You know those historical moments that happen in your lifetime that stay stuck in your memory, where you remember exactly where you were and how you reacted when you found out?
One of those for me was when the complete print of Fritz Lang’s ‘Metropolis’ was found.
I was in my early twenties, and was sitting at a computer at uni. I checked on one of the numerous nerdy film sites I always check and there it was - in a film archive in Argentina, someone had found the holy grail of cinema. I gasped, grabbed a friend walking past, told him what had happened, he gasped too, I started crying and we both sat staring at the computer screen, dumbfounded that something most people had just given up on ever seeing happen, actually had.
So many movies have been lost or cut to pieces since the creation of film, but for some reason the long-lost cut footage from ‘Metropolis’ after its 1927 premiere was the most legendary and most sought after. Anyone who has seen the film can attest why - ninety years after its first screening, there’s still nothing quite like it, in both silent and sound cinema. It’s a grand, messy film filled with vivid, iconic images that stick firmly and beautifully in your mind. It’s a film of tremendous invention, partly in terms of its narrative but mostly for the advances in filmmaking that it achieved. So many films are regarded as "important", but the DNA of ‘Metropolis’ has woven so inextricably into the fabric of the medium that it’s fair to call it one of the Rosetta Stones of cinema. The fact that we can see it almost entirely as Fritz Lang intended, ninety years after its release, is a miracle.
‘Metropolis’, set in a futuristic super-city, depicts an enormous class struggle between the aristocracy living lavishly in the towering skyscrapers of the city and the working class forced to live below ground and work crippling hours. Freder (Gustav Fröhlich), the son of city planner Joh Fredersen (Alfred Abel), secretly visits below ground in an effort to show solidarity to the workers, and falls in love with Maria (Brigitte Helm), a beautiful young prophet who speaks of the coming of a saviour who will mediate between the two classes. Concerned about political unrest, Joh Fredersen turns to maniacal inventor Rotwang (Rudolf Klein-Rogge), who devises a plan to bring down the bubbling revolution using his new Machine Man, taking the form of Maria and infiltrating the working class. However, Rotwang has other plans in mind, and using his insidious machine, plans to bring Fredersen and all of the metropolis he has built crumbling to the ground.
Fritz Lang’s film is an enormous, complicated machine with seemingly unending moving parts. At two and a half hours, watching it can be an overwhelming experience. On top of the already complex plot, it’s supported by an array of subplots and supporting characters, all with their own alternate motives. Even by today’s standards, ‘Metropolis’ is an enormous film, its big themes and ideas played across an epic canvas with a cast of hundreds. And yet, there’s still something about the film that seems dangerous and subversive, the way that it mixes ideas about revolution, class struggle and financial privilege with heavily religious undertones, apocalypse, prophecy and the question of what constitutes a human being. That’s not to say that silent cinema never played with enormous ideas like this; it often did, and with even less subtlety that Lang does in this film. What makes ‘Metropolis’ so instantly arresting is seeing them played out on such a gigantic canvas, mixed with the bafflement at how they achieved it in the first place.
Lang and screenwriter (and Lang’s wife) Thea von Harbou had already begun to formulate the ideas that would become ‘Metropolis’ before their visit to New York in 1924, but the sight of that enormous skyline made an indelible impression of them and cemented the visual and spiritual texture of the film. von Harbour first wrote the story as a novel with the intention of turning it into a screenplay (similar to Arthur C. Clarke’s approach with ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’). The world Lang concocted for his metropolis is one of height, excess and almost-religious awe, the impossibly tall buildings of the city a beguiling mix of New York skyscrapers and the biblical Tower of Babel. It’s a world of light and movement, brought to life with visual effects that still have the power to dazzle. Just as impressive though is the underground world, a combination of ancient catacombs and enormous, horrific machinery. Below ground in Metropolis is an industrial nightmare, the antithesis of the expressive and colourful world in the sky. Workers all wear the same uniforms, individuality is stripped from them and their needs are placed second to the needs of the city. Lang makes their struggle palpable and vivid; unable to use complex dialogue, he fills the image with details of despair.
It should come as no surprise that the images of ‘Metropolis’ are the things that stay with you most about the film, and it's those images that have found themselves woven into cinema’s history. Lang had already established himself as a remarkable visualist before 1927, but this film (made at the end of the German Expressionist era) takes his style to its ultimate end. What we see within the frame is strikingly composed, filled with sharp angles, smoke and light, often moving aside to reveal the fascinating faces and figures that populate the city. The Tower of Babel sequence (which recounts the biblical story) is a spectacle on the scale of a Cecil B. De Mille film, and the sequence where the Machine Man makes its first debut as Maria as a hedonistic dancer in the Yoshiwara Club is a masterpiece of montage, editing, design, performance, music and invention. On a side note, ‘Metropolis’ has had many different scores in its time, but none match the symphonic grandeur of Gottfried Huppertz's original, spectacularly reconstructed for the 2001 restoration. It’s undoubtedly the finest score of the silent era that survives today.
So many films are regarded as "important", but the DNA of ‘Metropolis’ has woven so inextricably into the fabric of the medium that it’s fair to call it one of the Rosetta Stones of cinema.
The most powerful image of ‘Metropolis’ though is that of Rotwang’s Machine Man. Even if you’ve never seen the film, you’ve seen this robot, often credited as the first in cinema history. Its full metal build and cold dead eyes are only on screen fleetingly before it takes the form of Maria, but it's an image so arresting you can’t shake it from your mind. There’s something so inhuman and yet totally human about this machine, a depth in its face that you can’t explain. You can look into the eyes of Lang’s Machine Man and see the entire history of artificial intelligence in cinema to come. Regardless of the film or form, from ‘Star Wars’ to ‘Blade Runner’ to ‘The Day The Earth Stood Still’, they all trace back to this moment and this creation. The Machine Man also ends up being the best character in the film, especially when Brigitte Helm takes over, revelling in the chaos she creates. This Maria is the opposite of the real, humble and righteous Maria, and it makes Helm’s performance the highlight of the film.
We can look at ‘Metropolis’ now and see it as a foundation stone of the medium, but back in 1927 it was poorly received and flopped at the box office. It was only ever shown in its complete form at its opening night, before being cut to such an extreme that by the 1980s, the two and a half hour film had been truncated to around 90 minutes. This is what makes the find in Argentina so remarkable - reconstruction had been made to emulate the missing footage, but even though the discovery was a badly damaged 16mm print, it gave us a chance to see images no one had seen in nearly a century, restoring Lang’s magnificent rhythms and editing, filling in enormous plot holes, building moments of character and meditation. What had always been a fascinating if not a curious riddle of a film suddenly revealed itself to be something dynamic, arresting, thrilling, epic and monumental.
‘Metropolis’ wasn't the first science fiction film by any means, but there’s no question that it changed the genre forever and sent shockwaves through the medium of cinema that we’re still feeling ninety years later. It’s one of the most powerful films of all time, both in its narrative of overcoming class oppression and the optimism of a utopia, but in its technical achievements, many of which still baffle the mind at how they could have ever been conceived. The fact that we have it as close to its original form as we’re ever likely to get is an absolute miracle. I have no doubt that in another ninety years, audiences will still be staring in wonder at Fritz Lang’s overwhelming, thrilling masterpiece.