Metropolis at 90, Part V (What it means to me)

I can’t remember exactly when I first saw Metropolis (at least that I was consciously aware of), but I’m pretty sure it was 1991 or 1992. My local PBS station frequently played it in those years, and I watched it on the small black and white TV my family had in the kitchen. Yes, I grew up before all TVs were in color! Our bigger TV in the living room was color, but we also had that smaller set. It also didn’t get all the channels the other TV did.

My entire life, I’d watched old films with my paternal grandma, or took my pick of the old films and historical dramas she had on VHS. I already loved history, so I never thought to dismiss these films as old and musty, unhip, boring. Even today, most of the contemporary films I watch are historical dramas, foreign, or indie.

So many years later, I honestly couldn’t tell you exactly when I learnt films used to be silent. I don’t recall ever watching any silents with my grandma, since she was born in 1927 and grew up with sound films. I don’t mean to stereotype, but let’s be honest, she wasn’t from a generation that tended to like and appreciate silent cinema. It was out with the old, in with the new. The reawakening of interest only really started in the 1950s.

So when I discovered Metropolis as a preteen, I was fascinated. Even with a much-truncated version, years before the near-complete restoration, I thought it was awesome. Unfortunately, I didn’t have a chance to see many silents until 2004, when I finally began actively pursuing my longtime passion.

The initial spark (for anything) is different for every person. While most silent fans recommend comedies as the ideal starting-place, this sci-fi film did it for me. A silent film was so different, new, fascinating. It also helped that I’ve always been different from the crowd, born in the wrong generation on several fronts.

I’ve never been interested in most things from modern pop culture. I love films from my great-grandparents’ and grandparents’ generations; I prefer music from my parents’ generation (along with my childhood decade the Eighties); and I just love history in general. It took years for my parents, esp. my father, to accept this is a genuine passion, not a phase to be mocked.

When I saw this film after my political awakening at age fifteen, in 1995, it took on a whole new personal meaning for me. I realised it was about class struggle and the exploitation of the proletariat by the ruling classes. My political views aren’t something I like to get into here, but this is the kind of post where they’re very pertinent.

I grew up poor and working-class, with deep proletarian roots on both sides of my family. I’ve honestly never aspired to be bourgeois, and would be very happy being respectably working-class for the rest of my life. I just can’t relate to the typical bourgeois lifestyle. I’m 100% NOT some spoilt limousine liberal.

My political views are shaped by my life experiences as a have-not. I’ve never forgotten how awful it was to grow up without a lot of money, denied certain toys my parents wanted to get me but couldn’t afford. My parents didn’t have $10,000 in the bank at one time until I was about fifteen, and we didn’t own our own home till I was a legal adult. At one point, we lived in the ghetto.

While I’m no longer as super-far-Left as I was in my teens and very early Twenties, I’m still much further Left than probably most of my readers (though there are some issues I take a more conservative view on, and my personal beliefs are rather old-fashioned). It’s too complicated to get into here, but I have nothing in common with modern-day neoliberals. I’m a real Leftist, not some regressive neoliberal.

Not only did Metropolis introduce me to silent cinema, but it also took on a whole new meaning, deeper and more personal, after I began coming of age and developing my political views. I doubt a simple comedy could’ve done that!

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Metropolis at 90, Part IV (Home media and restorations)

The U.S. copyright for Metropolis expired in 1953, which created a veritable bonanza of film and, later, VHS versions. As with many public domain films (both silent and sound), the quality varied wildly. I’ve seen some DVD and VHS versions with terrible, fuzzy images, a logo in the bottom corner, a monotonous, wheezing organ, and/or a soundtrack which is extremely mismatched to the action (e.g., cheerful music as a murder is being committed).

In 1996, the U.S. copyright was restored. There was some legal wrangling disputing it, but the decision was upheld in 2012. However, the film and its images remain copyrighted both in its native Germany and the rest of the European Union. This copyright will remain in effect until the end of 2046, 70 years after director Fritz Lang’s death.

