Milos Stehlik on the Restored “Metropolis”

June 11, 2010

Download Story
Image from the 1927 film Metropolis
A landmark film is making another appearance.

In his regular film commentary,
Milos Stehlik, director of Facets Multimedia, looks at the latest restoration of the Fritz Lang classic Metropolis??? 

Last year in Argentina, some thirty minutes of long-lost footage from Fritz Lang's futuristic masterpiece, Metropolis, was found. The treasured find helped to reconstruct the film close to its original cut. The newly re-originalized Metropolis is out and being hailed as a truely major event.

Some compare the restored Metropolis footage to finding a missing paragraph from The Declaration of Independence, or to finding an alternate ending to Anna Karenina – one in which Anna and her husband Karamazov are reconciled, undergo marriage therapy, and live happily ever after.

In fact, the restored Metropolis footage helps the film narrative be more accessible. But there is a down side of fixating on this restoration; the new-found footage is of very poor quality and rather jarring when you see it. In my mind, this fixation ignores the larger question of the meaning of Metropolis for the twenty-first century.

The 1927 film was supposed to rival American epic productions by the major German film studio, UFA…but it flopped and bankrupted the company. The script was written by Lang's then wife and frequent collaborator Thea von Harbou. Like much of Harbou's writing, it's full of somewhat over-the-top melodrama. The megacity Metropolis is the setting – in which society is divided between planners and management, living high above the city in skyscrapers, and the workers, who live and work in near-slavery underground.

Freder, the spoiled son of Metropolis founder and city-builder, John Fredersen, is infatuated with a beautiful girl who caught his eye among the workers. He follows her into the unfamiliar underground world where he's struck by the horrors of the worker's daily lives. Suddenly, he sees the enormous M-Machine explode, killing dozens of workers.

“Politicized” by this experience, Freder confronts his father, joins the workers, and eventually meets the beautiful Maria, who cloned into a robot, has the task of sowing distrust among the workers.

What's memorable about Metropolis are the futuristic sets, the incredible and very-famous image of Maria as-the-machine played by Brigitte Helm, and the final, apocalyptic scenes in which the workers storm out of their underground city to destroy the Heart Machine; the city's power generator and source of their oppression.

Historically speaking, Metropolis's authorship is clouded by the complicated lives and fate of its two principals. Lang, in his famous rapid escape from Hitler's Germany, became an American Hollywood director. Von Harbou, his wife, remained to become a client of the Nazis.

Hundreds of thousands of words have been written about Metropolis…but what's missing from decades of critique and examination is Fritz Lang's political vision. Metropolis reads like a socialist tract. More than anything, the film reflects the idealism of the Weimar Republic – the short-lived, tumultuous and amazingly rich period of post-World War I Germany.

But Metropolis also links to the principal theme of injustice – present in virtually all of Fritz Lang's work. And though his substantial American work remains largely neglected, much of Lang's American films reach high cinematic achievement. In his first American film, Fury, Spencer Tracy is unjustly accused of a kidnapping and barely escapes death at the hands of a lynch mob. Similar guilt and innocence issues inform Lang films like Beyond A Reasonable Doubt, or While The City Sleeps.

These films and Metropolis reflect Lang's deep-seated humanism in his struggle to create art that would lead to a more just and equitable society. In Metropolis, he reveals a brutal division between technocratic-owners and the workers enslaved to the machinery powering a futuristic city. We can draw analogies between that vision of Metropolis, where owners live in luxurious high-rises, to those of us presently in the “first world”. Our products come largely on the backs of impoverished workers in the “third” or “developing” world. In that sense Metropolis, could be an allegory of our current reality. In his perhaps reductive and naïve vision, Lang was sadly accurate…

Milos Stehlik's commentaries reflect his own views and not necessarily those of Facets Multimedia, Worldview or 91.5 WBEZ.