Ancient Rockets

Ancient Rockets: Metropolis

You got a call from someone named 3PO. He says you gave him up for adoption thirty years ago?

If you’ve only seen one silent science fiction film, it was probably Metropolis.

And yet it would be safe to say that almost no one living has seen Fritz Lang’s classic as it was originally shown in 1927. A very expensive commercial flop, it was withdrawn from circulation immediately after its first run, drastically cut down, and re-released for the foreign market with further changes. The American distributors actually threw out the German script and hired writer Channing Pollock to create an entirely new story using bits of the remaining footage. With each metamorphosis the film became more fragmented, more incoherent, and by the late ’60s was a thorough mess. Campus midnight film festivals ran it for audiences who partook of controlled substances, the better to appreciate its Ohmygod visuals, but found they’d made a ghastly mistake when the Seven Deadly Sins came to life onscreen.

Over the years since then, several attempts have been made to restore the film to its former state. Until June of 2008 the best restoration was offered by ever-reliable Kino, with only about a quarter of the original footage missing. Now, however, a complete print has been found in Argentina. It’s in deplorable condition, but restoration is underway and a new release may be available this year or next. 

Unfortunately, none of this changes the fact that Metropolis stinks.

Yes, the visuals are brilliant, inspiring everyone from Ridley Scott to Madonna, to say nothing of the creators of Superman and Final Fantasy VII and manga too numerous to count and obviously let’s not forget George Lucas and… you get the idea. It’s a seminal film. Certain images are unforgettable. You should certainly watch it if you get the chance.

It still stinks.

Fritz Lang himself, looking back at the end of a long career, detested it. No less an authority than H.G. Wells picked it to pieces in a critical review. The problem isn’t the acting, since there is only one really, really bad performance, and it certainly isn’t the cinematography or set design, which are excellent. It is bad science fiction.

There’s this giant futuristic city, see? All designed by one man, Joh Fredersen, who rules it as a sort of CEO God. Everything above ground is glittering Art Deco Moderne and towers to the stars, except for a medieval cathedral and the home of the inventor Rotwang, which also appears to have been transported from the middle ages. (These last function as emblems of the sacred and profane respectively, though oddly the cathedral has no saints on display—only statues of Death and the Seven Deadly Sins). 

Underground is the Workers’ City, where drab men labor painfully at giant inefficient machines that keep both cities, above and below, running. Another inexplicable relic of the past—in this case an early Christian catacomb, complete with moldering skulls—sits down there amid the cheerless Le Corbusier-style apartment blocks.

Fredersen’s city apparently produces nothing. There’s no economy in evidence other than in the Yoshiwara, a decadent district of cocktail lounges and brothels where rich boys play. This seems to be where they go when they become bored by the Immortal Gardens of the Club of the  Sons, a sunlit rooftop playground full of gymnasiums, fountains, peacocks and quaintly costumed pleasure-dolls. There don’t appear to be any Daughters in this upper city, or Wives either. Just whores. Before you grit your teeth, my sisters, I would like to point out that Thea von Harbou wrote the screenplay, and she seems to have been completely unconscious of its feminist shortcomings.

We meet Joh Fredersen’s son Freder romping in the Garden of the Sons. He is as innocent as a lamb and dressed all in white to underscore the point. In the midst of his thoughtless fun, the elevator doors open to admit a crowd of ragged workers’ children, led by the saintly heroine Maria (and how in hell they all got past Security is never explained). Maria has brought the kiddies up to watch the frolic, solemnly explaining to them that “these are your brothers.” How this is supposed to incite anything but envy and smoldering resentment in their little proletarian minds, I don’t know, but it certainly has an effect on Freder, who is horrified to learn there is a World of Which he Knows Not.

You can guess, can’t you, that he sneaks down to the lower city, is horrified by what he sees, and leads a rebellion against the cruelty of his father’s corporate reign? Not so fast. Freder isn’t a rebel, or a leader either. He goes down there, all right, and is duly horrified, but he faints and weeps and has visions. He swaps clothes with one of the workers so he can feel their pain. One ten-hour shift reduces him to a crucifixion metaphor. He staggers off to the Catacombs to hear Maria preach a sermon on the Tower of Babel and promise the workers that between the Head (Fredersen) and the Hands (them) the Heart must mediate, and a Mediator is coming soon. Freder falls ecstatically in love with Maria. She, too, with him. There are more painful examples of bad acting in silent film, I’m sure, but Freder’s raptures are right up there in the top 5. 

Meanwhile, Joh Fredersen suspects his workers are up to something, and goes off to Rotwang’s laboratory to ask him for a solution. Rotwang is, for most of the film, a great character, the grim mad ancestor of Dr. Strangelove, sullen and brooding as Beethoven. But get this: Joh once wooed Rotwang’s one true love away from him, she died giving birth to Joh’s son Freder, and Rotwang is the guy Fredersen comes to for advice in times of crisis.

Rotwang has invented a mechanical woman (always referred to as the Mechanical Man) to replace his dead love. Fredersen, seeing her (him? It?), wants his workers all replaced by mechanical ones, but then, after learning of Maria’s Friendly Gospel Hour in the Crypt, changes his mind: he demands that Rotwang remodel the prototype to look exactly like Maria, only she’ll be EVIL, and programmed to persuade the workers to revolt. That will then give Joh an excuse to crush them!

Wait a minute, you say, he has a chance to replace his only somewhat disgruntled laborers with uncompaining robots, allowing him to solve his problem with a whole lot of pink slips… and instead he incites a rebellion in which the workers on whom his city depends will all perish, before he has anything with which to replace them? Yeah.

You’ll have to watch Metropolis to see how it all comes out. Try not to puke at its absurd and naive political philosophy, or the way in which its cotton-candy Christian message is consistently undercut with horrific images of Death and sin. Or the way Good Maria is a plaster saint and victim, or the way Evil Robot Maria’s evil sex dance is run at too many frames per second, so her frenzied jitterings are anything but sexy. Or the way the workers are shown to be really a bunch of morons after all. Or Freder, in any scene in which he appears.

Don’t try to think about what you see at all, in fact. Just lie back and enjoy the astonishing feast for the eyes. And the ears, too: Forget Giorgio Moroder’s soundtrack, find the Kino version with the original 1927 score by Gottfried Huppertz. Metropolis is a gloriously stupid spectacle, an hallucination, a fatally flawed masterpiece, an improbable survivor. Experience it!

But not, I beg you, in an altered state. Especially during the Seven Deadly Sins bit.


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