On Sept. 11, 2002, many of us New Yorkers spent the day contemplating a skyline robbed of its most potent symbols, which were also meant as symbols of the towering dominance of world capitalism. By coincidence, American moviegoers in major cities have had for the last few months an unprecedented opportunity—for the first time in 75 years—to see Fritz Lang’s 1927 Metropolis (Kino) in a form that approximates its director’s intentions. (The restoration was led by German film preservationist Martin Koerber and the Munich company Alpha-Omega.) The movie was directly inspired by the skyline of Manhattan, which the Austrian Lang beheld in 1924 from a ship in New York harbor. He told his wife, Thea von Harbou, that he envisioned a scenario in which the cityscape would be dominated by soaring towers of glass and steel while far below, in cellars and catacombs, the workers whose labor sustained it were physically and spiritually crushed—almost literally turned into machines. There was no middle class: You were literally way up or way, way down.
The film they made in 1927 (von Harbou has screenplay credit, although Lang reportedly contributed) was a science fiction landmark, its extravagant imagery informing works as diverse as The Bride of Frankenstein (1935), Dr. Strangelove (1964), and The Terminator (1984). But Lang’s original, three-hour cut played in German theaters only a week, and never in the United States, where it was hacked up and rewritten by Channing Pollock, who expressed derision for the movie in its original form. There was a further American desecration in the 1980s by the composer Giorgio Moroder, who gave Metropolis a rock and synthesized-disco beat in the hopes of creating a new kind of head movie. (I never saw the whole thing—the war between that backbeat and Lang’s precise rhythms drove me frothing with rage from the theater after half an hour.)
Moroder’s music had such a devastating impact because Metropolis is one of the greatest ballets ever put on film—and I don’t just mean in the staggered movements of the workers, whose limbs are choreographed to look like cogs and gears and pistons. If you subscribe to the view of architecture as “frozen dance,” then every frame of the film is a balletic gesture. Lang was no doubt cognizant of Le Corbusier’s utopian “Radiant City,” and his skyscrapers represent a Futurist ideal of transcendence via machine: The city’s sharp angles and vertical thrust are arrogantly anti-Nature. The editing is meant to dislocate: Lang cuts between the towers and pleasure domes and fair-haired athletes in Greco-Roman poses and the Gothic Expressionist underworld, with its faceless bodies that move as no human bodies should.
It’s down below that the movie’s enraptured hero, Freder Fredersen (Gustav Fröhlich), the pampered son of the builder (Alfred Abel) of Metropolis, trails the beautiful reformer Maria, played by Brigitte Helm. Bathed in heavenly light and surrounded by tall crucifixes, she tells the story of the Tower of Babel, in which a “hymn of praise” to the heavens ultimately falls in cursed ruins; and she prevails on the exhausted workers to rise up in the name of—the proletariat? Not exactly. The mediator. Someone to mediate between the hands of labor and the brain of the ruling class. The movie’s prologue—and epitaph—is the phrase: “The mediator between brain and hands must be the heart.”
Marx and Engels would recognize some aspects of this vision, but they’d have doubtless gagged on the opiating Christian heart stuff. (The leftist press of the day certainly did.) But Lang was hardly a Communist—or a man with much sympathy for violent revolution. Part of what makes Metropolis such a complicated allegory is Lang’s fear of the fascism of the mob, which he’d later explore in M (1931) and the American Fury (1936) with Spencer Tracy. The revolutionaries, in fact, become the greatest threat to the social order—not to mention to Maria and to their own children, who stand to be drowned if they destroy the machines that power the city. When, in what is still one of the most entrancing sequences ever put on film, the mad scientist Rotwang (Rudolf Klein-Rogge) gives his “machine-man” the fleshy form of Maria, he seeks to destroy Metropolis by sending her down to whip up the underclass. In the scenes of riot, Lang purposefully perverts the “Liberty at the Battlements” iconography of the French Revolution while the soundtrack razzes La Marseillaise. Lang understood why the mob would want to tear the city down. But he also believed that the technology it embodied promised a better life for people of all classes, and that only the innocent would suffer in the course of a revolt.
It’s little wonder that some people had no idea what Lang was trying to say. But that’s what has given Metropolis the power to endure. A great artist contains multitudes, and Lang packed a host of contradictory longings into a single allegory. He showed us the horror of “the machine-man,” but he also gave us, in Brigitte Helm, the sexiest robot of all time. As David J. Skal notes in Screams of Reason, Rotwang is the archetypal mad scientist of the screen—a visionary who helped to make the glorious future possible, yet is indifferent (or worse) to the application of his inventions. In fact, he has an insidious lust to destroy the civilization he helped to build. Most of all, Lang celebrates the power of architecture to elevate humanity while he simultaneously laments its capacity to stifle it.
This is still not the complete Metropolis. But new titles tell us what we’re missing, and the shape of the thing is as Lang intended. The marvelous original score by Gottfried Huppertz is back—and it’s uncannily well-synchronized to the action. Try to see Metropolis as you ponder the 21st-century skyline, its champions, and its enemies. And consider that all these issues are being wrestled with in the context of a big, corny, often dumb commercial sci-fi epic—and what a marvelously elastic form it can be, in the hands of an architect like Fritz Lang.