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The BACK LOT: The Menace of ‘Metropolis’

The 1927 classic is easy to love—and fear.

I have just had a sensational night at the movies, and the picture was only 83 years old. At the Silent Film Festival in San Francisco, the Castro Theater was packed for a showing of a “complete” Metropolis. Moreover, the screening was graced by the presence of the two Argentineans—scholar Fernando Pena and archivist Paula Felix-Didier—who discovered the previously lost footage in Buenos Aires a couple of years ago. I honor their work, and their amusing commentary on the discovery—they were a couple once, then separated, then back together with the excitement of the find. Still, “complete” needs quotation marks.

To make a long story comprehensible: when Metropolis opened in Germany in 1927, it was 150 or so minutes. Very soon thereafter, and despite the impact of the picture, the German distributor, Ufa, shortened it. Thus, over the years, this classic has played short by around 25 minutes—it was enough to make its director, Fritz Lang, weep.

What came to light in Buenos Aires was a 16mm negative of the original version. The first thing to say is that the negative is far from good. My guess is that it was an intermediary stage in the pirating of prints. So the missing parts now restored are of a disappointing visual quality, and not quite the proper frame size. More than that, there are still scenes from the script that are missing and which are now indicated by titles supplied by the F.W. Murnau Foundation, which did the restoration.

The missing footage is not always that relevant or useful. As the film went along, I was thinking, “Well, yes, I can see why they cut that.” But later on there are things I’m pleased to discover, especially those that involve the leader of Metropolis’s sinister manservant and assistant (a guy who seems ready to be the assassin in James Bond pictures). What really made the San Francisco screening was the pounding live score supplied by the Alloy Orchestra – just three guys working keyboards, accordion, and drums—drums, drums, drums. Fritz Lang was a great director in 1927. His hysterical love of composition, the vision of geometric mass, and the terrifying crowd scenes are still overwhelming. But if you add them to the drive and inspiration of the Alloy Orchestra, then you know why this movie and other silent films raised such a frenzy in the audience.

And there’s the real point. The Silent Film Festival presentation, led by Eddie Muller, a wonderful spokesman for noir, was content to say welcome to a happy rediscovery. That’s fine, but sooner or later you have to ask yourself why Metropolis is so exciting and what it means. And that’s where it gets difficult. Its parable of crowds and power, automation and liberty, a saint and a seductress, is not just complex—it’s a mess. There were times in its history when some people warned that the film’s sympathy with the exploited workers was Communist-inspired.

Maybe. At the same time, the sense of power, manipulation and social engineering is … well, I think it’s fascistic. Never forget that two of the great fans of the film (film buffs both) were Adolf Hitler and Josef Goebbels. That’s why they offered leadership of Nazi film to Lang. He declined the offer. But that doesn’t mean the gangsters hadn’t understood the picture. We may also recall that Thea von Harbou, who wrote Metropolis and was Lang’s wife at the time, later joined the Nazi Party. No one interested in power and politics in modern times can miss this new Metropolis (Kino will release it on video, with the Alloy Orchestra soundtrack). But hold on to your tapping feet and your blood as they rise with the beat and its promise of drastic solutions to our social problems.

David Thomson is the author of The New Biographical Dictionary of Film and The Moment of Psycho: How Alfred Hitchcock Taught America to Love Murder.

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