by Rusty Rabinowitz

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The Restored and (Nearly) Complete Metropolis: Now With Clear Message

After two years since the finding of the lost footage in Buenos Aires and a painstaking restoration process, the newly restored Complete Metropolis is finally being given a limited US release. Fritz Lang’s 1927 film about a future dealing with the struggle between workers and industrialists, complete with biblical allusions and apocalyptic notions, has been edited according to its original design thanks to the additional footage. This footage contains extensions of scenes already present and much of the lost subplots between characters. To say these additions look pristine is unfortunately a false statement. This footage was transferred from 16mm film – the only rolls to work from – and so it is impossible to improve the resolution of the images beyond a heavily frayed and stressed looking frame. The good news is, when you get past this, the images are just as powerful and add to an incredibly dramatic story that the previous inter-titles failed to do justice with. Fredersen’s spy, who one could only speculate as to how he would execute his business, is revealed to be in fact quite terrifying. The imagery of excess is given even more coverage, and in all, this footage reveals a film more complex than just merely a story about the struggle between workers and industrialists. Included in the restored footage are the necessary images of Hel’s altar and both Rotwang and Jon Fredersen’s reaction revealing the love triangle that once took place between them.

Writing a review about a classic film that has and will be reviewed by anyone and everyone, it seemed appropriate that I write something a little different. This all comes down to a single image that I had not noticed before, but is incredibly revealing of this film and the single theme that ties all of these characters together. When Rowang is transferring Maria’s likeness to the Machine Man, Lang displays the developing inner-works of a simplified nervous system and a heart. Throughout this process there is no brain developed. This causes a question of the director’s real motives to arise; if “the heart is the mediator between the brain and the hands,” then why is it that the heart nearly destroys the society of Metropolis? Rotwang, in an obsessive Dr. Frankenstein-like manner, is desperate to bring his Hel back and accomplishes this goal through the likeness of Maria. But Maria the robot is nothing, but a capricious being that can take orders, satisfy men’s and even women’s desires, and act as a false prophet all for the sake of destruction. This is made obviously evident during her debut at Yoshiwara, where she is dressed scantily to resemble the devil which Lang displays in the film as a woman accompanied by the seven deadly sins.

There is also a very important scene restored from the found footage of 11811, the worker who traded places with Freder, making his own detour to Yoshiwara as soon as he is brought to the surface. Maria is supposedly acting like the Virgin Mary, yet only men are at her sessions of prayer. In fact, when she is preaching, Freder is not getting spiritual fulfillment from her gospel of Babel, but from gazing upon Maria. He can not wait to have her alone. These instances, followed by the incredible worker revolt ending in their seeming self-destruction, displays a reality where everyone living in Metropolis is guilty of sin except for Freder, Maria, and the children. And this can all be traced back to the heart. The workers display a blind passion towards Maria, which could be easily read as suppressed desire. The men at Yoshiwara act as animals when Machine Maria enters, embracing their desires to the point of killing each other for a chance with her. Rotwang is guilty of relying too much upon his heart and is to blame for unleashing the devil in the form of a seductive caprice due to his obsessive desire for a woman which might have even been his lover. Freder looks much more like Rotwang than his father, and with the cold demeanor displayed by Joh Fredersen, this a very distinct possibility. The only actual brain in this film seems to be Joh Fredersen, whose former self when Hel was around, can only be left to speculation.

Lang said that the struggle between worker and industrialist did not hold much interest for him. His wife, Thea Von Harbou, was the one who formulated the concept and he contributed the rest. What we now have here is an understanding as to possibly why this film has been so heavily cut and chopped throughout its existence. There is no single political or sociological message other than that everyone is a sinner because they allow their desires to get the better of them. What has been interpreted on many different philosophical, political, and sociological levels is probably due to these cuts. What started off as a film revealing that in the end, it is up to man to decide how to live, was probably distorted to either show a message in favor of the worker or anything except Lang’s message. The imagery of the devil as being a burlesque dancer, and the reactions of those that gaze, the regretted consequences of acts made by those too blinded by their own desires to perform otherwise, and the simple fact that Freder is not nearly just a heart, but is one of the few people left with any sense to act justly – we could say a brain as well – effectively destroys any possible elements of propaganda and displays the human condition in all its ugliness. It is no wonder that it has been so hard to restore Lang’s original vision; this film does not elevate nor glorify anyone except children and the two individuals whose sainthood becomes even more glaring as man-made chaos increases.

Editor’s Note:
The Complete Metropolis also features the complete original score by Gottfried Huppertz.

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