Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis” Over Time


Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis” Over Time
Source: SDK
Town with tower: A design from Erich Kettelhut for "Metropolis" (1927)

Perhaps no other German film has left as much of a mark on the popular culture of the twentieth century as Fritz Lang's "Metropolis". From its premier on January 10, 1927, Ufa's mammoth technical undertaking has polarized critics, historians, and the public alike. To this day, various, and often completely incompatible, interpretations of the legendary science fiction prototype continue to co-exist.A frequently cited example is Luis Buñuel's extremely ambivalent assessment of the film, which was published in the Gazeta Literaria of May 1, 1927: "'Metropolis' is not a film. 'Metropolis' is two films, glued together at the belly, but with differing, extremely antagonistic demands. Anyone who considers the film as a discrete story-teller will find 'Metropolis' a bitter disappointment. What we are told here is trivial, bombastic, pedantic, of an overwhelming romanticism. But when one concentrates not on the anecdote, but rather on the plastic background, then 'Metropolis' surpasses all expectation, astounding one like the most wonderful picture book that was ever made."

The Controversial Classic

Source: SDK
The building of the Tower of Babel in "Metropolis" (1927)

Indeed, the critical spectrum ran the gamut from the content-based critique of Thea von Harbou's speculative screenplay, through the discussion of the formal qualities of the lavish staging, to Siegfried Kracauer's famous verdict in his influential study, From Caligari to Hitler (1974), in which he analyses Lang's futuristic fairy-tale as a proto-fascist allegory. In particular, Kracauer devotes his attention to the "mass ornament," which is evident in "Metropolis" in the geometrically choreographed deployment of the huge masses of extras. For Kracauer, these de-individualized mass scenes are, not least, manifestations of totalitarian demagoguery — whereby his text also refers to the staged National Socialist rallies of the 1930s.The film's coda also became the object of differing interpretations. Whereas for some critics, the concluding reconciliation between the ruling powers and the workers under the guidance of Brigitte Helm's Maria and Gustav Fröhlich's Freder was, above all, evidence of a naive, ultimately unworldly symbolism, others perceived in the end of "Metropolis" an anti-democratic apologia for the principle of rule. The interpretations of the concluding intertitle, "The heart must be the mediator between the head and the hands", turned out to be accordingly varied.

The Myth of “Metropolis”

Source: SDK
Constructing the set of the City of the Future for "Metropolis" (1927)

It is precisely this lack of agreement in the film's reception that plays an operative role in the fascination "Metropolis" continues to exude. In his 2001 book, "Metropolis": The Classic Film by Fritz Lang, the film scholar Thomas Elsaesser took the protean heritage of the work as an occasion for an associative and compelling investigation that shed light on both the origins and the new, pop-cultural meanings of the myth of "Metropolis". Elsaesser sees the film as a product of the "alphabet soup of the Avant-garde", constructed, as it were, out of citations from, allusions to, and borrowings from the history of early modern art, literature and film: "Indeed, the point of this international superproduction was to create a work with recognition value, which affected various kinds of cultural memory and appealed to the originary scenes of fantasy while offering an experience in which the eye sees what the head only rarely seeks to understand." "Metropolis" has preserved this recognition value to this day, above all thanks to its unmistakable iconography; for, despite the disappointing box-office performance and rather reserved reviews, the film set the bar for technical and aesthetic standards. For the physically superlative, grand production, the film's architects, Otto Hunte, Erich Kettelhut and Karl Vollbrecht, as well as the cameramen, Karl Freund and Günther Rittau, created a stylistically influential look that became a permanent component of the international vocabulary and history of film. Over the decades, the design of "Metropolis" has lodged in the visual memory even of those who have never seen the film – for since the appearance of "Metropolis", media production has returned to Lang's vision of the future again and again.

