Sons of the Silent Age: The nightmare future-shock of Metropolis
Sons of the Silent Age returns with Mike’s analysis of an enduring milestone in visionary cinema.
“The mediator between head and hands must be the heart!”
Metropolis is one of those rare films which defies adequate description to those who have not experienced it. A crazed and hallucinatory dystopian epic which lasts for nearly three hours in its most complete version to date, it boasts a mixture of gargantuan spectacle, gaunt religious symbolism and early cinematic attempts at social commentary.
It is both the last true German Expressionist film, and the first true feature-length science fiction film. It finished a relatively brief but distinguished line which began with The Cabinet of Dr Caligari, and continued through Nosferatu and Pandora’s Box, amongst many others. It influenced a far longer line of films across a variety of genres. The dystopian image of a futuristic city creating a sort of hell-on-earth can be found echoed throughout films such as Blade Runner, The Fifth Element, Alphaville, Escape from New York, and even in Gotham City from the trilogy of Batman films.
Celluloid images of mad scientists in their flickering, sparking laboratories, from Henry Frankenstein in James Whale’s Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein, to others in The Invisible Ray, The Island of Dr. Moreau, The Invisible Man, The Fly, Doctor Cyclops, Son of Frankenstein, Dr X and Mystery of the Wax Museum; they all stem from the archetypal image of the demented Rotwang in Metropolis, giggling and grimacing alike as they pull the lever or flick the switch which will bring their creations to fruition.
Even the notion of replicants found in Blade Runner was influenced by Metropolis’s idea of a robot indistinguishable from a real human being. That very robot itself bears a striking resemblance at times to the charming C-3PO from Star Wars, made some 50 years later. With all this in mind, even a cursory explanation and review of Metropolis seems like an insurmountable task in which only superlatives would suffice.
So where to start? First, the story. Metropolis is set in a city which lives in two distinct halves, the inhabitants of which are totally ignorant of each other’s existence. The rich, pampered and privileged citizens live on the bright surface, which contains the Pleasure Gardens, a sort of Eden-like paradise. The working-class slaves are confined to the depths, powering the heights of the city far above. They are regimented into work by the relentless movement of a mechanical ten-hour clock, cramming another day into the work week.
Freder, our protagonist and the son of Joh Fredersen (the businessman and dictator responsible for the creation of the city), is indulging in the Pleasure Gardens one day when a woman called Maria appears, briefly bringing a group of slave children to the surface to see how their ‘brothers’ live in opulence. Freder is instantly struck by her beauty and becomes determined to seek her out. The following two hours sees him descend into the depths, become embroiled in a new type of revolution, one with empathy, and we witness him begin to fulfil his role as the long-waited ‘mediator’ who will bring people together.
We are implicated as spectators for this spectacular journey through the many twists and turns of the narrative. Metropolis has before been criticised for the quality of the acting and the ludicrous moments in a very complex storyline. However, this is when pitted against modern standards of film, in which the style is predominantly informed by strong naturalism. In Metropolis, the reality is not so important as the striking nature of the image, and expressionism oozes from the frame. Many times during the dramatic climaxes, one is reminded more of artworks like Edvard Munch’s ‘The Scream’ and works by Egon Schiele than of our own prosaic reality.
The plot reaches the first of many dramatic crescendos when the maddened Rotwang captures Maria and transfers her likeness to a robot of his own creation, thereby being able to control the workers, who will hang upon her every word. Without spoiling too much, it’s fair to say that the ensuing madness is epic in the truest sense of the word. A rooftop fight, explosions, an underground flooding and a vengeful burning at the stake reminiscent of mediaeval attitudes to torture and punishment are just some among the frightening spectacles presented to the viewer.
Director Fritz Lang even adds in some sinister religious imagery throughout the entirety of this experience. When Maria is revealed preaching her message of love to the underground workers, she is framed on an alter in front of a collection of Christian crosses. When the robot is revealed, there is a star of David clearly seen in the background. When Maria is fleeing Rotwang during a frightening chase in the catacombs, she bangs and pleads on various doors in an attempt to escape. All of them bear the symbol of Judaism, and none open for the saintly Maria. There is a sequence in which the parable of the Tower of Babel is enacted, narrated by Maria as a metaphor in order to spread her message.
Images from the Bible’s Book of Revelations are quoted and eventually become living realities as events become more anarchic. The villainous robot becomes the living, breathing ‘whore of Babylon’ when taking on the false image of Maria, teasing and seducing the men in the higher society. Simultaneously, a delirious Freder cries, “Death descends upon the city!” as he sees the stalking figure of death swinging his scythe and edging towards the camera, accompanied by the animated seven deadly sins springing to life. What message one takes from this collection of allusions is open to interpretation by the viewer, but the power of it is undeniable.
When I first saw Metropolis at the age of 13 on a friend’s tinted VHS copy in Copenhagen, it was a far cry from the completed and restored version which many people new to the film will discover on Youtube, or the newest releases on DVD. It made no sense, and although it made a lasting impression with the incredible array of images, it was impossible to emotionally engage with. The reason for this has a long history.
When Metropolis was premiered in 1927, it was a colossal flop. It was the most expensive film ever made to that date, and made a tiny fraction of that money in return. The modern equivalent would be a film which cost $16 million to make, and which made $244,000 at the box office. As a response, the film suffered severe cuts for any forthcoming domestic and international releases. The film went from a length of 153 minutes to a mere 93 minutes in some cases.
The story was essentially butchered, entire subplots removed and whole swathes of characterisation swept under the carpet. For example, Rotwang was revealed to have made his robot in an attempt to create a new version of Hel, a woman whom he was in love with and whom died in childbirth giving birth to Freder. All subsequent cuts removed all scenes involving any reference to her, thus leaving us as an audience with no clear understanding of Rotwang’s motivations.
Metropolis essentially existed in a condition of limbo for over 80 years, with scratched prints and a whole series of title cards explaining missing scenes in an attempt to strand the bizarre images together. It’s a testament to Lang’s dystopian vision that the film still had the enormous effect that it did, even in this incredibly stunted state. For a long time, it was expected that the film would remain languishing in incompletion forever.
However, in 2008 a print containing 11 missing scenes from the film was discovered in Buenos Aires. Along with a New Zealand print, also containing several missing scenes, an extensive restoration took place and ‘The Complete Metropolis’ was released in 2010. I saw it on release at the Aberystwyth Arts Centre cinema, and for the first time it felt as if the film had come full circle. It was no longer merely a series of images, but a cohesive film with a storyline which finally made some sense, and it is arguably Lang’s masterpiece.
Lang himself expressed a large degree of dissatisfaction with the film, though this may be in some part due to the Nazi party taking some degree of interest, enamoured with the concept of Metropolis itself. Although Lang was heavily anti-authoritarian, the Nazis still offered him full control of their film industry. Lang fled to America instead, leaving it to Leni Riefenstahl to create a plethora of pro-Hitler films chock-full of Metropolis-style imagery, but without the artistic layer of irony to distinguish the dream from reality.
The film exists today as a rare testament to how one man’s ambitious piece of work can influence trends and styles of thought and creativity for generations. The images in Metropolis of a horrific futuristic urban landscape have been absorbed into the collective consciousness, and as a result, dystopian seems almost to be a given when depicting the future, and utopian seems somewhat out of place. The naïve moralising and the movement of expressionism may have faded away with time, but the primal images are burnt into the retina of the 20th century’s soul and beyond. It is, for all intents and purposes, a work of pure cinema.