One simply cannot deny that Metropolis–Lang’s 1927 tale of insurrection and a maniacally sexy robot in a mechanized futuristic city–is not of our own time, and it took a helluva trip getting here. Cut down and chopped up by German censors, the original version had been given up for lost until a badly damaged 16 mm print surfaced in Argentina in 2008. The restoration adds some 20 minutes to the extant version, granting a more exhilarating scope and grandeur and a surprising ideological complexity. Yet the film remains a fragile thing, with grainy footage and missing scenes sketched out in extra intertitles.
Whenever we look at a past era’s vision of the future, one cannot resist the impulse to compare it to our current reality. Even when the vision is a dystopian one, we experience a kind of perverse, melancholic disappointment that things haven’t gone to hell in quite such a spectacular way. Far better to go down in a sudden incandescent inferno than to be worn down by a slow trickle of disposability and general shittiness.
Metropolis possesses a striking and impressively coherent iconography, one that, no matter how much things have changed, still informs our dreams (and nightmares) of the future. The new poster reproduces perhaps the most enduring image, that of the robot Hel, a masterpiece of sleek design, encircled by rings of electric light as the mad inventor Rotwang labors to give her a human form.
Yet for all its resonance, the film remains rooted in a very specific, highly unusual dichotomy. In its visual style and ideological concerns, Metropolis is a modernist film; in its narrative, a melodramatic one. However you choose to term this post-whatever age, we have undeniably distanced ourselves from these two registers. But this distance means that we need Metropolis more, not less. The problems the film presents–the widening gap between the rich and the poor and the alienation of laborers from their products–have only grown more acute, but their ramifications prove diffuse and elusive. The machines that govern us are not monolithic and imperious but ever smaller and more insidious. We need the force and eloquence of Lang’s poetry to magnify and reaffirm what’s at stake.
But we seek entertainment here, not just edification. Metropolis proves thrillingly ambitious, and as a result stacks up surprisingly well to contemporary blockbusters. I hate to fall into the easy role of curmudgeonly Luddite, but Metropolis’s soaring backdrops, for all the occasional traces of cardboard, provide a greater aura of authenticity than that sometimes creepily off-kilter verismilitude of CGI. The whole mise-en-scéne possesses an incredible and assured sense of style; everything from the giant Heart Machine that keeps the city running to the bedside lamps, looks meticulous and of a piece. The highly geometric aesthetic, somehow simultaneously intricate and streamlined, may no longer be the style in which we decorate our homes, but nonetheless possesses a vitality that keeps it feeling fresh.
Indeed Metropolis proves so visually compelling that one easily remembers the strength of the look and forgets the raw sentimentality of the story. Lang goes unabashedly for big pathos and however obvious the images may seem, many of them, like a sea of children fleeing for their lives, jump up shamelessly and grab you by the gut. Lang is a poet of hysteria and anxiety–think of the angry mob chasing down the wild-eyed Peter Lorre in M – and he manages to tease out moments both large and small into a frenzy of tension. He choreographs crowds to great effect, even better, to my mind, than D.W. Griffith did, because Lang exercises a greater, tauter degree of control. He has an implicit understanding of how the slightest details, executed correctly, create the biggest impact. The vision of a phalanx of laborers, riding the elevator down to the pits, their heads all dejectedly lowered, telegraphs more powerfully about the hell of labor and its despair than a lot of hand-wringing and emoting could hope to accomplish.
Of course, emoting and hand-wringing play a huge, inescapable role in Metropolis; acting styles have changed a great deal since the silent era and the grand gestures sometimes come across as overwrought. Freder (Gustav Fröhlich), son of the city’s overlord, proves the most effusively expressive: in a gesture you see coming a mile away, when he first spies the comely prophet Maria (Brigitte Helm), Freder clunkily thumps his hands to his heart. The very image of Maria that he sees, beatifically beaming in a modest frock, surrounded by towheaded moppets, exclaiming “These are your brothers!” speaks to a kind of sentimental iconography–not to mention an image of womanhood–that has somewhat slipped away from of us. But while the emotion of Metropolis sometimes seems too mannered, Lang’s eloquence goes hand in hand with a bald, unabashed beauty: the image of Freder and Maria clinched in an elegant embrace simply knocks you over with its beauty, and our contemporary qualms about the immediacy and insistence of the feelings melt away.
In Metropolis’s most thrilling moments, this excess of emotions provides an unshakable, bone-chilling creepiness that makes all the inherent fears about the future and technology wonderfully real and resonant. When the overlord Fredersen (Alfred Abel) instructs the robot (now having assumed the form of Maria) to whip the workers up into a destructive, rebellious frenzy, she signals her complicity with a Grand Guignol, slow motion lowering of her eyelid that’s the most frightening thing. In the one of the more memorable, arresting scenes, the shapely robot, decked out in rhinestone pasties, raises hell among the upper echelons by performing a crazed dance, both perfunctory and erotic, while tuxedoed gents look on in terrifying slack-jawed glassy-eyed awe. The scene, thrilling and deeply unsettling, balances the tensions between anxiety and eroticism, the seduction of technology and its concomitant destructive power. And it is in addressing these dichotomies, all the while going for broke, that Metropolis packs its still powerful punch.