I don’t quite remember when I first saw Metropolis. I do remember how I first saw it, though. I’d found it on an old VHS tape in my grandfather’s condo when me and my mom were packing it up, and quite naturally it wound its way into my collection. In retrospect, that tape was probably the worst way to see the film: a cheap VHS transfer by some fly-by-night company working from a mangled edit, with scratched visuals and barely any soundtrack. Naturally, I thought it was terrible, and didn’t understand what everyone saw in this movie.
The second time I saw Metropolis, that I remember. It was around 2011, down at the Bytowne Theater on Montreal Road. Ottawa is something of a dead zone for art cinema, but sometimes you get lucky, and in this case they’d gotten ahold of the restoration done in 2010 that added about half an hour of footage that had been thought lost since the Second World War. Seeing it on the big screen, with the visuals cleaned up and most of the plot restored, was a much different experience. Metropolis is a film made for the big screen. Those famous visuals, the soaring towers and highway bridges, the cthonic den of the Moloch-Machine, the infinite urban vista outside Joh Fredersen’s office window, the glitter of Yoshiwara’s nightclub, they are images meant to dominate the audience, to awe them. The restoration of the lost footage, probably the most complete restoration we will ever get, brings a great deal of narrative coherence to the film. Motivations are more clearly laid out, particularly those of the inventor Rotwang, a character badly abused by the censors. The restorations also add more symmetries to the film, restoring the connections between fathers, sons, mothers, and wives.
And yet, as I was watching it, I still had those objections, those criticisms that have plagued the film ever since its release way back in 1927. The basic plot is deeply sentimental, depicting a romance than seems more metaphorical and a parable of class conflict that seemed too on-the-nose even the 1920s and which is ultimately resolved in a handshake by “the mind and the hands, mediated by the heart.” The eternal criticism has always been “great visuals – shame about the plot.” After I saw the movie, I described it to people as “the 1920s’ answer to James Cameron’s Avatar.”
But here’s the thing. After James Cameron left the room, people stopped caring about Avatar. Metropolis, by contrast, is a movie that never dies. It floats on through the histories of film and science fiction. The movie itself has never been remade, but there have been countless riffs and reinterpretations over the decades. Images and characters turn up time and again, reimagined and reassembled in countless different contexts. Not everyone has seen Metropolis, but everyone recognizes it.
Over the years, I have been growing more fond of Metropolis. The main reason for that, I suppose, is that my second viewing of the film provided an answer for a particularly troublesome story idea that’s been in my head for some time. I don’t want to get into details here (I must keep some secrets, after all), but it’s kept Metropolis in my head, kept me curious about the film and why it seems to survived in spite of everything.
Certainly when you look at the history of the film and its reception, it’s a wonder it survived at all. It was one of the last of the silent artistic spectacle films produced by UFA in the 1920s, back when studio head Erich Pommer was trying to find a way to keep German cinema competitive against the encroachments of Hollywood. Metropolis was conceived as an attempt to create the European equivalent of a big Hollywood film, but with a German sensibility. Unfortunately, the film went massively over budget, and the first screening of the uncut film in Berlin was savaged by the critics. Afterwards, it next made its debut in America, where the censors subjected it to an edit that was, quite frankly, butchery. The American edit was rereleased in a modified form in Germany, only to quickly sink out of sight. Having the first talkie (The Jazz Singer) premiere a year later did little to help matters.
Looking over the criticisms made during its first run, Metropolis sometimes comes across as a film no one wanted to claim. Critics with a socialist bent decried its sentimental ending. Writers of a more futurist bent, such as H. G. Wells himself, found the film’s depiction of life in the future to fly in the face of contemporary ideas about urban development (Wells, it seems, eventually responded to Metropolis in greater detail with the adaptation of his Things to Come in 1936, a film I’ve got in my DVD cabinet but have yet to watch). Perhaps the most influential was the Siegfried Kracauer’s 1947 work From Caligari to Hitler, which argued that the cinema of the Weimar era, with its focuses on charismatic villains of terrible power, its experimentation with mysticism, and its tendency to reduce crowds to masses, was a consciously proto-fascist phenomenon. While unraveling the knot of cultural influence and cause and effect is damn near impossible, I would like to mention that during the Third Reich, Nazi critics like Otto Kriegk weren’t terribly fond of Metropolis, disliking it for its attempts to ape the story structure and spectacle of American cinema, while considering its hyperurban setting more reminiscent of the Soviet Union.
(Incidentally, a lot of the criticism of Metropolis in the ’20s and ’30s took on an unhappily gendered form. Though the story was a collaboration between director Fritz Lang and then-wife Thea von Harbou, most critics arguing the visuals/story dichotomy praised Lang’s direction while castigating von Harbou’s script for its “sentimentality.” This division acquired a political coloration after 1933, when Lang emigrated to America and von Harbou joined the Nazi Party.)
And yet, in spite of all this, Metropolis endures. The best explanation I’ve found so far the film’s continued survival comes from the writings of film scholar Thomas Elsaesser, particularly in his short book on Metropolis he wrote for the British Film Institute. When I was reading this book, there were two points Elsaesser made that stuck out to me. His first point was that Metropolis is, at heart, a fairy tale. There’s convolutions in the plot, but it is at heart a simple story, told with archetypal characters and situations, drawing on images common to a wide range of human experience. There is a fair bit of Christian theology and Germany heritage in the film’s imagery, and scholars have notes quite a few other traditions in von Harbou’s treatment. Elsaesser’s greater point, though, is that the images of Metropolis, the city with the towers above and the mechanisms below, the mad inventor, the robot woman, are images of such power that they resist any sort of easy categorization. They can be argued to represent this or that ideology, but these readings will always prove to be inadequate. The film’s editing history also granted power to its images; with no one alive today having ever seen the original cut, and with deeply compromised cuts of the film being the only ones available for the longest time, Metropolis has become a film that is only lightly bound to its story.
The more I think about it, the more I feel Elsaesser’s interpretation explains the endurance of Metropolis. The city with its towers, neon and strict social hierarchies has become the ur-city, the city most of us imagine when we think of the great, modern cities of the world. Our New Yorks, our Tokyos, our urban megalopoli that never sleep and never tire. Every city of the future you see on the screen is Metropolis. (Well, MegaCity One in Dredd is Le Courbusier’s vision for Paris, but why split hairs?). At the same time, thanks to its period aesthetic, Lang’s city is also the utopian city that never was, a point elucidated in Ken Levine’s Bioshock, whose own Rapture apes Metropolis directly. The story of class conflict in the city has been reiterated in countless books and movies, to the point that it has become the staple plot par excellence of the contemporary YA market. Rotwang, the Faustian monster and romantic rebel, has become the archetypal mad scientist, and his creation, the “false Maria,” has come to mean so many things about technology, sex, and gender that libraries could be filled with discussions about her.
The false Maria…she is an intriguing one. I will have more to say on her later.
For now, though, it is safe to say that, as long as we are in this world, Metropolis will be with us, for its glories are our glories, its contradictions our contradictions, its fears our fears.