By Bill Anderson
On Sunday, January 29, 2002, I finally saw a theatrical presentation of Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis” (1927). The music was performed live -- an organist and a performer with a couple of electronic contraptions out of Theramin by Moog. Actually it worked pretty well -- no, actually it worked magnificently. Much of the organ performance came directly from the original score for orchestra by Gottfried Huppertz, and the rest, according to the organist, was composed for the presentation we saw on Sunday. (He said the original was very good, but entirely too repetitious.) And the synthesizers (called "Thunder" and "Lightning") produced some very appropriate effects.
It was shown Sunday afternoon at the National Gallery of Art here in Washington, DC. The East Wing has a 400-seat auditorium, and it was packed with an appreciative, standing-room-only audience. The physical quality of the film seemed extraordinarily good, considering it's been around for 75 years. Large sections of it, though, have been snipped and lost over the years, requiring several critical segments to be described with modern intertitles. Still, it ran nearly two and a half hours. We were told it was assembled from two extant prints of the movie, and was the most complete, authentic version we're ever likely to see. The titles were in German, and a gentleman translated live for us.
I'd never seen "Metropolis," though a few of the set pieces were familiar, of course, from silent film, sci-fi, and motion picture history documentaries I've encountered over the years. And how many times did I spot a bit of business that would be referenced later? Let's see....we’re in Blade Runner country now, and there's Dr. Strangelove's hand, and there's Charlie Chaplin's Modern Times factory, and isn't that Dr. Frankenstein's Van de Graaff generator? Heck, isn't that Dr. Frankenstein himself and maybe Elsa Lanchester too? And there's Quasimodo's bell tower, and oh look, it's King Kong headed to the roof with Fay Wray over his shoulder.... Never mind who referenced what from where, I was just struck by how much of "Metropolis" looked familiar.
And by how much looked stunning. I swear, if you squint just a little, the special effects, most of them anyway, would do ILM proud. I think George Lucas stole some of Fritz Lang's "Metropolis" storyboards and used them for "The Phantom Menace." Funny how designs that in 1927 were supposed to look futuristic still do, to me anyway. Also, those expressionists knew how to design a set and compose a frame, and they really knew how to choreograph a mob scene too. (And, I'm afraid, they knew how to over-act. I've seen other silents from the period that don't unintentionally inspire laughter. Those lechers watching Bad Maria do the hootchy-koochy were hilarious. And so was Bad Maria, most of the time. I think she had a defective actuator in that left eye....)
The story, though, wasn't what I'd anticipated. While it's not exactly a rehash of the Morlocks and the Eloi, in the world of "Metropolis" the wealthy, elite do live in a bright city above ground, while the miserable proletariat toil their lives away in a hellish underground energy factory. The workers' main occupation seems to be frantically pushing around the hands of large clocks, chasing lights that flash randomly. If the workers don't keep up with the flashing lights, a temperature gauge will rise to a graphic of lightning bolts and a reservoir will explode, flooding an underground city populated exclusively by people under the age of 10. Got that so far?
Now it seems the Big Boss Industrialist has an impulsive twenty-something son who has been given everything he could possibly desire in life, so naturally he decides he'd like to learn how the oppressed class lives. Against Dad's wishes, he sneaks off to the flashing clock factory, where he changes places with a character named 11811. (Or was it THX 1138?) After a brutal 10-hour shift of clock-hand pushing, he discovers that in their leisure time the workers are surreptitiously attending church. And why not? The high priestess is a lovely girl (named, appropriately, Maria) who declares Big Boss's son to be the long-awaited mediator who will save the workers from their oppressor – who, of course, is his Dad. And of course Son and Maria fall instantly in love. Are you still with me?
Well, it turns out that Dad is in cahoots with Rotwang the mad scientist, who lives in a quaint little house where doors have minds of their own, and who's on the verge of creating a robot with breasts and big hips. He says, in fact, that given 24 hours he can make the robot look perfectly like a man, which is strange, considering the breasts and hips. I am *not* making this up. Seems Dad's wife, who died when the son was born, was named "Hel," and he wants mad scientist guy to make the robot look like Hel. (Yeah, that got a laugh.) All mad scientist guy needs is a lovely young girl from whom he can steal a face (and other interesting body parts). Guess whom he finds.....
But in the world of "Metropolis," facial theft isn't fatal, or as it turns out, even particularly disfiguring, so now we have two Marias on the loose -- one still sweet and lovely, and the other with a twitchy left eye, and twitchy breasts and hips too, come to think of it. Dad tells mad scientist guy he wants Bad Maria to cause a revolt among the working class. He seems for some reason to think that'll make them easier to control -- better not to dwell on this part too much. Dad fails to realize it'll be a dark day in paradise if the workers stop pushing those clock hands.
And this brings us to the rousing climax of the movie as Bad Maria incites the workers to line dance around the clocks (I *SWEAR* I am not making this up) while the underground city fills with water and about a zillion children run screaming up one narrow set of stairs with Good Maria and Sonny. Then the workers suddenly realize their kids are in danger and they roast Bad Maria like Joan of Arc, while mad scientist guy chases Good Maria to the roof of a cathedral. (You talk about action, boy, Jackie Chan would feel right at home in this one.)
Sonny saves Good Maria from the clutches of mad scientist guy, who tumbles to his death from the cathedral's bell tower. The kids are safe; to everyone's utter astonishment the flaming Bad Maria morphs back into a robot; and Main Worker Guy shakes hands with Dad the Industrialist while Sonny the Mediator stands between them. "Heart joins Head and Hand" or something like that. And all along I thought we’d eventually get to "Workers of the World, Unite," but no...that wasn't it. Guess 1927 Germany was headed in a different direction.
Wanna know something? "Metropolis" is not a perfect movie. But it definitely was an *influential* movie, and I thoroughly enjoyed watching it. Had a great time.