Directed by Fritz Lang
The 2008 rediscovery, in an Argentine vault, of an ancient but workable print of Metropolis nearly a half-hour longer than any prior restoration means the opportunity to see a version as close to the original as anyone living has ever had—a thriller-ish subplot and elongated crescendo, showing off more of the 36,000 extras, are primary additions—and an invitation to revisit and again consider the recut silent Alberfilm. By all means.
The most expensive European film ever made upon its completion, and enormously influential throughout the subsequent sound era (Blade Runner invokes its legacy most openly, Avatar most recently), Metropolis is a biblical sci-fi epic, directed by a man, Fritz Lang, who would soon flee the Nazis, and co-written with then-wife, Thea von Harbou, who would soon embrace them. It's a fever-pitched (now) two and a half hours of classical morality, modernist anxiety, hysterical symbolism, incoherent plotting and agonized acting (the greasepainted actors press their hands to their temples, as if to keep their heads from exploding).
The film is ultimately a collective bargaining allegory, ending as a messianic "mediator" facilitates a handshake between labor and management; and more generally a jeremiad about men and their masters. Frivolous Freder (Gustav Frohlich), son of Fredersen the industrialist (Alfred Abel), goes underground, to the workers' city below his scale-model futurscape (the myth is that the painted backdrops and miniatures, including stop-motion vehicles, were inspired by Lang's first glimpse of the NYC skyline), and is radicalized by his glimpse of how the other half lives. Kraftwerk-uniformed workers, marching in step with heads bowed, exit and enter the factory through prison-bar gates, and toil in rhythm on hellish furnaces or clock faces with whose hands they become one (what do these gizmos make, other than timeless iconography?). Capturing Freder's eye is angelic Maria (Brigitte Helm), something like a community organizer, who fashions the Tower of Babel story into a parable about the need for equal control over the means of production, and preaches of the coming mediator, who'll deliver humanity from automation.
But, compelled by Fredersen, "the mad inventor" Rotwang (Rudolf Klein-Rogge), with his electroshock hair and proto-Strangelovian sinister black glover over missing hand, creates the ultimate automaton, a robot in Maria's image. (What stands out now from this epochal sequence is how sleek and silvery the lines and lightbulbs of the robot are, before one of Lang and cinematographer Karl Freund's many superimposition effects transforms her into Helm again, gone a bit herky-jerky.) This man-machine reveals an additional fascistic implication of technology: mass manipulation. A demagogue (and a management plant), robo-Maria agitates the proles to destructive revolt, bringing on an apocalyptic flood.
The futurist aesthetic of Metropolis draws from contemporaneous trends in Futurist art and design—the model city is a Bauhaus dream of clean lines and neon, and Art Deco interiors are all angular, burnished furnishings—tinged with the looming German-expressionist house style of UFA Studios. The film's Ludditism is very clearly situated within its own time and place, in between-the-wars Germany. (And make no mistake, the film is Luddite. The sons of the ruling class, Freder included, are introduced in Olympian splendor, then frolicking in pastoral pleasure gardens. Metropolis suggests that power wants little to do with the engines by which it runs society—Lang more or less predicted that Robert Moses wouldn't know how to drive.)
It's also puritanical about the libertinism of the roaring Weimar 20s: as Maria stands before the candlelit altar, her blond curls are backlit like a madonna's, but her doppelganger is likened, in the restored footage, to the whore of Babylon. A winking, grotesque temptress dancing in a headdress and scallop bra, she incites audiences to frenzy in the city's nightcub quarter. (The mob will eventually wish to burn this decadent at the stake.)
But though Metropolis is skeptical, it's pure spectacle. Lang's aerial views of choreographed crowds are positively Riefenstahlian; his sky-scraping, heavens-reaching city looks glorious as ever. Metropolis marshals all the resources of the German film industry to warn against the persuasive streamlining of mass production and new media; it must, paradoxically, be seen to be believed. It's visionary for many reasons, perhaps most of all in its anticipation of a cinema that can't help but revel in its capacity to depict what it means to condemn.
May 7-20 at Film Forum