Quaint, pictorially vivid and quite mad, Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927) — originally 210 minutes long, but only a few months after its initial release already reduced to various drastically shortened versions — has now been restored to 124 minutes, with some footage previously unseen in the United States added and several missing scenes described by title cards. This is likely to be the most complete version we’ll ever get, as well as the most complete version one would want, since, with its wealth of over-the-top melodramatic gestures, the film already threatens to overstay its welcome. Three and a half hours would be nearly intolerable. Two hours seems just about right.
Metropolis posits a future where a miserable working class toils literally underground, while the idle rich live comfortably in the futuristic title city. It depicts the kind of anti-capitalist, extreme caste-system dystopia popular in the science fiction of the early part of the last century, one whose main flaw is the way it failed to foresee how technology would lead to a great expansion of a relatively affluent middle class. Anyway, after presenting this harshly divided future, the plot then hinges on a conventional tale of revenge, with the mad scientist Rotwang plotting to destroy the city’s overlord, Johhan Fredersen, because they both once loved the woman whom Fredersen eventually married.
The plot thickens and thickens some more, but what makes this the landmark film it is are the weirdly effective visual conceits — which include the descent of the worker drones in a synchronized manner suggesting a kind of arabesque modern dance; the huge machine which morphs into the insatiable Morlock; and Rotwang’s archetypal mad lab where he creates the evil double of the good girl Maria.
Acting honors go to Brigitte Helm as this seductive robotrix, whose mission to topple Metropolis involves getting a job as a hootchie-cootchie dancer in a nightclub frequented by the city’s swells. With her lascivious slo-mo wink and exaggeratedly jerky movements, Helm’s saboteur is a one-of-a-kind creation, perfectly at home in this one-of-a-kind movie, which is also one of the most sublimely silly of all cinema classics.
Showing exclusively at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit), Friday-Sunday. Call 313-833-3237.
Richard C. Walls writes about film and music for Metro Times. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.