The version I was introduced to circa 1991 or 1992 may have been Giorgio Moroder’s well-known 1984 restoration and edit, though after so many years, I can’t remember the exact details. All I remember is that I was so captivated by this film, however truncated, and no matter what soundtrack. More on that in my concluding Part V.

This 1984 version ran 83 minutes, and had new special effects, a popular music soundtrack in lieu of the traditional instrumentation accompanying silents, tinting, and replacement of the intertitles with subtitles. Though this version was nominated for two Raspberry Awards, Worst Musical Score and Worst Original Song (“Love Kills,” by Freddie Mercury as a solo artist), it was nevertheless the first real restoration.

Decide for yourself!

In 1986, German film historian and preservationist Enno Patalas began the most painstaking process of properly restoring the film. His version was the most complete, accurate restoration to date, and was based upon the original score and script. He worked from a copy in the Museum of Modern Art. Perhaps this, and not the Moroder version, was my first exposure to the film.

After 1986, previously lost and unknown parts began showing up in archives and museums all around the world. With all this great new material with which to work, the awesome Kino was able to release an even better restoration on DVD in 2002. It ran 118 minutes, much closer to the original 153.

On 1 July 2008, film experts in Berlin had some very wonderful news to announce. A 16 mm reduction negative of the original cut had been found in the archives of Museo del Cine in Buenos Aires. This copy had been circulating since 1928, going from a film distributor, to a private collector, to an art foundation, and finally to the museum.

Not only that, but in 2005, Australian historian and politician Michael Organ had looked at a print in the National Film Archive of New Zealand, and found it to have scenes missing from other prints. When he went to compare it against the 2008 discovery, he found the New Zealand print had eleven scenes missing from the Argentinian print, and some snippets used to restore damaged sections of the Argentinian print.

Being nitrate, the film was in poor condition and needed some very delicate repair operations. Sadly, there were still two short scenes damaged beyond repair—a fight between Rotwang and Frederson, and a monk preaching. New intertitles were inserted to describe the missing scenes.

This restoration made its début in 2010, and considerably lengthened the film and gave the story much deeper complexity. It runs 147 minutes, probably the closest we’ll ever get to the original, barring another miraculous rediscovery.

While many silents are lost forever, it’s such a beautiful blessing and miracle we’ve found as many as we have over the years. That’s why I hold out hope for films like Theda Bara’s Cleopatra (1917) and Hats Off (1927), Laurel and Hardy’s only remaining lost film.

Metropolis at 90, Part III (Reception and legacy)

Reports on the audience reception by the début of Metropolis are mixed. Some sources say the audience applauded the most impression scenes (including a film critic), while other sources claim muted applause was commingled with boos and hisses. Critical reception was also mixed, with some critics praising the technical merits while panning the actual story. H.G. Wells wrote a New York Times review ripping it apart.

One of the film’s fans was Joseph Goebbels. Many other Nazis also loved it, which possibly led to director Fritz Lang later expressing negative opinions about it. It’s debatable how much of this is urban legend vs. historical fact, but the story goes that Goebbels, in 1933, offered Lang the most prestigious position as head of production at UFA, Universum Film AG.

Lang claimed he left Germany that very evening, though he really left four months later, and made several visits home after moving to France. Whatever the truth, it’s a good thing he left, since his mother was born Jewish, which made him “half-Jewish” under Nazi racial laws in spite of his Catholic faith. The great scientist Niels Bohr was in the same boat in Denmark, and was among the people smuggled to Sweden.

The 153-minute film was drastically shortened for the U.S. and U.K. audience, with different title cards and some changed names. All references to Freder’s deceased mother Hel were also removed, since her name was too close to the word Hell. I wonder if they knew about the Old Norse mythological figure Hel (infamous trickster Loki’s daughter), who presides over an underworld location of the same name.

