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January 13, 2008

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Silent Reflections – Metropolis (1927)

by HELEN GEIB

Much written about, the subject of frequent revival showings, and acknowledged by great filmmakers as a formative influence, Metropolis is the most famous and arguably the most influential film of the silent era.

Even those who have never heard of Metropolis know it through its progeny. It is impossible to imagine science fiction and horror sound cinema without Metropolis. Films that were in their turn tremendously influential, from Frankenstein to 2001: A Space Odyssey to Blade Runner, were shaped by it. It remains the defining film for cinematic conceptualizations of the future.

Metropolis posits a dystopian future where the privileged sons of the ruling class play in a city of glittering high rises and luxurious pleasure gardens and the workers live in underground tenements and labor like slaves at the mercy of incomprehensible machinery. The many and varied physical worlds of Metropolis are breathtaking amalgams of imaginative projections of future technology, folk imagery, Christian iconography, art moderne decorative motifs, and Hollywood fantasies of the decadent lifestyle of the impossibly wealthy.

The visuals in Metropolis are so amazing that it’s easy to forget while watching the film that it’s all a vehicle for a rather foolish story. The scenario is close kin to American labor melodramas of the ‘teens, where capital and labor are united at the end to work towards a better future for all through the mechanism of a marriage between the mill owner’s son and foreman’s daughter. That Metropolis surpasses the obvious limitations of this material– and the movie really does work– is testament to its stunning imaginative flights and Fritz Lang’s direction.

Lang was a master of composition and lighting and in Metropolis, one incredibly well filmed scene succeeds another. He was also a masterful storyteller. Directors of spectacle films too often seem overawed by their own sets. Metropolis is a long film (at over two hours, quite long for its day), but it’s never static or held hostage to spectacle for its own sake.

The performance style is brilliantly conceived. The characters are symbols: the film’s crude schema casts the capitalist, his son, and the factory workers as brain, heart, and hands of the city of Metropolis. Each performance is keyed to its symbolic function. The capitalist is stiff, stern, almost expressionless, while his son is hyper-expressive, with every quick shift in emotion reflected in his face and gestures. Maria, the heroine, moves with slow and gentle motions; she practically radiates inner peace and goodness. Her evil automaton doppelganger makes unnaturally quick, jerky movements. The mad scientist is wild-eyed, the prototype for every cinematic mad scientist to follow. The factory workers move like regimented automatons until they rebel against the machines; in rebellion their movements are violent and uncontrolled.

Note: Metropolis is available on DVD from Kino International. The Kino release is a beautifully restored print that was reconstructed from the best surviving material under the auspices of the Murnau Foundation (a German film institute responsible for fine restorations of films by Lang and Murnau, among others). The score is the excellent orchestral score written for the film’s German premiere. Nir Shalev reviewed Metropolis in connection with the DVD release of the 2010 restoration.

3 Comments Post a comment
  1. Jan 13 2008

    My first thought when I saw this post was “wait, Metropolis isn’t overlooked!” I first read about it in my Eyewitness book on film, when I was ten or so. Then again, I also learned about Nosferatu in that book, only to find out years later that my mom had NEVER HEARD OF IT.

    I guess one man’s common knowledge is another man’s overlooked film. In any case, you’re right, Metropolis barely counts as overlooked. Great article anyway!

  2. jason
    Jan 15 2008

    Other films heavily influenced are both Tim Burton’s Batman to the Crow, with the look of the city and the ending where the good guy fights the bad guy on the top of a church. I believe Metropolis was the first to do this. The novelization of Metropolis is also worth checking out, written by Thea von Harbou, co-writer of the screenplay and also helped write the scripts for M and other of Lang’s movies.

    Other Metropolis to check out is Osamu Tezuka’s Metropolis, both the Movie and the comic are both avaiable in america. The comic was only inspired by the poster of the movie, Tezuka never saw the movie, The anime movie is influenced by Langs though.

  3. Miriam
    Jan 16 2008

    The longer restored version certainly has a more comprehensible story than the original US release. Something about this movie also makes it particularly adaptable to various musical accompaniment. I’ve seen it several times, each with quite different styles of music, and thought they each worked very well. The worst print was accompanied live by the Alloy Orchestra with an all percussion score, Fantastic! The print was (I think) a 70’s vintage with a rock score that was also enjoyable. That version was notable for converting the intertitle dialogue cards into subtitles. I thought it worked extremely well and would be interested to see it tried on some other silents. Just imagine a Griffith film with only the dialogue subtitled and all the hideous intertitle commentary stripped off – tempting even to a purist, I think!

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