As young film enthusiasts, it is our duty to let you know which classic films you ought to have seen by your thirtieth birthday. In the spirit of renewed interest in silent films (thank you, The Artist), we are kicking things off with THE golden oldie of the 1920s, made just a few years before the talkies came along. We are of course speaking of the science fiction classic, Metropolis.
If you are a fan of Star Wars, Blade Runner and Battle Royale, you have the 1927 release of Metropolis to thank. It was the mother of science fiction movies. HG Wells may have ripped into it shortly after release, but the genre would be a sadder place without it.
Made by German director Fritz Lang, the film is a Gothic science fiction masterpiece that has both baffled and intrigued audiences for decades. All the more intriguing because a) it was panned by its contemporary critics, and b) the full length version has only been available since 2010.
With its mind boggling depiction of a futuristic cityscape, a sexy female robot (no seriously!) pretending to be a trusted character, and city workers moving in unison until they literally become the machine they are operating – this film was ground breaking for the time.
Set in the Utopian city of Metropolis, there is a sharp divide between the working class and the rich thinkers. Freder (Gustav Fröhlich), the son of the City Master, falls in love with the mysterious Maria (Brigitte Helm), who inadvertently leads him to the underground world of the workers. Horrified to find so many men secretly running the machines that keep his blissful Utopia above ground functioning, he witnesses Maria (who also happens to be a prophet) predict a mediator will arrive to settle their differences.
The lost reel
Much of the intrigue about Metropolis is due to the fact that half an hour of the film was lost for decades. The distributors cut footage for the foreign release back in the day. This left an 115 minute film, that was 30 minutes shorter than originally intended.
And it stayed this way, with a tiny minority having seen the feature in its entirety. The trouble was, amidst the chaos that was World War Two, the original version with the additional footage was lost. For decades we all thought we would never know what Lang had to cut. Until 2008, when a copy of the missing footage was discovered in an archive museum in Argentina, so the 16mm print of the original was finally almost entirely intact. Now the digitally re-mastered version of Metropolis, including the long lost footage has been released.
If you haven’t seen Metropolis, it is interesting to watch both the shorter cut of the film and the reconstructed and extended version to see how they differ. The shorter version changes so much of the context and de-mystifies the original message that Fritz Lang had intended.
One of the reasons Metropolis is hailed as such a triumph is because it is one of the best examples of German Expressionism. I can see you blinking at the screen. German Expressionism was a creative movement in the early 20th century that emphasised subjective experience over representation of the ‘real world’.
When applied to film, Expressionism used symbols and metaphors to express a plot’s underlying meaning, that would be otherwise undetectable on face value. They were intentionally obscure and designed to be unintelligible, the goal ultimately to give the audience an emotional experience rather than a snapshot of a physical reality.
Still confused? You really have to see it to understand. All the more reason to watch Metropolis, eh? In the name of curiosity, you should also check out the technique in Nosferatu. The vampire’s shadow creeping up the stairs, claws out = shudderworthy German Expressionism at it’s creepiest.
It is a genuine miracle Metropolis was even completed. The film cost Universum Film AG (UFA) so much money, at a time when the German economy was in a bad state, that it very nearly sent the company into bankruptcy.
During the era of the Weimar Republic (the parliament set up after World War I), Germany suffered through three years of hyperinflation between 1921 and 1924. This meant that the value of the German mark (currency) decreased rapidly, making everything, including film making more expensive. Metropolis took two years to film. Overall, it cost 5m Reichmarks to make ($1.3million at the time). By today’s standards, according to the German Consumer Price Index that would be around $24 million today. Perhaps not as much as some Hollywood blockbusters, but it still almost sent Germany’s largest studio under.
Some of the most revered art was mocked at first. Vincent Van Gogh is a classic example of a man whose work was under appreciated during his life. Who knows, perhaps in 100 years Twilight will be considered Hollywood genius … yeah, we doubt that too.
Metropolis is no different. Despite its current reputation, the audience of the time did not get it at all. The New York Times’s, Mordaunt Hall dubbed it a “technical marvel with feet of clay”, whatever that means, while author H.G Wells harshly described it as “foolishness, cliché, platitude, and muddlement about mechanical progress and progress in general.” Ouch.
Nowadays critics are far more appreciative. The ideals within the tale have aged especially well. American film critic and screenwriter, Robert Ebert sums it up nicely:
“Metropolis is one of the great achievements of the silent era, a work so audacious in its vision and so angry in its message that it is, if anything, more powerful today than when it was made.”
Agreed. Fast forward 85 years, and the political and social issues of the 1920s: recession, unemployment, low pay, resentment of the rich and powerful etcetera are still relevant and emotive subjects and ones that can easily be found within the subtext of Metropolis.
In short, the full feature’s vision has a longevity that has surpassed expectation and silently laughs in the face of its critics. You were no langer, Lang.
Now go find Metropolis, and let us know your verdict.
You can buy Metropolis [Reconstructed & Restored] on Amazon now.