The recent discovery of 25 minutes of lost footage from Fritz Lang’s Metropolis is cause for celebration. While much of the new film, found in 2008 in Argentina, is unavoidably damaged (the footage was taken from a 16mm print, which didn’t age well as it was pretty much untended to until somebody stumbled upon it), it only further expands the already nigh-infinite scope of Lang and co-writer Thea von Harbou’s discursive script, adapted from von Harbou’s novel. If anything, this newly restored print of Metropolis only further establishes the film’s tendency to expressively paint in the broadest of strokes and turn some very strange plot holes into further expressions of the film’s effusive moral: “The mediator between Head and Hands must be the Heart!”
Metropolis is arguably the pinnacle of Weimar-era cinema’s tendency to visually abstract characters’ mindscapes to the point where the human condition is so supra-humanly romantic that it’s barely human at all. Lang’s film defies rational dissection at every turn, drunk on the possibilities of exploring a new world defined by its creator’s loftiest aspirations, petty jealousies, and domineering hubris. Visionary architect Joh Fredersen (Alfred Abel) created the dazzling Metropolis, a futuristic city whirring with elevated highways, Babylonian skyscrapers, and Edenic gardens designed especially for the use of his and his colleagues’ progeny. The city’s subterranean slums, alluded to only as “The Depths,” are a direct reflection of Fredersen’s personal disdain for the plebs of von Harbou’s future. Blue-collar grunts slave away where the cosmopolitan elite of Fredersen’s bauble on a hill doesn’t have to see them (it’s “where they belong,” Fredersen glowers). Once Freder (Gustav Frohlich), Fredersen’s son, discovers that he’s enjoying what his “brothers” have toiled tirelessly to create, that social hierarchy is threatened by none other than Freder, the city’s self-appointed messiah/“mediator.”
From that basic setup, viewers are asked to understand Fredersen’s Metropolis by a logic akin to the “psychotecture” of Dean Motter’s Mister X comics. Motter’s brooding series follows a sleep-deprived mad architect that’s devised a new kind of city whose radical design is meant to psychically sate its inhabitants’ warring needs. When corners were cut in the creation of X’s city, the results of that shoddy workmanship directly affected the city’s inhabitants, creating a kind of urban madness that Lang was fascinated by decades earlier.
Fredersen’s city is designed to malnourish its inhabitants. The workers’ city is strictly utilitarian, its streets completely deserted with no signs of life save for when the grunts trudge home from work. As a result, the prols in Metropolis don’t get to do anything physically gratifying on camera that doesn’t look like a side effect of heat stroke. This stands in stark contrast to other canonical prewar Lang films, like M and The Testament of Dr. Mabuse. As Tom Gunning points out in the essay he wrote for the Criterion Collection release of Dr. Mabuse, physical pleasures (smoking, especially) are a vital component to the way Lang’s bourgeois characters identify themselves as hale and “down-to-earth” and not wraith-like and unapproachable. The workers’ subsequent malaise is likely something to which commuters can all too easily relate.
Freder, the city’s champion, responds to his environment’s fundamental lack by having the emotional reserve of an uncapped fire hydrant. Fittingly naïve, Freder is incapable of seeing the faults in other people and has a vastly over-inflated sense of self. Once Maria (Brigitte Helm), essentially a Christ-like social worker, introduces him to a group of scruffy waifs from the Depths, Freder is first eager to visit, then to trade places, then to save his fellow men. His innate sense of goodness is a direct reflection of the boundless opulence of his father’s city and more than likely why the film confirms his staunch belief that he and not Maria is the city’s savior.
Once you look past the essentially classist and even sexist assumption that Maria, a woman who has been placating and tending to her flock of needy blue-collars, can’t unite Fredersen with the workers, you can see why, according to the film’s logic, Freder is everything he imagines himself to be. His visions of a city on the brink of apocalyptic ruin are realized while he thrashes in bed, as if he were dreaming the end times into being. But later reports of a souped-up Salomeian belly dance to end them all will confirm for the viewer that the dance did in fact occur in the film’s objective reality and did incite violence among Freder’s bohemian “brothers.” A city built on that kind of crude separation of haves and have-nots would be assailed by several lascivious pelvic gyrations and hence should be saved by a man-boy that runs around wearing knee-high socks and parachute pants that even M.C. Hammer wouldn’t want to touch. Psychotecture works in mysterious ways.
This is probably as good a time as any to also point out that the underlying naiveté of Fredersen’s city, designed with unparalleled flair by the team of Otto Hunte, Erich Kettelhut, Walter Schultze-Mittendorf, Karl Vollbrecht, and apparently Edgar G. Ulmer, is also responsible for the marginal but indispensable roles that women play in Metropolis. While Maria haunts Freder’s dreams of restoring his father’s creation, Fredersen and his diabolical rival Rotwang (Rudolf Klein-Rogge) are both totally overwhelmed by the specter of Hel, Fredersen’s dead wife. Rotwang is also bewitched by his Machine-Man (Helm again), a lady of steel that he uses to destroy Fredersen’s city by assuming the looks of Maria and inciting the city to riot with a pirate-like wink and several hyper-exaggerated swivels of her hips. Again, within the internal logic of the film, this makes all the sense in the world. Outside of it, it looks like lurid fodder for an aspiring Jungian’s dissertation.
What’s most amazing about Metropolis is the way that its characters’ neuroses are given such a wide range that they totally and completely supersede narrative logic. It doesn’t matter that Fredersen out-and-out encourages an angry mob to destroy his own city by film’s end or that the film’s abortive Prince and the Pauper-type subplot between Freder and Josaphat (Theodor Loos), a man Freder’s inadvertently responsible for getting banished to the Depths, is abandoned pretty quickly. What matters is that these imperfect and sometimes haphazardly undeveloped plot points all reinforce the film’s main theme of creating external harmony from internal chaos. It’s a monumental achievement about monumental egos.