I've never seen … Metropolis

As part of a new series, one of our writers finally catches up with the cinematic classic they’ve somehow missed. Today, Stuart Jeffries watches Fritz Lang’s pioneering sci-fi epic

It’s Freddie Mercury’s fault. When he and his lavishly coiffed backing band released Radio Gaga in 1984, the video used footage from the 1927 German expressionist film, Metropolis. Superimposed over Fritz Lang’s visionary cityscape were the foursome in a flying car. Later in the video, they performed a gig before the film’s downtrodden masses. Not many cinematic classics could survive such brutal repurposing. For me, Lang’s film got tainted by association with Queen’s song – one that, ironically enough, became part of the very radio blah it ostensibly indicted.

I’ve always loved the films noirs the German emigré made in Hollywood after the war: The Blue Gardenia, While the City Sleeps, Beyond a Reasonable Doubt. I’ve also long doffed the proverbial fedora to Lang for narking both Josef Goebbels and Joseph McCarthy. I’ve even forgiven him for directing Lee Marvin to throw coffee in Gloria Grahame’s face in The Big Heat, one of the greatest films noirs. But throughout my life I stayed away from Metropolis, imagining it to be outdated cardboard sci-fi fit only to be plundered by pomp rock grave robbers.

I couldn’t have been more wrong. Metropolis, when I finally watched it recently, seemed not just creatively fresh but amazingly topical. For instance, when Maria’s robotic doppelganger exhorts the masses to rise up from their underground city, her cry resonates down the decades: “Who is the living food for the machines of Metropolis? Who lubricates the machine joints with their own blood? Who feeds the machines with their own flesh?” Her call to revolution now captures, at least for me, our post-Fordist era of Big Data vampires from Fitbit to Facebook.

Alfred Abel, left, as Fredersen and Rudolph Klein-Rogge as Rotwang the inventor, in Metropolis.
Creatively fresh … Alfred Abel, left, as Fredersen and Rudolph Klein-Rogge as Rotwang the inventor, in Metropolis. Photograph: Moviestore/Rex/Shutterstock

That said, neither Lang nor his wife, Thea von Harbou, who wrote the screenplay, were luddites. Indeed, it’s striking they imagine it takes a humanoid programmed by a power-crazed inventor to sucker the workers into smashing the machines, which undermines a Marxist interpretation of the film. Striking for me, too, that Metropolis came out in the same year as Heidegger’s Being and Time. But, while Heidegger tore into human debasement by technology, the last 30 minutes of Lang’s film is more conflict.

In that thrilling half hour, our blond Aryan jodhpur-wearing hero (turncoat son of the Tower of Babel-dwelling oligarch Joh Frederson) and his saintly blond Aryan girlfriend Maria (whose evil double gets mistaken for her throughout the picture) rescue the proletariat’s kids from an apocalyptic flood in the subterranean workers’ city. The flood, poignantly, was unleashed by deluded workers who’ve destroyed the water pumping Heart Machine. Without machines we will die, suggests the film; with them we risk becoming less than human. Late capitalism: it’s a dilly of a pickle.

Above this barbaric underworld, the toffs ponce about in a manicured garden and patronising a Weimar-era nightclub filled with my worst nightmare: Teutonic flappers and their stormtrooper beaux. It is a society that I couldn’t help but think fully deserves the opening of the seventh seal and the resultant apocalypse that Metropolis’s priests rightly anticipate.

Spectacular ...Metropolis.
Spectacular ...the cityscape from Metropolis. Photograph: Ronald Grant

But it’s not the message of Metropolis that thrills me; it’s the visual virtuosity. The aerial shot of Maria through a skylight struggling to escape her pursuer is a stroke of genius. Shadow play on the walls gave me chills. And I loved the bombastic offices with their huge doors and empty spaces for proto-Hitlerian masters of the corporate universe to strut. Not only Albert Speer but the Coens’ Hudsucker Proxy are footnotes to Metropolis’s set design.

So much of future cinema and TV, I now realise, steals from Lang’s masterpiece. Not just Face/Off: the central conceit of John Woo’s film is anticipated by Maria’s face being copied by Rotwang on to his Frankenstein’s-monster-like metal robot during the kind of surgery you can’t get on the NHS. Robots from Dr Who’s Cybermen to James Cameron’s early terminators depend for their existence on Lang’s cybernetic prototype. Lang requires his actors to perform mechanical ballet in sync with their Moloch-like machine, prefiguring the dancers and synchronised swimmers of Cecil B DeMille’s Broadway Melodies of the next decade. Dali’s surreal sequences for Hitchcock’s Spellbound plunder Lang’s dreamy montages. All later apocalyptic disaster movies, few of them as philosophically sophisticated as Metropolis, would have been unthinkable without Lang’s exemplar.

Two misgivings. There is a moment when the blond hero breaks down a door bearing a Star of David and runs amok in the inventor Rotwang’s lab. Lang’s mother was Jewish (though Lang was raised as a Catholic) but that scene made me queasy, particularly when I later read that von Harbou, who wrote the novel on which her screenplay for Metropolis is based, and whom Fritz divorced in 1933, went on to work on dozens of pro-Nazi movies.

Fritz Lang in 1971.
Pioneering … Fritz Lang in 1971. Photograph: Cine Text/Sportsphoto/Allstar

What’s more, the film’s trite, three-times repeated moral – The mediator between the head and the hands must be the heart – undercuts the otherwise nuanced politics of the film. Grotesquely, Lang and von Harbou seem to suggest what Germany needs is blond Aryan nitwit to broker rapprochement between worker and megalomaniac boss, rather than – as I would prefer – the latter to be taken outside and shot for the public good.

I watched Metropolis with my 14-year-old daughter and we were both gripped for 140 minutes by a silent movie thanks to a bonkers mashup of mythic story, Gottfried Huppertz’s heart-pounding score, and still utterly beguiling cinematography. We could have watched the 1984 version with a soundtrack by synth pioneer Giorgio Moroder featuring songs by, there’s no easy way to say this, Pat Benatar and Freddie Mercury, but we aren’t peasants. Instead the version we saw, made from a print found in Buenos Aires in 2008, excited and stimulated me more than any film I’ve seen for years. How could I have deprived myself of it for so long?


Stuart Jeffries

The GuardianTramp

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