I have long intended to watch Metropolis.
The desire came upon me in the mid-to-late eighties. In 1984, music producer Giorgio Moroder created a new version of the film featuring a music score by popular artists. The film was also re-edited in an attempt to create a “director’s cut.” In addition to reworking the film to better match the version as originally released, the black-and-white footage was toned sepia, and the title panels were replaced with subtitles.
Let’s back up a bit.
The original version of Metropolis, as premiered in 1926, had a running time of two hours and twenty some minutes. It met with a mixed response. From a technical perspective the film was widely praised. As a piece of entertainment, however, it was not held in such high regard. At least not at the time.
In response, the production company hired playwright Channing Pollock to re-edit the film for distribution in America. He cut the film to under two hours, simplifying and refocusing the film. He cut almost 50 minutes from the running time, including completely eliminating the character of Hel, under the assumption that American audiences would read it as “hell.” The story was also simplified through the removal of much the symbolism from the original work. Director Fritz Lang was not pleased.
Later, a German version was created along the same lines as the Pollock edit, also removing the heavy religious overtones and perceived communist propaganda. As the Nazis came to power, a 1936 theatrical release was related. This entailed further edits which reduced the film to about an hour and a half. Lang, in later life, would express dissatisfaction with the film as a whole. Some speculate that it was the Nazi influence, first altering and then trumpeting the work as supportive of National Socialism, which soured him.
This leads us back to 1984 and the Moroder’s desire to back out the Pollock edits and return to the original story. While I do recall the release in 1984, it was actually a few years beyond that when my interest was piqued. Following the attention and success of the 1984 version, another attempt at restoring the original film was embarked upon, this time by Enno Patalas from the Munich Film Archive. Using records from the German censorship of the film, he was able to restore the content from missing inter-titles. It was the praise of this version that made me decide that I should watch it. And yet I never did.
In some ways, that may have been a fortuitous move on my part. On July 1st of 2008, a copy of the original version of the film was discovered in a museum in Argentina. This was essentially a “backup copy,” a negative print, created during the 1960s or 1970s from a “positive” which was used at that time. It was a lower-quality copy (a 16mm, reduced frame version) created, not from a master, but from a distribution copy of the film. The negative was kept by the distributor, in part as a hedge against the volatility of the chemicals used to make 1920s-era film. This reduced negative passed through the hands of private collectors and into the care of the Buenos Aires Museo del Cine.
While this version still wasn’t 100% complete due to damage sustained during the intervening forty-some years, it did contain the bulk of the scenes that had been considered lost to the ages. Using the academic work done to date, missing scenes from the original were substituted with the 16mm copy of those scenes to reconstruct the original film. State-of-the-art digital technology allowed the repair of damage that the 16mm version had suffered. In the several cases where the original film was missing and the copy was damaged beyond reconstruction, additional inter-titles have been inserted describing the missing scenes. The resulting creation runs close to the original length (2 hours and 20 some minutes) and is believed to be very close to the original content and is shown using Gottfried Huppertz’s original musical score.
It was this version that I finally watched.
Well, most of it at any rate. I was finally prodded to watch it, as is so often the case, by Netflix’s decision to remove it from streaming. The experience being nearly two-and-a-half hours, I split the viewing up over multiple nights. Fatigue and some miscalculation with how Netflix posts the dates of removal meant I watched all but the last 30 minutes or so. One of these days I’ll figure out a way to see how it ends.
The experience of watching a movie often depends on your expectations going in. Something you’ve read was awful, but watch anyway only to find it wasn’t so bad, will generally leave you with a pretty positive impression. A better impression, even, than when a top-billed movie fails to live up to the hype, even if objectively the latter is superior to the former. So what does one expect when watching a silent, black-and-white movie from 1926?
Obviously we’re not going to be expecting Michael Bay. The film has to be appreciated within the context of what it is – a piece of technology that’s pushing 100 years of age. On the other hand, through the years I’ve read about what a monumental achievement this film is that I couldn’t help going in with some pretty big expectations.