With the references to Hel gone, mad scientist Rotwang’s original impetus for creating his robot was gone. While it’s not a huge plot point, it’s pretty important as backstory and motivation.

The English-language cut ran 115 minutes, the product of playwright Channing Pollock. A 115-minute version also was distributed in Germany later in 1927. In 1936, a further shortened version came out in Germany, only 91 minutes. (See more on run times and projection speeds.)

In the decades since, Metropolis has come to have a much greater reputation, and can now be seen at a length much closer to the original. (More about that in Part IV.) It routinely ranks highly on those incessant “best-of” lists, both for the silent era and for all time.

The film has been referenced in popular culture many times over the years. Notable homages include:

C-3PO of Star Wars was directly inspired by the Maschinenmensch, Rotwang’s robot.

Madonna’s classic 1989 music video for “Express Yourself” has numerous depictions of scenes from the film. It also features an epigraph almost identical to the film’s, “Without the Heart, there can be no understanding between the hand and the mind.”

Queen’s 1984 music video for “Radio Ga Ga” features several scenes from the film.

Whitney Houston’s 1992 music video for “Queen of the Night” also features several film clips. The costume she wore also was modelled after the robot.

Isn’t it amazing how the cards can fall? Some films, books, artworks, and albums are totally panned or get a mixed, lukewarm initial reception, yet go on to become very revered classics, while many things which were wildly popular quickly date. Metropolis has that special something which has enabled it to remain popular and revered over many generations.

Metropolis at 90, Part II (Behind the scenes)

Metropolis is based on a 1925 novel of the same name, written by director Fritz Lang’s then-wife Thea von Harbou for the express purposes of being adapted for the screen. Lang and von Harbou also wrote the screenplay. The story shows influences from H.G. Wells, Auguste Villiers de l’Isle-Adam, and Mary Shelley, as well as the culture of the Weimar Republic.

Before the book existed, though, the story was set in motion by Lang’s very first trip to New York City in October 1924. He was fascinated by the skyscrapers and the lights. Ultimately, the set designs were a beautiful mix of German Expressionism, Art Déco, and New York City architecture. Reportedly, Art Déco got a huge boost of popularity from the film.

Filming began 22 May 1925, with a budget of 1.5 million Reichsmarks. Lang cast Rudolf Klein-Rogge as mad scientist Rotwang (marking their fourth film together); established screen and stage actor Alfred Abel as Joh Frederson; and unknowns Brigitte Helm as Maria and Gustav Fröhlich as Freder.

Lang was quite the demanding director, much like Chaplin, and frequently made his actors do numerous re-takes. A simple scene could take as long as two days to be deemed just right. Fröhlich could barely stand up by the time Lang was finally happy with all the film he’d shot. For the flood scene, Lang also made Helm and 500 poor Berlin kids work in a pool of water at a low temperature.

Filming finally wrapped on 30 October 1926.

The original soundtrack was composed by Gottfried Huppertz, who’d also scored Lang’s two 1924 Nibelungen films. He drew inspiration from Wagner and Strauss, melding classical elements with mild modernism. Other elements included hymn “Dies Irae” (“Day of Wrath”) and “La Marseillaise.” During filming, Huppertz often played his score on the piano to inspire and guide the actors.

The score was meant for a large orchestra to perform. Side note: If you have the opportunity to see a silent with live orchestral accompaniment, go for it! I saw some Laurel and Hardy shorts by MASS MoCA with live musicians in I believe 2007, and I also saw the original Ten Commandments with live music in November 2015, at a local church which has been kind enough to loan their beautiful building for several film screenings.

Metropolis features a number of ambitious special effects, most famously the Schüfftan process. This involves using a special mirror to give the illusion of actors being on huge, realistic sets which are actually miniatures. The technique was used again in Alfred Hitchcock’s first talkie, Blackmail (1929).

During the adaptation from book to screenplay, and again during the numerous edits on the way to the finished product, a number of changes were made. Most of the references to magic and occultism were left on the cutting-room floor, as were the moral motivations for certain actions by the main characters.

