REVIEW REVISITED: Metropolis (1927)

This is a reprint of my review which was first published on Three Men on a Blog in September 2011, with a number of minor revisions and additions. My original review can be found here. 

Metropolis (Germany, 1927)
Directed by Fritz Lang
Starring Gustav Frohlich, Brigitte Helm, Rudolf Klein-Rogge, Alfred Abel 

IMDb Top 250: #87 (9/11/13)

Whenever critics or film institutions publish lists of the greatest films ever made, the same old names keep cropping up with an air of increasing tedium. It's very easy to be blasé or dismissive about Citizen Kane or Casablanca on the grounds that nothing original can be said about them; all possible plaudits have been dished out and the matter is settled.
Metropolis is one of those films whose reputation is so richly deserved, it is almost annoying. You sit there in the darkness poised ready to pick the film apart, to laugh at all its flaws and scoff about how dated it is. But despite its length and the inherent extremities of silent film, all you can do is sit there in unrelenting awe of what remains an extraordinary piece of cinema.
Like so many of the films we now revere, Metropolis was severely misunderstood when first released. The New York Times film critic Mourdant Hall described it as "a technical marvel with feet of clay", and socialist author H. G. Wells dismissed it as "foolishness, cliché, platitude and muddlement about mechanical progress and progress in general." At a time of high cinema attendance, American distributors refused to distribute any film which ran longer than 90 minutes. The film was therefore cut and edited severely, and some theatres actually ran it through projectors at one-and-a-half times the intended speed to get the running time down even more.
The discovery of a longer, 16mm print in Argentina in 2008 means that today's version of Metropolis is the most complete and logical available. There are still small sections missing from the original version, which are replaced with extended inter-titles; we still don't have the scene of Rotwang and Freder fighting each other in the lab. And in some of the reinstated scenes, the print is grainy and murky. But ultimately none of this matters, because the visual splendour and substance of Metropolis is enough to take anyone's breath away.
The first startling point about Metropolis is its sheer scale; it was and is the most expensive silent film ever made. The city which Lang puts on screen is absolutely vast, with roads snaking around buildings and aeroplanes dodging the highest floors of the New Tower of Babel. The film popularised the Schufftan process, in which the actors are super-imposed in-camera onto a scale model or drawing reflected in a partial mirror. Through this technique, the actors appear small and insignificant against the architecture of the city. The shots of the athletics track or the workers' underground city look expansive and realistic, and unlike a lot of epics the scenery expresses and communicates the themes, allowing you to lose yourself in this world without losing sight of the characters.
In addition to its mechanical scale, the film employs over 37,000 extras and around 750 child extras, in scenes which make even Ben-Hur look thin on the ground. Even in this age of advanced motion capture, in which Peter Jackson can create astonishing battles with an artificial cast of thousands, it is fascinating that so many genuine human actors can be captured on camera in such a personal and kinetic manner. The scenes of the workers rampaging through the streets, or the children rushing through the drowning city, are every bit as breathtaking and exciting as the Odessa steps sequence in Battleship Potemkin.
Beyond its technical brilliance, Lang's films is also hugely influential in its impact on the character conventions of Western cinema. Although doctors and scientists had already been portrayed in a sinister light (in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, for instance), Rotwang is the archetypal mad scientist. Both his character and the lab in which he works were a huge influence on James Whale's Frankenstein, and reflections of his long hair and gloved hands can be seen in everything from Back to the Future to Dr. Strangelove.
The politics of Metropolis are also more complicated and nuanced than one would first assume. It is a deeply Marxist film, depicting a rich capitalistic class who live in happiness in the Eternal Gardens while the workers struggle in a subterranean city (which, one might add, prophetically foreshadows 1960s brutalist architecture). The workers are both the bottom of the pile and the foundations on which this affluent society depends. The early footage of the workers drudging through the gates conveys the misery of proletarian life, with individuals being driven to exhaustion working the same machines, performing the same tasks, day-in, day-out.
But although it contains scenes of revolution, Metropolis differs from conventional Marxism both in its treatment of religion and in the role it accords to women. The meetings which Maria holds down in the catacombs are held in a chamber with huge crosses and an altar. She uses the Biblical story of the Tower of Babel to demonstrate the inherent and fruitless conflict embedded in the capitalist system - namely one in which the head (bourgeoisie) and hands (proletariat) are permanently unable to communicate, thereby hampering progress and eliminating any possibility of widespread happiness. The very fact that she invokes a 'mediator', who will come and join these forces through the heart, is ample evidence that Lang does not regard religion (or at least faith) as purely the opium of the people.
The character of Maria is cleverly employed to both subvert traditional expectations of female roles and to expose the excess and hypocrisy of the upper classes. Although she ends up with our male hero, and is frightened to death by Rotwang (who wouldn't be?), Maria is still an independent, intelligent, forceful figure, who stands up for herself rather than just hanging around waiting to be rescued. When the robotic Maria (or maschinenmensch) is created, Rotwang demonstrates how indistinguishable she is from the real thing by having her perform an erotic dance for the gentlemen of Yoshiwara. These seemingly respectable men drool over her like sex-mad adolescents, and all veneer of dignity on their part is gone.
One of the key themes of Metropolis is that of machines being able to replicate and impersonate humans, and in doing so influence the way we live. Like Blade Runner and The Terminator after it, the film entertains the possibility of humans and machines unknowingly coexisting, and the latter being able to manipulate us, either through violence or more subtle forms of suggestion. Lang demonstrates this both through the Frankenstein-like transformation of Maria and by Freder's emotional responses to the plight of the lower orders. In one terrifying scene, he imagines a malfunctioning machine as a ghoulish face with a mouth full of fire, and man walking into its jaws as human sacrifices to slake its wrath. The perception of machines being human is a two-way process; we have to form an emotional bond to fully believe what we are told.
While it comes at you dripping with substance and wowing you with its imagery, Metropolis isn't afraid to let its audience have fun as well. It's often the case that people laugh at silent cinema, with its exaggerated gestures, quicker frame rates and often pantomime characters. But with Metropolis, you're encouraged to laugh with the film, whether it's Freder being chased through the Eternal Gardens or the robotic Maria laughing gleefully at the workers doing her bidding. By encouraging this, the film avoids getting bogged down in its darker moments, resulting in a film which is both enlightening and entertaining.
Metropolis remains one of the best films of the silent era. Its impeccable level of craft and beautiful imagery is matched by a storyline so dripping with substance that we forgive any elements which seem confusing or overly familiar. It has dated extraordinarily well on both a technical and a political level; certainly it holds up a lot better than something like The Birth of a Nation, or Battleship Potemkin. Most of all, Metropolis is one of the foundation stones of modern film-making, in science fiction and beyond. It is expressionist cinema at its absolute best, and a real must-see for all film fans.


NEXT REVIEW: Amadeus (1984)