First of all, as the critics said at the time, the technical aspects of the film are outstanding. This was possibly the first full-length science fiction film and, as such, sets a foundation for all sci-fi to come. Now the “special effects,” the 1920s equivalent of CGI, are a little goofy – apparently hand-drawn flashes and stars. But the effects of creating a cityscape with models and paintings is genuinely impressive. Near the end (my end, not the real end) I was actually a little bit surprised by a scene where parts of an underground city are destroyed by flood waters. I was surprised because in the flood scene, the models look like models. This got me because they had looked so much more realistic in earlier scenes where the same models were used as background for long shots. There are also some very innovative techniques. For example, a chase scene through catacombs is filmed using flashlights to convey the impression of a wild, winding flight – when all that is actually on the screen is the single character in a circular spotlight.
So technique aside, what about the film as story? I feel like I’m swimming against the modern tide, but I don’t think the original critiques were so far off. Present day appreciation for the film as narrative often brings up the importance of the “message.” Roger Ebert wrote that Metropolis was “audacious in its vision and so angry in its message.” Others wrote of it as a call for “social change.” I wonder to what extent fans overlook the flaws because they agree with that “message.”
The world premier, on January 10th 1927, followed less than a year after the 1926 British General Strike, where 1.7 million workers walked out in support of coal miners, some 1.2 million of them, who were locked out over wage and hour disputes. Fallout from this strike was a significant factor in the Labour Party winning the plurality of seats in the 1929 elections. In 1927, union power was becoming government power.
In Germany itself, this was the height of the Weimar Republic, with its social and cultural upheaval as well as the financial pressures imposed by First World War reparations. The Communist Party of Germany was, at the time, the largest Communist party outside of the Soviet Union and could draw approximately 10% of the vote. Combine that with other “workers’ parties,” including the Nazi’s, and the strength of “labor” in politics is also evident within Germany. Earlier in the decade, Germany had also seen general strikes, some of which took the form of armed putsches, by militias and war veterans (Freikorps and the Kapp Putsch), by communists (e.g the Ruhr Red Army), and by Hitler’s National Socialist Workers Party (the Beer Hall Putsch). Hold this thought, I’ll come back to it later.
So the context of the time is one of a growing strength of unions and their influence on government. The “dystopia,” then, of the film is one where one hundred years on, workers have been unable to achieve any progress along the then-current trajectory. The film opens showing deplorable working conditions where the laborers are worked to exhaustion in a 10-hour shift, with that exhaustion leading to a deadly industrial accident. It is the witnessing of this accident that starts the protagonist on his journey through the film’s story.
The suffering of the laborers is presented in bombastic fashion that, I take it from the reviews, seemed as such even at the time. Work is shown as a choreographed dance of tragedy. Even the exit of the nearly-dead workers at the conclusion of their shift (10 hours!) shows them trudging in step, an image that the director requires that we dwell upon for many long minutes, to make sure we get the point. As the film progresses, heavy imagery is piled upon metaphor. The city boasts a modern Tower of Babel. As a automatronic flasher is created, Weimar Germany is equated to Babylon. Etc. The hero becomes, not just a “woke” son of privilege with the power to intervene on behalf of the workers, but an actual messianic figure, who will lead the people to the promised land.
This is the bold vision that, I suppose, if you agree with the “workers of the world” narrative, would strike you as a positive. If, from your own world view, it all seems too much, the heavy-handedness detracts (perhaps fatally) from the positive qualities the film does exhibit.
Just to pick on a detail. As the director imagines the future, the wealthy elite are supported by a massive, underground, industrial operation on a scale that dwarfs anything of the “present day.” It is an extension, one supposes, of the German conglomerates of the time and of the industrialization that was taking place in Germany and the world. Point being, the technology portrayed (excepting, of course, the maschinenmensch that graces nearly every movie still) is well within the understanding of those making the film. That is, this massive industrial operation is futuristic only in size and scale, not in technology.
