Review by Matt Bailey
Posted on 21 December 2004
Source Masters of Cinema/Eureka! DVD
Reviews: Metropolis (by Rumsey)
Metropolis has to be one of the most talked-about and written-about of silent films, yet I find that I have next to nothing to say about it. As visual spectacle, it is perhaps without equal in its era. There is no question that Fritz Lang was a crackerjack conjurer of images, one who continues to influence film technique and style to this day. Yet under the surface (and what a surface!) of Lang’s film churns a narrative that is, at best, befuddling, and, at worst, silly.
I want to think that Metropolis had behind it ideas as grand as its production design, cast of extras, and visual inventiveness, but the screenplay by Thea von Harbou (who wrote or co-wrote most of Lang’s German films as well as Dreyer’s Michael) is little more than a pulpy spoof of Marxism, perhaps inspired by a jaundiced glance at the recent Russian revolution. In Metropolis, there are only the haves and have-nots. Workers are little more than pea-brained drones easily driven to mob violence, and the wealthy are monocle-and-top-hat-wearing bacchantes concerned only with when and where they will be provided with their next glass of champagne. Both groups are manipulated like marionettes by a lady preacher, an occultish mad scientist, and a robber baron industrialist. Apparently, Lang wanted to go even further over the top with the addition of ghosts and additional ghoulery filched from the Book of Revelations, but he was restrained by von Harbou. I think that’s a shame. If you’re going to go bananas, go bananas. Instead, we get an amalgam of strident political tract, religious hokum, futurist daydream, and fairy tale that provides a steady enough frame on which to drape some very pretty pictures, but which creaks and groans under the weight of its own inconsequence.
If I am being too harsh on the narrative framework of Metropolis, I cannot say enough good things about its visual style. Lang’s film would be one of my first choices for expanding the knowledge and taste of that “film buff” we all know and love whose conception of cinema begins with Star Wars and ends with the Matrix trilogy. Even if the action seems to have no logical genesis and no substantial effect, it keeps coming at a fast clip; the film, unlike many other silent classics, is actually thrilling to watch. The visual effects, groundbreaking eighty years ago, are still marvelous to behold. Lang and his collaborators took the opportunity to create a world of the future from, quite literally, the ground, up, and did not disappoint. The film’s vision of the future (with the exception of biplanes competing with downtown traffic) still seems plausible. If the political allegory that lies beneath that vision appears less so, well, it’s only a movie.