Also abandoned was an ending where Freder flies to the stars. Since good writers can find inspiration even from junked plot elements and scenes, this ending became the basis for Lang’s final silent, 1929’s Frau im Mond (Woman in the Moon).

All that intense, hard work ultimately paid off. Initial reception was mixed, but the film has more than gone on to prove its incredibleness.

Metropolis at 90, Part I (General overview)

Released 10 January 1927 at the Ufa–Palast am Zoo cinema in Berlin, Metropolis is not only one of the greatest silent films ever, but one of the greatest films ever as well. This was also the very first silent I ever saw, at least that I was consciously aware of. This past summer, I was lucky enough to see it at the local indie theatre, at one of their 35-cent matinées. I believe that was the first time I got to see the 148-minute 2010 restoration.

In the year 2026, Joh Frederson presides over the huge, futuristic city of Metropolis. The few haves live in high-rise towers, while the many have-nots toil away in dangerous underground factories. Joh’s pretty son Freder is an idle playboy when the film opens, but all that changes when he falls in instalove with Maria.

Maria has brought the workers’ children aboveground to see how the idle rich live, but this field trip isn’t long-lived. Frederson and his stooges make them leave, but Freder is determined to see Maria again. He goes below ground in search of Maria, and stumbles upon one of the machine rooms. Freder is horrified when the Moloch machine explodes, killing and injuring several workers.

Freder rushes to tell his father about what happened, very shaken. Frederson is upset to learn that not only was Freder prowling around underground, but also that he didn’t learn of this accident from his assistant Josaphat. The foreman of the Heart Machine, Grof, also shows Freder secret maps which were found on two dead laborers. Frederson fires Josaphat for his incompetence.

Freder resolves to do all he can to help the exploited proletariat, after seeing his father cares less about their living and working conditions. These living human souls are just impersonal cogs on a machine to Frederson, expendable commodities.

Frederson gives orders for Freder to be closely watched, but Freder goes back underground. Freder is horrified to see a worker named Georgy struggling and finally collapsing by the paternoster machine (i.e., the giant clock). Georgy pleads that someone must stay by the machine at all times, and Freder kindly volunteers to take his place. They switch clothes, and Georgy gets into Freder’s car.

Frederson goes to visit the mad scientist Rotwang (Rudolf Klein-Rogge, who starred in many of director Fritz Lang’s films, both silents and talkies). Years ago, Rotwang was in love with Hel, who left him for Frederson. Sadly, she died giving birth to Freder. All these years, Rotwang has been obsessed with Hel.

Rotwang is trying to create a robot to take the place of human workers, since it never makes a mistake or gets tired. He sacrificed his own hand towards the creation of this robot.

Rotwang tells Frederson the maps depict a network of catacombs beneath Metropolis, and they go to spy on the workers. Freder is also by this meeting, having been invited under the false impression he’s Georgy. Freder almost didn’t make it to the end of his 10-hour shift, and indeed collapsed at the end, right before the next worker took his place.

By the meeting, Maria tells the story of the Tower of Babel, imparts some spiritual teachings, and promises a mediator will come to save them. Frederson demands Rotwang make the robot in Maria’s likeness, so it can spread discord among the workers.

Rotwang kidnaps Maria, and uses her to bring his robot to life. By the time Freder finds Rotwang, the robot has been animated and gone to Frederson. Freder is shocked to find his father with the woman he believes is his sweetheart, and goes a bit mad. He passes out, and the robot goes to do Rotwang and Frederson’s bidding.

I won’t spoil what happens after this, but suffice it to say, it’s an incredible, powerful, intense, dramatic, emotional journey. The film meant even more to me after my political awakening at age fifteen, but I’ll discuss that more in a later installment.

It’s hard to put into words just how awesome and incredible this film is. Your cinematic education isn’t complete if you haven’t seen Metropolis!