03 December 2005


The Murnau-Stiftung restored version of Fritz Lang's Metropolis features the original German inter-titles. Previously, I've seen Metropolis three times, in three different versions, though I'd never seen the original inter-titles until now.

Usually, I avoid film restorations, because many restorers take their role further than they should - they generally fiddle with things that disrupt the director's original intentions. This Metropolis restoration, though, is an example of what a film restoration should be - a meticulous attempt to restore (not enhance) the original film.

In Metropolis the concept of workers toiling underground to maintain the lavish lifestyles of the rich in their skyscrapers is a powerful metaphor (used extensively by Madonna in her Express Yourself video, an excellent homage to Metropolis). The film's Expressionist design borrows from Futurism's fetishism of machinery, though, of course, in Metropolis the images may be Futurist yet the ideology is reversed - here, machines and industrialisation are the enemy. Portraying the workers as a collective, even geometric unit effectively demonstrates their mechanised dehumanisation and deindividualisation.

Several of the actors (Helm in her saintly and lascivious roles, Rudolph Klein-Rogge as the Frankenstein/Dr Strangelove-style inventor Rotwang, and the brilliantly restrained Alfred Abel as the industrialist Joh) give excellent performances, transcending the typical histrionics of silent film acting. The same cannot be said of Gustav Frolich (as Joh's son, Freder), who seems permanently on the verge of hysteria and gives the most dated performance in the film.

However, the narrative is ridiculously simplistic. The role of woman is divided into virgin (Maria, played by Brigitte Helm) and whore (the robot-Maria, also played by Helm), with the virgin preaching peace to the restless workers and the whore persuading them to riot. The proletariat are portrayed as gullible and easily led, and the reconcilliation at the end of the film (the workers and Joh united in a symbolic handshake, the false unity of capital and labour) is quite absurd.

Despite its simplistic plot, Metropolis is absolutely one of the greatest films ever made, with its stunning futuristic cityscapes, terrifying Moloch machine, and electrifying robot-woman. The production design gives new meaning to the word 'extravagant', though maintains a strong avant-garde influence (especially in the short fantasy montages, which are almost Dadaist). It may be the greatest triumph of experimental silent filmmaking.

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