Summary: A flawed masterpiece with an indelible legacy.
Review: It seems that trying to create a sci-fi film with a city as its subject has some sort of curse attached to it. Consider that Fritz Lang’s 1927 ‘Metropolis’, one of the most influential pieces of the genre, as well as its progeny ‘Blade Runner’, ‘Brazil’ and ‘Dark City’ all suffered from box office travails, multiple edits and an ensuing effort to restore them to proper form. All have gone on to gain considerable cult success and respect from critics, filmmakers, and genre enthusiasts. ‘Metropolis’ is considered the honored grandfather of all urban (in the literal sense) sci-fi films, but there’s still a necessary effort to restore all the lost footage. The most complete version is distributed by Kino. That’s the version I’ve seen, and will now review.
‘Metropolis’ is definitely a landmark film, as I’ve gone out of my way to stress, and it is essential viewing for cinephiles and filmmakers. Still, it’s a lot more flawed than I expected, and this is not due to the lost footage. In fact, the restored footage is a mixed blessing, restoring an entire (if unnecessary) subplot and making sense of confusing scenes but also padding it out with superfluity. Fritz Lang himself expressed dissatisfaction with the film, in fact he called it “silly”, and I’m inclined to agree with him. The silliness isn’t found in the film’s stylization and actions, though the actors overplay it considerably as was the case with most silent films, but rather its basic philosophy, which though not entirely without merit executes unconvincingly.
‘Metropolis’ portrays what amounts to a city-state where the spoiled ruling class separates from the downtrodden working class by the sheer weight of technology. However this incredibly (in the real sense, as in not credibly) distinct division came about, we don’t know, and it’s arguably implausible. Who benefits from the machinery? As in, who buys things? Hell, who sells them? ‘Metropolis’ is, as Lang later suggested, a fairy tale, and worst of all its moral is shoddy, and for a fairy tale that’s a death knell. “The mediator between the Head and the Hands must be the Heart!”, the moral goes, and it’s easy to understand but only truly works in the film’s incredible world. The upper, middle, and lower classes of the real world’s societies need much more complex, subtle ethical solutions to their problems. These issues and more were criticisms at the time of the film’s original release, as well, and even the noted sci-fi author H.G. Wells got in the act. His own review had some interesting thoughts, but he seemed unreasonable and hostile, possibly due to a lack of the memetic evolution concept. To say it clearer, he seemed to think he was original, but Lang wasn’t, even though they were both drawing from earlier art. Still, his review is worth a read.
I’d like to reiterate that the film’s basic idea is not without merit. In fact, there’s a great deal of rich, evocative imagery that the filmmakers drew from the concept, and this is, of course, its true legacy. Its centerpiece, the robot clone of Maria, is ironically one of its least mined story elements. The device, like all machines in ‘Metropolis’, is naturally wicked, and there’s no appreciation for all the interesting things it would imply, even in the film’s pretentious quasi-Biblical theology. The false Maria is sadly neglected, but the image planted a kernel in cinema that would forever color how we portray robots. In fact, you could view the film as a seed, a necessary step in changing the face of 20th century science fiction. All its imagery has stayed with us. It’s grown up and become fruitful.
I suppose that’s the truly beautiful thing about the world of ideas, that nothing is ever truly lost, it’s only finding new forms and getting demonstrably better. It’s natural that there are millions of mistakes along the way, even blemishes on classics like ‘Metropolis’. I wonder how, in a hundred years, our genetic and memetic descendants will interpret our artistic marvels and mistakes? I wonder, in such a different world, which will be which?