The newly restored print of Metropolis, Fritz Lang's gorgeous, disturbing, and sometimes absurd silent masterpiece is a revelation. (It's due out on DVD and Blu-ray later this year.) Part Romeo-and-Juliet love story and part science fiction, it's also about class warfare, alienation, and exploitation in the capitalist Machine Age—but that's the muddled part of the story.
It's not one of my favorite movies, yet its iconic, beautifully composed images, and almost laughably intense expressionistic acting suck me in every time I come across it on late-night TV. The plot and message strike me as incoherent and fascistic, but some people find it profound. Maybe its lack of clarity is part of its power, since it leaves the movie open to interpretation.
Metropolis is a huge city created and ruled by one man, Joh Fredersen (played by Alfred Abel, whose restrained, naturalistic performance sits like a rock in the middle of a fast-flowing river of emoting). Fredersen is a grim control freak, but his son, Freder (Gustav Fröhlich), is a softie, an idealist who wants to befriend the workers who live and toil in a whole separate underground city beneath the glamorous one where the ruling class lives. When Freder catches a glimpse of Maria (Brigitte Helm), a demure blond goddess from the workers' world who has emerged for a moment into his, he's a goner. Like Theseus and his friend in pursuit of Persephone, he runs after Maria and gets all tangled up, trying to protect Maria as she's threatened by personal vendettas and political upheaval.
Like an Ayn Rand novel, Metropolis is too enthralled by its own symbolism and big ideas to pay attention to trifles like character development or logic. Fredersen and the other autocrats who rule the city, we're told, are its head, and the workers who keep it alive are the hands. The gulf between the workers and the overlords seems unbridgeable, so Maria, a kind of secular saint who preaches to the workers in an underground cave, calls for mediation. In title cards that are studded with exclamation points and often in all caps, she declares: "The mediator between brain and hands must be the heart!" (Huh?)
Meanwhile, back at the ranch, Rotwang the wild-haired inventor, the granddaddy of all mad movie scientists and a sworn enemy to Freder's father, creates a robot woman who looks just like Maria. He sends her out to mislead the workers, inciting them to bring down the city. There are also a lot of muddled Christian references, including more than one warning of the coming Apocalypse, and an ambivalent message about machines, which are seen as both taking and saving the workers' lives. The view of the workers is muddled too: Sometimes idealized as brothers or sentimentalized as helpless victims of oppression, they're ultimately portrayed as mindless and childlike, pathetically easy to turn into a bloodthirsty mob.
The streets of this great city feel oddly dead and deserted, since you never see people going about their daily business. But then, daily life does not interest the filmmakers. The organism that fascinates them is the city itself, and that is presented in God's-eye view shots that must have been thrilling when the film debuted. The new version revives these images so completely that you almost feel as if you were watching parts of the movie live. In a few spots the image is obscured by those streaks that can make an old film look as if it were shot through a heavy rainfall (these may be part of the 25 minutes or so of new material, since the print these came from was badly damaged), but most of the footage is stunningly clear, free of the cloudiness, flickering, scratches, and tints that often make old movies look old. It's as if Metropolis were restored from past to present tense. The original orchestral soundtrack has also been restored and provides an aptly bombastic background.
Some of the new content fleshes out the story, adding back subplots that had been lopped off. Some add detail and drama to scenes that were shortened. And some lengthen reaction shots, restoring the film to the slower rhythms of its pre-ADHD era (it was released in 1927). The new footage was part of a 16mm copy of the original director's cut discovered two years ago at the Museo del Cine in Buenos Aires. It was digitally restored and integrated into a meticulous earlier restoration of the film, creating something close to a brand new director's cut. (This article by Glenn Erickson provides some interesting details.)
This movie has been copied so much in the past 80 years or so that many of its images feel as if they've always been part of our DNA. Majestic aerial shots of a forest of high-rises bisected by elevated highways and train tracks so high up that they cross paths with biplanes and blimps reminded me of Blade Runner and The Fifth Element, but you may have an entirely different set of references. The workers so welded to their machines that they moved like mechanical parts, in a terrible/beautiful mechanized dance, were echoed in Charlie Chaplin's Modern Times and who knows how many other movies. The transference of Maria's essence to Rotwang's robot in a room filled with bubbling, steaming, lighting-up machinery and crisscrossed by miniature lightning bolts and the mob that chases Maria bring to mind all those Frankenstein movies, and aerial shots of mobs flowing in mesmerizing patterns rhyme with Busby Berkeley's high-camp choreography of showgirls. And so on…and on. (Matt Zoller Seitz put together a slide show of references over at Salon, if you want to see more.)
Some of the visuals in Metropolis resonate strongly with current events, like the way the false Maria uses sex to distract and divide the masses so she can impose her creator's will, or the waters that pour into Metropolis's underground, flooding the area where the poor people lived. Others are stained, maybe permanently, by historical events that were still in the future when the film was released. I couldn't stop thinking, while watching all those scenes of mobs mesmerized by a crazed sociopath, that they were shot in Germany less than a decade before Hitler's rise to power. In fact, Lang's wife, who wrote the screenplay for Metropolis (the couple developed the story together), became a fanatic Nazi in 1933. The Nazis loved the movie too, which doesn't surprise me: Its unclear but urgent message, overheated emotions, and stirring visuals are as good a recipe as any for the fascist propaganda that played such a big part in Hitler's rise. (On a side note, I wouldn't be surprised if the Nazi connection were the reason this print was discovered in Buenos Aires, since Argentina sheltered so many Nazis after the war.)
But Metropolis outlasted the Nazis, so it can no longer be bent to their will. With this new print in circulation, it should last a lot longer, its meaning open to interpretation by generations to come. I have a feeling it won't ever stop feeling surprisingly relevant.
Elise Nakhnikian has been writing about movies since the best way to learn about them was through alternative weeklies. She is currently the movie reviewer for TimeOFF. She also has her own blog, Girls Can Play, and a Twitter account.