Review by Rumsey Taylor
Posted on 11 July 2004
Source Kino Video DVD
Reviews: Metropolis (by Matt)
It is no task to relay the many strengths and innovations of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis; its many laurels have been deservedly and numerously determined. Even in its age Metropolis retains an inherent mastery. The city’s skyline extends past each side of the frame, and the view is stubbornly complex. Its magic retains no secret (a blemish attributed only to its age), though Metropolis is an episode in the history of cinema that displays a measurable growth.
Citing Metropolis’ influence and historical value is redundantly necessary. Cinema has just past its rough centennial, and in its tenure has procured a handful of entries that are responsible, singularly, for gearing its evolution. Metropolis is one of the first. I am inclined to forward these familiar laurels, for viewing the film recently, some seventy years following its inception, supplied unexpected criticisms.
The titular city is divided laterally, into several layers that differentiate social strata: its aristocracy on its day-lit surface, its working class beneath the ground, employed in ten-hour shifts, and its king at the top of the towering Ziggarnaut. The film opens with a routine shift change in its subterranean factory. The locale is filled with complicated equipment (an abstract montage of close-ups of moving gears introduces the sequence). A whistle alarms, a block of workers enter the factory, and an equally proportionate group exits. The men move in robotic choreography, and are identical in dress.
The workers are largely indistinguishable from the factory that houses them. This is a visual pun that relays the dependency between man and his machine. Furthering this thought, the centerpiece of the factory is a device that resembles a clock. A worker assigns his hands to its, and must manipulate its movement accordingly — without the human operator, the device is useless; likewise, the machine is a necessity in Metropolis’ operation, and must be used. Shaped circularly, it is a target at which man and machine converge. It is an abstraction used to forward the film’s allegorical utility.
Although Metropolis is more concerned with socio-politics than science, a criticism for scientific dependency is apparent in the film. The film contains a wild scientist (who, with a similar incarnation in Bride of Frankenstein, supplies the template for future wild scientists in film) determined to bestow life to a machine — it is a familiar scientific motif, that the creator must face the responsibility of creation, for, according to myth, scientific progeny prescribes a curse.
The scientist’s creation is a robot that, upon completion, resembles a woman. She has neither wit nor a moral conscious, and initiates savage lust in the men that view her. She is an object of lust that inspires sin. The robot is a manifestation of the dehumanizing aspect of the workers’ city, the transformation of a man to machine. There is a virtuosic sequence in which the machine woman dances wildly as a concubine, and reaction shots find close-ups of glaring, hypnotized eyes.
The intent of the aforesaid scientist is a theme that mirrors the dehumanizing purpose of the underground factory (his creation mirrors the previous image of the clock device). Each is a surrogate extension of the same thought: that science and nature are burdened by their union, and will result in caustic repercussions. At the beginning of the film, these elements are balanced, and will conflict once the division between the upper and lower class is contested.
In tiers above the workmen is the Eternal Gardens, a leisure for the children of Metropolis’ wealth. Freder, the son of the city’s king, is seen in flirtation with a woman, until his eyes are distracted by the entrance of Maria, a rebel spokesman for the working class. On this particular day, Maria is leading a group of the workmen’s children into the garden. Freder, borne of his father’s political standing and wealth, has fallen for Maria, who lives among her like in the city’s sewers. Their status prohibits any interaction.
The previous relationship founds the central narrative of Metropolis. It is an act of formulaic and romantic simplicity, obscured beneath the strength of the film’s visuals. I speculate that this relationship is deliberately facile, for it achieves no depth, and is unconvincing and thematically ineffective. This plot is comparable to the feeble narrative clothesline that binds generic action films. It is, however, a forgiven fault. In service to this central romance the film combines other familiar narrative devices: Frankenstein myth, the religious martyr, biblical allusion, and the myth of transcendent love. They are familiar devices burdened, here, by heavy-handed collaboration. The film employs metaphors and over-pronounces them. The propagandistic slogan that opens the film (“The Mediator between the Head and Hands must be the Heart!”) is supported by the “heart” machine that enables the factory operation.
Released initially at 153 minutes, Metropolis has been subsequently cut and distributed in various lengths. In the American release, entire subplots were deleted and never found. The recent Kino release of the film uses a restored 124 minute print of the film, and precedes the film with a harrowing disclaimer: “Over a quarter of the film has to be considered lost.” Despite this impediment, the DVD is befitted by a crisp video transfer. Beads of sweat can be seen, as can warm breaths in cold air. Following numerous releases in every previous video format (a trend of most any film that is victim to the public domain), Kino’s Metropolis is the best video presentation of the landmark film.
There are several shots in Metropolis, met by highlights in the scoring, that linger statically on a wide view of the city’s active horizon. These shots I viewed like a hawk. Though its fabrication is obvious, Metropolis has a nascent visual strength.