“Metropolis” (1927) has been celebrated, desecrated, lost and found, but continues to grow in renown through nearly nine decades. I’ll wager I’ve mentioned this title times nine if I’ve mentioned her once. Most of what I’ve referred to is how so many subsequent science-fiction filmmakers have quoted aspects of director Fritz Lang’s visual style, a style which he attributed to his first view of New York City steaming into New York Harbor.
What impresses me first, in watching “Metropolis” this time, is how rudimentary some of the acting is, but at the same time, how effectively those actions communicate the character’s mood even today. Lang was by no means the first filmmaker to exploit how pantomime stands in for the human voice in silent film. Any good actor’s job is to employ novel ways to hold the attention of the audience all the way to the back of the auditorium.
Not all of the people that would watch his film would be able to read the intertitles, understand the language they’re written in, or fully comprehend the futuristic setting. So he directed his actors to project emotions with overstated body language and mask-like faces as if they were live on stage playing to a huge house. As motion pictures evolved, a more naturalistic acting style was tailored to the intimacy of motion picture screens.
Lang’s approach to directing actors was emblematic of the German cinema of his time. I wonder if the gaudy Expressionists weren’t always deliberately playing to the least educated viewer. I’d grant extra credit to any storyteller that tunes in, not just to his or her own immediate peer group, but audience members that exist in the cultural eddies. Consider the utterly diverse group of folks that have seen this film since it was first made.
Let’s aim our prism now into the heart of this film. What makes “Metropolis” more popular today than when it was first released, and more popular this year than last? Allusions to the apocalypse and the whore of Babylon aside, I don’t know how much has been written about Fritz Lang and his co-writer lifting their structure from Judeo/Christian scriptures, but few have wondered, out loud at least. I think it may be the key to why the footage has been spliced no less then five different ways, producing five distinct editions with as many different running times. Makes no difference whether Lang just lucked out, or knew what he was doing, the storyline in “Metropolis” reads like the book of Moses. Wise storytellers down through the ages all agree. You stand a better chance with your audience when you base your tale on a popular one from the good book. Interestingly enough, Fritz was raised a Catholic by a Jewish mother.
The handshake at the conclusion of Lang’s dystopian deliverance saga, is probably the best explanation for the controversy. The exceedingly tidy ending of “Metropolis” attracted the greatest amount of criticism during the first run and still does to this day. It was as if Moses and Ramses II hugged each other at the end of “The Ten Commandments.”
The second most paradoxical twist of this film’s fate was the lame excuse American sensors produced in order to impose a trim on the import. It was trumped up from a trivial detail, namely that Freder’s deceased mother’s name was “Hel.”
Helen, Helga, Hilda, Hilary Olga, and such all share their roots. Hel, is still a common name in Europe. Hell, it wouldn’t be a problem at all except, way back then, apparently not enough women in America were named Hel-somethingorother to help us understand. It would prove too much for Americans to associate that ancient root with anything but the devil’s wicked plan. Underneath all this “Metropolis” was penalized for fumbling with scripture. The masterpiece was circumcised before it ever played in America. Three different negatives went on to be snipped away at until the original eventually vanished altogether.
The colorful history of “Metropolis” includes a fascinating foray into the realm of film preservation and restoration. Fans of the subject are treated to a rich cache of support materials in the 2010 release from Kino/Lorber entitled, “The Complete Metropolis.” Not only will you be able to watch the newly restored, authorized edition that most nearly replicates the one screened in Berlin at its premiere in 1927. In the same package there is an enticing documentary “Voyage to Metropolis” on the state-of-the-art transfer process that it went through after being considered lost for 80 years. The last uncut negative of Lang’s “Metropolis” was thought to have been destroyed.
The account of how the forgotten print was found in a film archive in Buenos Aires in 2008 plays better than fiction. It’s a compelling excavation into the discovery of lost treasure. One of the greatest achievements in the silent film era was brought back from the abyss. Ironically, that cinematic resurrection becomes one of the all-time greatest achievements in film preservation.
The reception of “Metropolis” was paradoxical from the start, having been savaged by the intelligentsia for its sentimentality and congratulated for ushering in massive technological breakthroughs to the motion picture arts. Astoundingly, Fritz Lang famously pronounced “Metropolis” a disappointment as well as an embarrassment. What should really have embarrassed him is the fact that he placed half the blame on his former wife and collaborator. I wonder if he was really blaming the Nazi party, for liking it. His wife became a Nazi sympathizer, a fact which was attributed as the cause of their breakup. Lang’s private life would make the subject of an interesting movie of its own. If anybody will put up the funds, I’ll write a treatment.
I referred to Lang’s denunciation of his most famous film once before, a couple of posts back. Pronouncing it a “fairytale” was the flimsy criticism he supplied. The filmmaking is so skillful and the directing so audacious I don’t believe Lang could have regretted “Metropolis.” Perhaps he said so under duress, allowing some wrong voice to influence him for a time. I read another quote in which he called it his greatest movie. All arguments aside, I’ll bet not one of his detractors ever contributed more to our culture, with all their best works combined, than Lang did with this one heartfelt workingman’s blues.
I don’t mean “Metropolis” should never be picked on, but getting us all to agree to what’s bogus and what’s not is another thing. Whatever its shortcomings the film remains important enough, to enough folks, to keep gaining popularity and garnering more praise, year after year.
Next month, we’ll delve into specific characters and scenes in “Metropolis” highlighting some passages of brilliance and virtuosity that make this film worthy of long-term study.