can escape its influence, even if its only point of reference is Metropolis’s emphasis on special effects and design. Entire cycles of horror movies bear the stamp of Metropolis, with it’s climactic tide of angry villagers and mad science.

The horror film elements of Metropolis are surprisingly strong; it’s a nightmare in an autoclave. The monster here is Rotwang the inventor, and he’s a type recognizable to any student of the horror movies made between the Great Wars. He is deformed–a mechanical hand replaces a hand he lost–and he is obsessed with a great lost love, that he tries to re-create in the form of the film’s famed robot woman. At the end of the film, where the glittering city has given way to a great Gothic cathedral, Rotwang ascends the building with Maria, the film’s heroine, in tow, like an ur-Kong. He suffers a similar fate. Maria and the robotic false Maria are also types familiar to students of the genre: they are doppelgangers, secret sharers.

One an even more primal level, they are the Madonna and the Whore. The film is literal about this point. The false Maria is explicitly done up as the Whore of Babylon. The true Maria holds court with a background of religious iconography. It’s not subtle. The creation of the false Maria, too, is a sequence that echoes down the corridors of cinema. Mary Shelly’s monster was created in a vat. The cinema’s monster was created, pace Metropolis, from the lightning. If the symbolism isn’t overt enough, Rotwang’s laboratory is festooned with the impedimenta of a satanist, hence the inverted pentangle behind the robot woman’s throne.

It’s well known that this film was a favorite of Adolph Hitler, which frankly astounds me. This picture is downright Marxist in its viewpoint for most of its running time. You can see in this film the kinds of class divisions that led Wells to extrapolate the Morlocks and the Eloi. The end of the film bends over backwards to bring capital and labor back together, but it’s hard to reconcile this with the fact that the city’s Master, Frederson, was willing to casually drown the worker’s city in order to break their power. He only repents when he thinks that this act dooms his son. Maybe Hitler saw in Frederson a kindred spirit. It’s hard to say, but this film foreshadows the atrocities of the century that followed. Given that contemporary America seems hellbent on creating the divisions we see in Metropolis, it’s a cautionary tale that seems to have fallen on deaf ears.

Cross-posted from Krell Laboratories

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