by Allan Fish
(Germany 1927/2010 150m) DVD1/2
I’ve just met two girls named Maria
p Erich Pommer d Fritz Lang w Thea Von Harbou ph Karl Freund, Günther Rittau m Gottfried Huppertz art Otto Hunte, Erich Kettelhut, Karl Vollbrecht spc Eugene Schüfftan
Brigitte Helm (Maria), Alfred Abel (John Fredersen), Güstav Fröhlich (Freder Fredersen), Rudolf Klein-Rogge (Prof.Rotwang), Fritz Rasp (Slim), Theodore Loos (Josephat), Erwin Biswanger (11811), Heinrich George (Grot), Olaf Storm (Jan),
Fritz Lang’s supreme folly and the most ambitious silent film ever made, UFA’s flagship sci-fi fantasy has it all. It has influenced more films directly than almost any other (take Things to Come, Frankenstein, Modern Times, The Fifth Element, 2001: A Space Odyssey and Blade Runner to name but half a dozen), nearly ruined its studio financially but now stands out as arguably their greatest achievement. Some may decry the somewhat naïve politics and religious symbolism, and the finale is certainly quite laughable, but its message rings clear.
Metropolis is a giant city circa 2000 A.D. Its workers live underground in an ant-commune like city whilst the children of the rich, with its Club of the Sons, play idly above ground in their mansions and stadiums. Almost unconscious of their totalitarian power, the young rich only have their eyes opened when a young woman, Maria, comes to the Eternal Gardens with a group of slum children. Freder, son of the master of the city, is fascinated by her and follows her underground and sees for himself the poverty. But when his father persuades a professor, Rotwang, to create a model Maria to replace the real one and stamp out any revolutionary tendencies, things take a turn for the worse.
Much has been made of the religious allegory of the piece, but to which portion of the Bible the allegory refers is somewhat open to interpretation. The constant references to Revelation lend an apocalyptic feel to proceedings, but the towers of the city recall the Tower of Babel, the statues that come to life denote the Seven Deadly Sins and it might also be showing that, as saieth the commandment, thou shalt have no other God before me. (In this case, money.) Either way, the religious subtext is clear, and its conclusion at a Gothic cathedral – one of the few truly old buildings in this city of the future – could not be more pointed.
The opening and final caption reads “the mediator between the head and hands must be the heart.” Here Freder is found between his father and the workers’ leader in the final symbolic handshake, and though this moral may seem a trifle trite viewed from beyond the year in which the film is set, and its city something of a model of Bauhaus fantasy, it still stands up remarkably well for its age. Unlike Things to Come, which dated itself very quickly by pinpointing events to certain years, Metropolis is very vague about when the film is happening. But it’s the images that matter and there are shots here that truly burn themselves into the brain; the workers plodding in unison to work and back again, the creation of the robotic Maria (with the pentagram behind recalling Der Golem), the demonic Maria doing wild and wildly dated dances with pasties over her nipples leading the young men into a rather laughable frenzy, the poor worker doing the ten hour shift at the generator moving his arms about like a clock, the explosion of the huge machine and, perhaps most memorably, Freder’s wild vision of the machine turning itself into the Moloch furnace with its workers escorted into the flames recalling the poor children in Pastrone’s Cabiria. Above all, the film is to be applauded for its technical achievement. The photography and set design of the city are quite jaw-dropping (especially in the spanking new print restored by the Murnau Foundation). Yet it’s to writer Von Harbou and Lang whom the most credit must go, for managing to make a masterpiece out of what could have been a real farrago if they had put the slightest foot wrong. If the added footage is in a truly deplorable state (found in Buenos Aires in 2008 in a cropped 16mm print) and the sexual angle may date wildly and its view of paradise above even more so, it’s still a paradise of a film for any true enthusiast. Et in arcadia, ego.