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The unflinching and often reckless gestures of filmmakers in the 1920s produced revolutionary classics like Teinosuke Kinugasa’s Page of Madness (1926) and Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin (1925). While in Hollywood, Chaplin, Keaton and Murnau transformed the industry’s popular and artistic potential. The spirit of the age is embodied by these burgeoning radical voices taking early steps in the medium with courage and verve. However, no film’s influence, innovation or creative legacy from this era rivals that of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. First released in Germany in 1927 to mixed reviews and a poor box-office reception, the film was not an initial success. Nevertheless, over the years Lang’s towering sci-fi epic has come to be seen as a seminal moment in cinema.

“The story, caught somewhere between the debauchery of pagan mythology and the moralism of Dickens’ Hard Times, stands on the knife-edge of kitsch.”

Based on the novel by Thea von Harbou, the film follows young Freder Fredersen (Gustav Fröhlich) as he discovers a steaming underworld of exploitation beneath the glittering skyline of Metropolis, a futuristic supercity. His father (Alfred Abel), the Master of Metropolis, learns of brewing insurrection among his workforce and plans to quash any dissent while the angelic (and aptly named) Maria (Brigitte Helm) inspires the workers with promises of a prophet-like saviour.

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After various plot contrivances, Freder’s father enlists the help of Rotwang (Rudolf Klein-Rogge), a fanatical and fuzzy-haired inventor, to create a robotic doppelgänger of Maria intended to deter the workforce from revolt. However, this fiendish gynoid unleashes a wave of sexual and moral depravity onto the city’s already-fragile social order. The system inevitably collapses, in spectacular fashion, and it’s Freder’s responsibility to act as “the heart” and mediate between “the head” (the ruling classes) and “the hands” (the workforce) of society. The story, caught somewhere between the debauchery of pagan mythology and the moralism of Dickens’ Hard Times, stands on the knife-edge of kitsch. Yet, Lang imbues every frame with a dark mysteriousness and it’s in these moments of enigma that the true power of the film lies.

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Much of the film’s energy derives from the mythical strangeness of its imagery. Drawing from a number of key visual influences – German expressionism, Bauhaus, Gothicism – Lang’s imagination is psychedelia in monochrome. The city is conceived as a living organism and its health, like any living thing, depends on an internal harmony. However, the natural rhythms of life are set ablaze in the furnace of industrialisation; when the bowels of the city erupt, visions of apocalypse bleed into the imagery with macabre volatility. Biblical tableaus punctuate the grinding monotony of mechanisation while droves of automata march into the flame-licked maw of Moloch, an ancient god of child sacrifice, with lifeless regularity.

“Metropolis embodies the spirit of anger and rebellion which flows throughout the history of great art.”

The dynamic geometry of the film’s production design creates the feeling of a hallucinatory nightmare: with belching behemoths of steel, bearing a greater resemblance to the sacrificial pyramids of Mesoamerica than to industrial machinery, submerged beneath the serene Son’s Club, with its lecture halls and libraries, and the ethereal Pompeian-style Eternal Gardens.

Lang’s vision of a glittering skyscape concealing a sizzling underbelly of brimstone and smog creates a striking metaphorical incongruence. The city, which is at once both the seat of industrial progress and the source of social and moral decay, carries the film’s central admonition – man’s technological advancement is a trap. The tantalising illusion of increased freedom offered by mechanisation only presages a new kind of enslavement. While some critics have derided the simplicity of this message, Lang deftly handles his weightier material with a touch of whimsy without ever neglecting the seriousness of his subject.

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The great Roger Ebert once said of Dreyer’s La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc (1928), “You cannot know the history of silent film unless you know the face of Renée Maria Falconetti.” This sentiment (in reference to the bonkers story of Dreyer’s original cut being found in a Norwegian psychiatric hospital) could equally be applied to Metropolis. Owing to the initial critical reaction, Lang’s 153-minute original cut was sliced down to a measly 116 minutes. This truncated version became the basis for various alternative cuts released over the years, the details of which are far too numerous to detail in this piece. For decades, more than a quarter of Lang’s original was assumed to be lost. However, in 2008 a 16mm dupe negative was discovered in Buenos Aires.

Although the nitrate original copy was lost, this damaged footage provided 24 minutes of additional material and allowed for a more comprehensive reconstruction of the lost sections of narrative. This new 148-minute cut was first screened in 2010 at the Friedrichstadtpalast in Berlin and reproduces the most ‘complete’ version of Metropolis, as Lang and Harbou conceived it, that we are ever likely to see. This all-too-familiar story of studio intervention and troubled transmission encapsulates the questions facing all cinema from the beginning of the 20th century to this day.

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More an epic of revolution than of science-fiction, Metropolis has nevertheless had an enduring influence on the genre. The coalescence of the philosophical with the technological created a new visual language - perhaps best recognised in Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982), and most recently Bong Joon-Ho’s Snowpiercer (2013). Far from a simple tale of the mollification of a capitalist gerontocrat, in the style of Kurosawa’s Ikiru (1952) or Bergman’s Wild Strawberries (1957), Metropolis embodies the spirit of anger and rebellion which flows throughout the history of great art. In its depiction of an oppressed working class within an organic model of society, the film appeals to both Marxist and Conservative sensibilities.

Nothing is definitive or resolved in the cosmic hellscape of Metropolis. The film depicts a complex and ambiguous future mythology - informed by visions of inferno rather than utopia. It is Lang’s formation of something daring, new and dissident, born out of the uncertainties of his era, that speaks most powerfully to our own.

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