The City-Machine as Style-Maker

Source: SDK
Brigitte Helm as the Robot Maria during a break on the set of "Metropolis" (1927)

Whenever the "city of the future" is visualized in a science fiction film, the skyrocketing architecture of the surface world from "Metropolis" is almost inevitably the aim. For Lang, however, the buildings and machines are more than just a backdrop. They are carriers of meaning endowed with qualities that resemble those of characters. Thus, the urban organicism of "Metropolis" logically found its psychological and stylistic descendants in the big-city images of American film noir in the 1940s. And later on, the fusion of science fiction and noir in Ridley Scott's "Blade Runner" (1982) took the retro-futurism reminiscent of "Metropolis" to what was then a new height. Even more clearly traceable is, of course, the influence of the robot Maria, whose golden image became an icon of pop culture. There is hardly an account of robots, mechanical men, and artificial intelligence that dispenses with an illustration of the figure created by the sculptor Walter Schultze-Mittendorf – which lives on as the prototype of an animated mechanism whose design has left its indelible mark on the conception of man's artificial likeness.

Post-Modernity"s Resort

Source: (c) DC Comics, New York, 1996
Cover of "Superman's Metropolis" by R.J.M. Lofficier, Roy Thomas, Ted McKeever ) DC Comics, New York c) 1996)

Considering the suggestive powers of the film's formal and aesthetic qualities, it is no wonder that the cinematic legend also gives rise to new adaptations and homages. From Superman comics –which are not set in "Metropolis" by coincidence – to videos, to stage musicals, the cultural assimilation of the material has an extensive palette. In film, the metropolis has also gained a new lease on life: in 2001, for instance, in the Japanese animated film "Metoroporisu", based on the Manga series by famous artist Osamu Tezuko. The greatest controversy, however, was sparked by the new rendition released by the Italian pop composer Giorgio Moroder in 1982. In his colorized version, Lang's images (from which 87 minutes have been cut) are set to pop music, which is intended to drive the events at the level of sound. The critics were for the most part unfavorably impressed with this postmodern appropriation of a classic, although Moroder's experiment nonetheless promoted an examination of the "original". The concept of the "original" in this case is, however, highly questionable in itself, since the original version of "Metropolis" no longer exists. Just after its premier, the film was altered, shortened – occasionally mutilated –and scattered to the four corners of the earth.

Reconstructing a Utopia

Source: "Cult Movies" Nr. 26, 1998
Cover of "Forrest J. Ackerman's Spacewomen - Metropolis" Part of "Cult Movies" Nr. 26, 1998

In his capacity as director of the Munich Film Museum, the film historian Enno Patalas was responsible for the first extensive reconstruction of "Metropolis" in the 1980s. His book, "Metropolis" in and out of the Ruins: A Film History provides an account of the project's painstaking work and research. Patalas proceeds on the assumption that, initially, three original negatives were produced and assembled: one for the German premier, one for Paramount (Ufa's American partner), and one for export abroad. All subsequent copies – as well as the restored versions, naturally – are therefore derived from these three original negatives.For the Munich version, Patalas used the Ufa negative. In a later reconstruction of the film – commissioned by the Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau Foundation, completed in cooperation with the Kimentheksverbund, and shown for the first time at the 2001 Berlinale – Martin Koerber and his team took their cue from Patalas' seminal work. However, in their choice of original material, they relied as much as possible on the Paramount negative in the collection of the Bundesarchiv-Filmarchiv. Then, in 2008, a sensation in film history occurred: In Buenos Aires, Paula Félix-Didier, director of the film museum, checked a 16mm negative after receiving reports abput the unusual length of the film. She took a print to Berlin and screened it for experts who quickly asserted that they were actually seeing the original long version of the film, which was believed to be lost forever. Soon after the discovery, the Friedrich-Wilhelm-Murnau-Stiftung teamed up with other partners for an extensive restoration project which used the newfound scenes last seen 80 years ago. The double gala premiere of the elaborately reconstructed "Metropolis" in Frankfurt and Berlin on February the 12th 2010 marks the return of Fritz Lang's almost complete silent classic to the screen.The fact that a mere 15,000 film-goers saw the film during its original run in Berlin from January 10 to May 13, 1927 seems rather unreal to us today, in view of its world-wide presence and significance. Even after nearly 80 years, "Metropolis" remains for millions the city of the future.