Metropolis, directed by Fritz Lang, has become widely accepted as one of the most significant films in history. Its influence for almost a whole century echoes both visually and narratively through a series of sci-fi works from those who re-examine the role of a person in society (Frankenstein, Ghost in the Shell) over those who present the distinct vision of society (2001: A Space Odyssey, Blade Runner, Dark City, Equilibrium, Gattaca) to all the movies and comics that are just fun for the big crowd (Star Wars, Batman, The Fifth Element, Superman).
On the shoulders of giants
Yet many often overdo it in the praises and give superficial and unfounded statements, such as those that Lang is a movie genius, or this is a film that came out of nowhere. This couldn’t be further away from the truth. The Metropolis grew on the shoulders of economic, film and literary giants of the time. From the visual point of view, Lang was heavily influenced by works by German Expressionism (Nosferatu, Das Cabinet des Dr Caligari), while his screenwriter Thea von Harbou was inspired by the Soviet film (Bronenosets Potemkin, Aelita) and literature (Jevgenij Zamjatin’s novel We).
When added, the estimated budget of six million reis marks (equivalent to 18 million euros by the data from 2009) provided by the UFA production company, for which Lang could, among other things, afford 310 days of filming and 37,000 extras, it becomes clear that the success of this film is not at all a coincidence.
The first version of Metropolis was released on January 10, 1927, in Berlin. It lasted for about 153 minutes and glittered in Lang’s visual and von Harbour’s narrative perfection. Unfortunately, the UFA distribution agreement with Paramount and MGM (under the joint name Parufament) gave US distributors the right to make changes.
Censorship and restoration of the film giant
Due to its “length and disadvantage,” in the desire for the movie to secure profitability, Parufament introduced American pianist Channing Pollock to write a simpler version of the film that can be compiled using existing material. Pollock’s version lasted for 107 minutes, according to the Variety magazine, and in a series of changes, it completely removed all references to the character Hel, which played a key role in developing motivation for several characters.
Hell for the film has just begun, because Alfred Hugenberg, a German Nazi businessman, came to the forefront of UFA in April 1927. Hugenberg terminated the contract with American partners, and then, with their version of the movie, decided to remove the “inappropriate” communist subtext and religious connotations. After the film cranking process by process by the Nazi censors, Metropolis moved from original 153 minutes to 91 minutes and was archived in May 1936 in that form. Ironically, Adolf Hitler and Joseph Goebbels were great fans of the film, to the extent that Goebbels met with Lang and told him that he could be an honorary Arian despite Jewish origins.
Scorched by its original narrative structure Metropolis has for four decades been just a stylishly beautiful trail of the movie past. Between 1968 and 1972, ‘Staatliches Filmarchiv der DDR’ tried to contact film archives around the world and reconstruct the original version of the film. Restoration and reconstruction of the film continued for another 40 years through various film archives (which made four official versions of the film), until in 2008 they have found a 16mm minus negative film at the Museo del Cine archive in Buenos Aires. Although in a bad and partially irreversible state, the print was indeed Lang’s and Harbor’s original, with about 25 minutes of footage (almost a fifth of a movie) that had not been seen since the premiere in 1927.
Mechanized Society of Tomorrow
Whatever version of the Metropolis watching, the film speaks of a futuristic city-state in which a strictly separate class society is ruled: while the upper classes live in absolute luxury and enjoy the “Garden of Eternity”, the working class operates on huge machines and their day lasts 20 hours (10 working hours) so that one additional day of work is added.
Freder Fredersen, the son of a powerful oligarch Johan Fredersen, falls in love with Maria – the young, luminous, pacifist leader of the disgruntled workers. Freder opposes his father and takes the side of the worker. Therefore, his father, with the scientist Rotwang, creates the android clone of Maria with the desire to use the Maschinen-Maria to help the current peaceful labourers to finally have the legal reason to take action against them.
Cunning duality and rising of mortal sins
What makes the original version of Lang and Von Harbou stand out compared to all the short versions is a strong play of religious symbols, where the Metropolis towers reflect the Babylonian tower, while workers and their machines reflect in the light of slaves who built the pyramids. The original version goes so deeply into the religious symbolism that it manifests the seven mortal sins that are rising thanks to the characteristics of the bourgeois class.
What fascinates is the amount of duality Von Harbou implemented in her script, that censors did not understand. Each of the central characters – Freder, Joh, Maria and Rotwang – have two sides of their character. For Maria it is obviously her clone, with Freder this is (after the lost bits are found) a moment in which he switches roles with one of the members of the working class, while Joh and Rotwang, beneath the surface of their capitalist totalitarian dreams of supremacy, hide their far different past with Hel.
In the end each version of Metropolis Maria, preaches the working class the same ideals, but only the complete film through final confrontation on the roof of the church unites strong religious symbolism and duality through the idea that there can be no understanding between the hands and the brain if the heart does not act as mediator.