Metropolis: Fritz Lang’s Flawed Masterpiece – By Matt Barry

More than 80 years since its initial release, Fritz Lang’s futuristic fantasy, METROPOLIS, has been restored to its original length. A nearly-complete print was discovered in Argentina in 2008, and the newly-discovered footage has been combined with the restoration work done in 2002 to create a new version that is as close to the original cut as anyone has seen since 1927. There are still a few moments that are missing, but these are minor, and are filled in through descriptive intertitles. The discovery of this footage must rank as one of the most significant discoveries in film preservation in recent years. It allows viewers to have a much more complete picture of the epic tale that Lang set out to tell. Previous editions, even the most recent restoration, were only able to hint at certain sequences that no longer existed. Now, they have been restored. While it’s easy to get swept up in the excitement of this discovery, it is worth examining what the newly-added footage actually brings to the film.

Lang apparently got the idea for the film when he was visiting New York City in 1924. The film’s script was written by Lang in collaboration with his wife Thea von Harbou, upon whose novel the script was based. Frederick W. Ott, in “The Films of Fritz Lang”, notes that the film cost over 5,000,000 marks to produce, with a cast including 37, 633 performers, and that production at the Neubabelsberg studio “consumed 310 working days and 60 working nights between May 22, 1925, and October 30, 1926”.1 According to Philip Kemp, in his entry on Lang in “World Film Directors”, the film was a financial disaster upon its release, despite enjoying a wide release and being a highly influential film-its futuristic setting inspiring many future filmmakers, including James Whale, who patterned Frankenstein’s laboratory in his 1931 film after Rotwang’s laboratory in Lang’s film.2

A visual triumph of German Expressionism, Lang pulls out all the stops in creating an epic work of science fiction, with staggering production design, state-of-the-art special effects, and absolutely stunning cinematography. Technically, the film is a work of art, and has been recognized as such virtually since its release. However, if the film is a masterpiece, it is a flawed one. The reasons for this include its heavy-handed presentation of its message (its rather simple idea that the “mediator between the head and hands must be the heart” is driven home repeatedly), lack of clear character motivation, and moments of weak narrative development. Too often, it feels as though situations are set up out of pure convenience, to provide some plot motivation that, in turn, ends up feeling forced.

It can also be difficult to really identify with any of the characters. The wealthy industrialist, Joh Fredersen (played by Alfred Abel) is perhaps the most interesting since he seems to be the only one that undergoes any kind of character transformation over the course of the film, and even then the transformation is rather sudden and without the kind of development that makes for a satisfying character arc. His son, Freder (Gustave Frohlich) is a rather one-dimensional character, whose decision to abandon his upper-class status and join his “brothers” among the working class is rather quickly and loosely justified by his apparent romantic interest in Maria (Brigitte Helm), whom the workers see as a kind of spiritual leader (at one point she tells them the story of the Tower of Babel as a comparison for their own plight). Helm does an amazing job with the dual roles of the saintly Maria, and the wild, delirious “Machine-Man” (who is given Maria’s likeness in order to spur on an uprising among the workers who seek her guidance). Kemp writes that Helm, playing both Marias, portrays “the good and the evil, embodying Lang’s recurrent theme of the morally schizoid personality.”3 One of the most interesting characters, and one who is greatly enhanced through the addition of the restored footage, is that of the “Thin Man”, the spy sent by Fredersen to keep an eye on his son’s whereabouts, played to sinister perfection by Fritz Rasp. His calculated, menacing demeanor is perfectly conveyed through his mannerisms, and Rasp manages to remain perfectly understated in the performance. Special mention needs to be made of Rudolf Klein-Rogge as Rotwang, the prototypical “mad scientist”, complete with a shock of white hair and a black rubber glove on one hand (which he apparently lost in the course of inventing the “Machine-Man” that he ultimately uses to unleash unrest among the workers). The problem is that these characters, while interesting “types”, lack the kind of complexity and development that would have made the film more effective. Most perplexing of all is Lang’s depiction of the workers as a wild and unruly mob, willing to be led like sheep by whoever happens to be barking orders at them. This does little to gain audience sympathy with the workers, nor does their stupid, practically unmotivated decision to tear apart the city’s control center, which will mean the potential deaths of all of their children! Significantly, both the workers and Joh Fredersen only become aware of the dangers of their actions when they realize the lives of their children are at risk. Frederick W. Ott argues that these characteristics of the film are reflective of its status as the “great cinematic document of German expressionism”, as the film embodies the expressionist idea that the characters should be represented by archetypes, that the subject matter should be revolutionary, that it should emphasize the “ethical responsibility of the individual” and “express faith in the future”, among other criteria.4 

The film contains a number of themes that Lang would return to in his later films; namely, mob justice (M, FURY, YOU ONLY LIVE ONCE), false accusation through circumstances beyond the character’s control (SCARLET STREET, THE BLUE GARDENIA, BEYOND A REASONABLE DOUBT), and revenge (SCARLET STREET again, THE BIG HEAT, and THE RETURN OF FRANK JAMES). Here, his presentation of the mob condemns their actions, yet at the same time, the film asks us to sympathize with them, which becomes problematic. The character of Maria experiences the wrath of the mob when they (understandably) mistake her for the “Machine-Man”, who is her exact double, and has led them to a misguided revolution which almost results in the destruction of the city. The revenge theme comes through in the character of Rotwang, who-because of losing the woman he loved to Joh Fredersen in the past-sends the “Machine-Man” to stir up the revolution that will bring about his downfall. These ideas become very muddled in the film, however, especially in terms of the idea of faith in the future that Ott mentions as a key element of expressionism. The film seems suspicious of technology: it is the “Machine-Man” that causes the workers to nearly destroy their own city, and the “Heart Machine”, which serves as the city’s control center, is alternately depicted as oppressive and dehumanizing, but at the film’s end, is shown to be a regulating device whose destruction at the hands of the workers results in the terrible flooding of their underground city. While the end of the film promises some kind of hope of a union between the “head and hands” of the city, it is unclear what role technology will play in this future.

The addition of the new footage ultimately does little to improve upon these issues. The Yoshiwara sequence is visually stunning, however, and is interesting to finally see in its entirety (the descriptive intertitles in the previous restoration offered quite intriguing descriptions of what the audience was missing!) The other sequence that benefits greatly from the restoration of footage is that in which Freder and Maria help the children of the Workers’ City escape once the reservoirs burst and the city begins to flood. There is an exciting scene in which the children are led up and out of the lower depths of the city. The scene played well in previous editions of the film, but seeing just how much footage was formerly missing makes it clear that the scene was really quite incomplete, and the addition of the new footage enhances the excitement and thrill of the escape.

The discovery of this footage from METROPOLIS gives hope to collectors and archivists that other long-lost material will turn up for other titles (the “lost reels” of GREED, for instance, or a complete cut of THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS being two of the most sought-after). Taken as a whole, METROPOLIS still has its flaws. The extra footage, while providing a significant addition in at least two cases, does little to help the film overcome these flaws. Still, from a historical perspective, the discovery of this footage is monumentally important, and from that standpoint, the restored METROPOLIS is a major event that anyone serious about film should experience.

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End Notes:

1 Frederick W. Ott, The Films of Fritz Lang. (Secaucus, NJ: The Citadel Press, 1979), 125.

2 Philip Kemp, “Fritz Lang”, in John Wakeman, ed. World Film Directors: Vol. I, 1890-1945. (New York: The H.W. Wilson Co., 1987), 613.

3 Philip Kemp, “Fritz Lang”, 614.

4 Frederick W. Ott, The Films of Fritz Lang, 124.