In a scene midway through the film, the protagonist takes over the operation of some equipment from a lower-class worker, having taken pity on his exhausted state. Said operation consists of moving a massive dial, physically moving it by expending tremendous effort, so that the hands of the dial match light-bulb patterns on the dial’s circumference.
Now think this through. The hard part of this process, whatever it is supposed to be, is the control system. The intelligence (and this would have been somewhat futuristic at the time) to determine which light bulb illuminates requires something beyond what 1920s technology was capable. Moving geared levers, however, is something that had been done for hundreds of years. In the film’s earlier scenes we see there is plenty of available power within the industrial operation. There is pressurized steam, giant pistons, and rotating machinery. Once the “system” knows what position the dials are supposed to be in, rotating them would be the easy part, the “low tech” part, if you will. Bleed off a little steam and add in a mechanism to know where the dial stops, and the whole thing could be automated. Yet in our dystopian future, it is for this brute force, physical labor that the workers are employed. They must physically exhaust themselves, unthinkingly following instructions given to them by the machines – by the automated control system that does all their reasoning.
It makes no sense. It makes no sense today when control systems are far more advanced that what was portrayed in the move and human-mimicking robots are becoming a reality. But it also couldn’t have made sense at the time. It’s an “artistic license” to use an absurd situation to create a multitude of suffering workers that simply don’t add up to a coherent portrayal of reality.
Having now missed the end of the movie, I have to not only guess what it all means – the moral of the story – but I have to get that “whole story” from reading about the ending. I haven’t actually seen it. That said, the key theme that the ending expresses was already being used to smack me over the head midway through the movie. “The Mediator Between the Head and the Hands Must Be the Heart.” When focusing on this message, particularly when considering it in the context of the the time, a slightly different take emerges than the labor-empowerment message that dominates most of the film.
Make no mistake – the film is pro-worker-revolution without a doubt. Of all the characters in the movie only the workers (and charity worker, Maria) are portrayed with any sympathy. The “industrialists” are, notwithstanding any life lessons they may be learning, cold and a bit greedy.
But perhaps the message is not meant for society, conveying to them the necessity of being pro-worker. Perhaps the message is to the workers (and those who would support them politically) about the dangers of following the wrong prophet.
Is the movie saying that the “Head,” the captains of industry, as difficult as they may be to love, are still an integral part of it all? Is the message that violence and destruction benefits nobody and it is only through working together that “labor” and “the owners” can move society forward for the betterment of all? Seen in this way, the leaden portrayals of the suffering workers may serve less to illustrate their supposed plight than to connect with the segment of the audience to which the message is ultimately aimed. While one can argue that we need the owners themselves to “have a heart,” that particular message finds no shortage of expression either in 1926 or in 2018.
Another little piece I’ll mention, but I’m not sure of. In several of the more-modern interpretations of the film, it talks about the dehumanizing effects of the “machine.” We see that, particularly in the beginning, as the workers are pretty much enslaved to the giant equipment. However, when the workers rise up and destroy the “heart machine,” it results not in their liberation but rather their destruction. Is this again an example of creating a connection to the audience (those who see industrialization and automation as evil) to only then deliver them the message (destroying the productivity-enhancing machinery will ultimately harm the workers themselves)?
Again, subtleties are lost in both the original presentation and then the attempts to refocus, first by the studios and then by the Nazis, that presentation over the years. I also have to wonder about an interpretation that is a polar opposite of what nearly every modern critic has to say about the film.
Whatever the case, I just don’t see this one as living up to the hype, although the blame for that should probably fall more on the hype than on the production. The industry may owe a debt to this pioneering film, but that doesn’t make it a great 80s film or even, necessarily, bubble it to the top of a “must see” list of the movie buff. When no-one can experience all of histories important film works, two-and-a-half hours may be a bit of an investment just to be able to say, “been there, done that.”