Retro: our movie & TV vault... a fresh look
at neglected classics and cult favourites
Science fiction fans and cineastes in general have cause for great rejoicing now that
a painstaking four-year effort by German film preservation specialist Martin Koerber
and Alpha-Omega, a Munich firm specialising in digital restoration, makes it possible
to see, in limited art house distribution, a definitive version of the classic 1926
movie Metropolis, an allegorical, future dystopian saga directed by Fritz Lang,
a master of German Expressionism many of whose works have also become classics. His most
famous production Metropolis, now presented with significant footage restored
after being lost for over 70 years and this combined with newly re-translated titles
and a resurrection of Gottfried Huppertz's magisterial, symphonic score, makes this
version the closest possible to Lang's original conception. Metropolis, pioneering
crucial special effects' technology and using imagery and concepts imitated countless
times since, was one of the most expensive and lavish productions of its era and its
monumental scale and gorgeous production design dazzles to this day while its story's
themes and subtexts continue to resonate and be relevant.
The plot centres on Freder Fredersen (Gustav Frohlich), pampered son of Joh Fredersen (Alfred Abel) the ruler of the eponymous conurbation. Freder gets smitten by a young woman named Maria (Brigitte Helm) escorting workers' children on a field trip to the upper levels of the gleaming towers of the gigantic city of the future, a setting so awesome that it is as much a character as the human inhabitants. The protagonist follows Maria to her home territory - the lower depths - where he discovers the bitter truth behind the luxurious lifestyle of the elites. Freder witnesses slavishly regimented labourers with numbers rather than names toiling amidst hazardous steam-belching machinery that dwarfs its operators and causes injury and suffering. When an explosion occurs before Freder's eyes, he experiences a vision of slaves being herded for sacrifice into the flaming mouth of a huge idol of Moloch, just one of the numerous Biblical references heavy-handedly interwoven throughout the movie. Freder thus gets inspired to help the workers along with Maria who supports revolutionary activities involving rallying for liberation.
Freder also seeks out the mad scientist Rotwang (Rudolf Klein-Rogge), an archetype conceived here for the first time, who knows the secrets of the subterranean realm but who also works for none other than the Big Boss Joh Fredersen. Rotwang's mission involves creating, in anticipation of and to defuse expected unrest, an agent provocateur, a 'robot-Maria' (Brigitte Helm again), so that the underclass, still following their radiantly lovely, charismatic leader, can be fooled and controlled. Metropolis also involves a significant subplot where a character called the Thin Man (Fritz Rasp) gets sent by Joh Fredersen to spy on his son while the offspring befriends his father's dismissed assistant Josaphat (Theodor Loos) and pursues Maria. As the ruler's plans unravel in a spectacular fashion, along the way there are scenes rife with: allusions to the Book of Revelations; imagery of the Seven Deadly Sins; and the tiresomely patriarchal tendency to blame everything that goes wrong on the woman - never mind that the simulacrum of Maria was created by men in the first place! Never mind that the whole stratified, exploitative society in the picture was male dominated (reflecting Lang's contemporary cultural milieu).
Metropolis (according to legend), inspired by Lang's first glimpse of the Manhattan skyline, represents a visionary work of science fiction that also was one of the first mega-productions that nearly bankrupted the studio (in this case UFA) that produced it with its: thousands of extras; already gigantic sets made to seem even larger by cutting-edge camera trickery (involving the first use of the seminal Schiuftan technique, named after its inventor, in which miniatures and live action get filmed simultaneously); and dazzling effects' set pieces. These included: the explosion of the 'heart-machine'; the stunning Frankenstein-esque creation of the robot-Maria; and a flood of apocalyptic, multitude-engulfing proportions. Gottfried Huppertz's resurrected, richly textured orchestral score provides the perfect accompaniment to the proceedings.
The summit of German Expressionism with its combination of stylised sets, dramatic camera angles, bold shadows and exaggerated theatrics, Metropolis depicted its story with scenes of astonishing originality, being the first to introduce character types and imagery that inspired innumerable successor filmmakers ever since. This film, despite its flaws, fully deserves its classic status, for like all great works of art, it not only entertains, but also provokes thought, stimulates ideas, and challenges the mind, most notably with its timeless and eternally valid themes of liberating dehumanised, exploited workers and the concept that, "the mediator between the brain and the muscles must be the heart." Metropolis, essential viewing for all film buffs and science fiction aficionados in particular, remains a monumental triumph of the imagination.