Metropolis (Fritz Lang, 1927, re-release 2010)
Since its 1927 release, we have only been able to see an abridged version of Metropolis, one of cinema’s definitive visions of the future. The scenes cut, largely because they were thought to confuse American audiences, have since become a film holy grail. So the discovery of a near-complete copy of Metropolis in an Argentine archive was met with justified excitement.
Metropolis is a city of skyscrapers, crowded roads and hedonistic dance halls. Underground, its workers power the city in long, painful shifts. They are given hope by Maria, a preacher, and Freder, the ruler’s son who is sympathetic to their predicament. Metropolis’ ruler orders the creation of a robot replica of Maria so it can impersonate her and cause discord among the workers. Instead, it leads the workers to revolt and attack the city’s power station.
There is almost half an hour of ‘new’ material, including a sub-plot which expands the reasons behind the robot’s appearance. The rediscovered scenes are easy to spot, as even restoration hasn’t been able to improve their picture quality. Despite this, Metropolis’ design work still looks stunning, even when competing against modern computer-generated imagery. But although we get a good look at the city, we don’t learn enough about how this society is arranged. A class struggle is evident, with the elite enjoying the products of the workers’ labour. But the system is criticised because its rulers indulge in the seven deadly sins, rather than because they exploit the workers. And these workers are only portrayed as obedient, whether they’re carrying out their monotonous jobs, listening to Maria’s soppy sermons, or, as a mob following the robot. It turns out these workers don’t really want revolution or even reform, just ‘mediation’ with their bosses. The film’s message – stated very explicitly – is “the mediator between head and hands must be the heart”, with ‘head’ representing the ruling class and ‘hands’ being the workers.
The ‘heart’ turns out to be the ruler’s son. So, the film doesn’t even advocate a ‘trade union consciousness’, just a more amiable figurehead for the elite.
Director Lang thought Metropolis was “silly and stupid”, and the blame for its patronising story is now placed on his then-wife, Thea von Harbou. Her views were made clearer by her later enthusiastic support for the Nazis. So, watch Metropolis for its amazing visuals, not its politics.