Almost a century after the end of the silent film era, Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (Germany, 1927) remains one of the most famous and iconic silent classics. It’s a landmark of science fiction filmmaking and a visionary work of cinema. Its design and scope influenced filmmakers and inspired artists the world over and its imagery echoes through such films as Star Wars (1977), Blade Runner (1982), and Tim Burton’s Batman (1989), as well as scores of music videos.
The magnificent metropolis of Lang’s film is a fantastical world is like an ancient Roman society in an industrial future. The privileged class lives a glorious city of architectural marvels and aesthetic delights built by a virtual slave class of workers, a literal underground society segregated in a sunless, joyless subterranean existence beneath the city.
The visionary leader of this society, Joh Frederson (Alfred Abel), is an industrial mogul as authoritarian leader determined to keep the lower classes in their place. His golden boy son, Freder (Gustav Fröhlich), is oblivious to the reality of his existence until he meets Maria (Brigitte Helm), the beautiful activist in the workers quarters. Her signature proclamation, “The mediator between head and hands must be the heart,” is political science as sermon and her vague mix of class conscious empowerment and religious prophecy preaches compassion and non-violence while awaiting the mediator—the messiah who will lead them from bondage—to arrive. Meanwhile, Frederson asks Rotwang (Rudolf Klein-Rogge), his resident mad scientist of an inventor, to turn his robot creation into a fake Maria—a false messiah—and twist her sermons into a call to action so he can justify a violent repression. But Rotwang, twisted by his hatred of Frederson, has his own kind of vengeance in mind.
The visionary qualities of the visual creation become more impressive with each restoration, and the narrative more interesting. Lang uses scale and mass brilliantly, especially with his crowd scenes. They are not just impressive on the level of size on the screen, but in the way he moves them through the frame, from chaotic elements moving individually to a mobilized force moving en masse with unstoppable momentum: man colliding with the force of technology. In contrast to the lock-step mechanization of the workers, the society elegance of the privileged class above ground and the mobilized masses driven by rage, Brigitte Helm’s robot incarnation of the fake Maria seems to be channeling John Barrymore’s Mr. Hyde by way of Dr. Caligari and Renfield, all twisted and contorted and gnarled, her face twisted and her body arching and her hands becoming claws in her mania. She stands out by body language and performance alone, a creature not of any human provenience.
As epic and stunning as Lang’s world is, the screenplay (by his wife and longtime collaborator Thea von Harbou) delivers an unnerving theme that preaches benevolence but not quite equality. It turns the angry labor class into a simple-minded, bloodthirsty mob easily roused to violence and vengeance and offers Brigitte Helm’s Maria part Christ, part Virgin Mary, and part Gandhi, preaching non-violence in a primitive underground chapel like a prophet preparing the way for a savior.
The reputation of Metropolis was built on an incomplete version of his original film. Less than six months after its premiere, the film was edited down by Ufa Studio by over half an hour, and then cut even further as it made its way around the world. That abbreviated version (including an earlier restoration that used title cards to fill in missing footage) was the only cut available to audiences until 2010, when the Murnau Institute completed a years-long restoration effort that drew from archives all around the world including a miraculous discovery of a 16mm copy of the original, uncut version in an Argentina archive. That reduction copy was used as both a guide and, when higher quality source material was unavailable, a source print itself. The 16mm footage—washed out, scratched and scuffed almost beyond repair—stands out from rest of the restoration, which comes from the best materials available and looks superb.
Over 40 minutes of material was restored, including the journeys of The Thin Man (Fritz Rasp), who in previous editions is sent by Joh Frederson on a clandestine mission and then all but disappears; Joh Frederson’s assistant Josaphat (Theodor Loos), who is fired by Frederson and taken in by Freder; and the worker 11811 (Erwin Biswanger), who Freder relieves from the exhausting duty of working the hands of the clock-like device and subsequently journeys to the world above ground and becomes intoxicated on the decadence. And there are further additions, from an additional action scene in the escape from the flooding underwater city to shots trimmed from within scenes. The restoration of even these brief shots is important largely for the rhythmic qualities of Lang’s editing and detail to the montage, and in a few significant scenes it adds to the scope and intricacy of the drama. Just as important, they add character and personality to a film that leans on a saintly young hero and an impassive dictatorial antagonist. These smaller characters and subplot trajectories give dimension to the spectacle and the message by revealing individuals people within the faceless mobs who act and react as people caught up in the forces around them.
Lang’s visionary visual creation remains impressive a century later, from the densely imagined cityscape to the massive sets that dwarf the actors and the swarms of extras, and its socio-political themes are just as soft-headed and simplistic. The restored scenes add personality to the narrative with characters and stories cut out of previous versions, the restored rhythms of Lang’s editing make it more of a visual symphony. I respect Metropolis more than I love it, but now it’s more impressive than ever.
It placed in the number 67 spot in the 2022 Sight & Sound Greatest Films of All Time poll.
Silent with the original score composed by Gottfried Huppertz, adapted to this restoration and performed by the Rundfunk Symphony Orchestra, Berlin.
The unrestored film fell into the public domain years ago and has been available in cheap, poor quality edition for decades. We only list availability of the restored edition.
Also on Blu-ray and DVD and on SVOD through Amazon Video, iTunes, GooglePlay, Vudu and/or other services. Availability may vary by service.
The Complete Metropolis [Blu-ray]
The Complete Metropolis [DVD]
Kino Classics presents the restoration on Blu-ray and DVD with the original 54-minute documentary “Voyage to Metropolis,” a German production that surveys the making of the film, the history of edits and alternate cuts that existed around the world, and the discovery of the complete print and the creation of this new restoration. Also features an English-language interview with Paula Felix-Didier, the curator of the Museo del Cine in Buenos Ares, who tells the story of how the complete print came to Argentina and was tracked to the film archive, and a booklet with film notes by historian Bruce Bennett.