Metropolis (1927)

Ren Aguila on Fritz Lang’s Metropolis.

Arthur C. Clarke wrote in the book Life Science Library: Space that if there is any lasting legacy German/American director Fritz Lang left the world, it was the final countdown before rocket launches, something which has since become iconic especially in the years when the world’s imagination was fired up by the “space race.” It was in his Woman in the Moon (1931), one of his last German films, where this first happened.

Metropolis (1927) is Lang’s other lasting legacy to world cinema. So when a friend from the film world here invited me to watch this and other films in the sixth International Silent Film Festival, I almost immediately agreed. The last time Metropolis was shown here in Manila was in 2007, with the same live scoring team, Rubber Inc., handling it. It became interesting for me, apart from its oft-discussed importance, because of what it said and did not say.

What was shown at Shangri-la Plaza’s Shang Cineplex that night was a restored “full version” with footage found in Buenos Aires in 2008. Even with the new footage, the film would still clock in at 140 minutes, as the restored version, premiered at the 2010 Berlin International Film Festival, runs at 24 frames per second. (The pre-screening talk was edifying in its own right, discussing such things as the importance of variable projector speeds and live scoring in the silent film era. It actually mattered that in some places, films were run faster or slower even in the middle of the reel for effect.)

What impressed me was the painstaking effort it took to put the work together. The film relied on a proverbial “cast of thousands” and special effects techniques which have since become standard (like the use of models) to depict a dystopic future where the city is literally divided between rich and poor. It is one of the simplest of stories, and I seem to notice its roots in many a fairy tale where the world of privilege and poverty are united by love. In the Weimar era when the film was made, though, such a story and the way it was treated came uncomfortably close to home—one edit of the film to make it shorter had a clearly political agenda, with the workers’ revolt (instigated by the faux-Maria) almost cut out. I saw in this film a warning that, at some point, if the social tensions of the era were not resolved, the consequences would be devastating unless there was some semblance of a soul restored to society. (Perhaps Lang was the pioneer of the kind of speculative fiction on film that used the future to warn the present.)

And what would that soul be, then? Metropolis is, for a film that occasionally evokes themes of Marxist revolutionary fervor, equally evocative of the archetypes of Judeo-Christian faith. It is telling that Lang has Freder (Gustav Frolich) walking into a nearly empty Gothic cathedral, where only somewhat older folk are inside, listening to a monk preach about the Whore of Babylon. Even the name of Babel, the tower from which Metropolis is governed, draws its inspiration from the Genesis story, retold in an altered form by Maria (Brigitte Helm) in the catacombs. The Mediator, a messianic figure of which Maria speaks, is the “heart” of the world that is to come. And the flooding that takes place in the worker’s city reminds me, on hindsight, of the other key Genesis narrative of the “great flood.”

In this sense, what the film doesn’t say is just as important. What would this messianic future be, after the coming of the Mediator? Metropolis ends at the moment when Freder’s father reconciles with the foreman. And here, this is where I feel this film ends, on a bit of necessary naivete. We are left with the satisfaction that there is hope and redemption to come. And yet we are left with the thought that perhaps the story is incomplete. That is the point of the future. Perhaps this incompleteness is why Lang had reservations, later in life, about his own work. The incompleteness left room for people to paint their own pictures, sometimes far more disturbing, it turns out, than the dystopic vision Fritz Lang offered.

Where I agree with the naïve optimism of Fritz Lang and his soon-to-be-former wife Thea von Harbou (who both wrote the film) is the visionary hope of a world with soul. Having said that, I fear that it is telling that the absence of that soul, or its limitation to a world of privilege and wealth, perverting its very universality, is very much around. It is also telling that Metropolis was filmed in a time when the arts were very much in its ferment, when the Roaring Twenties in both Europe and America were seeing unprecedented change and creativity. I wonder if there were people, apart from the critics who were heaping praise upon Metropolis, going after Lang and feeling offended by his allegory. “We are a heartless society? But we have heart! Just look at the street musicians on the Alexanderplatz, etc.”

And so Metropolis will continue to leave its mark on generations of film lovers, with a few people asking whether the message, perverted as it was by the forces of fascism, hits closer to home, in societies where people are numbed into thinking that things are better, when in fact, it should be.

On a final note: today is the third anniversary of the (unsolved) murder of Alexis and Nica. I suspect he was at the UP Film Center, that night in 2007, when Metropolis was last shown.

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