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Feature: Happy 90th Birthday, Metropolis!

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What would you say to a screening of a silent black-and-white 1927 science-fiction film, made by an Austrian-German Expressionist, with a running time that is the best part of two-and-a-half hours? Probably something similar to what I said at first: “I haven’t seen Pirates of the Caribbean 4 yet so maybe I should give that a go first…”

I know, I know! I’m shallow. In my defence, I have yet to see the fourth, fifth, eighth, whatever entry in the theme-park-ride franchise. However, I can announce that after recording it off the TV twice and deleting it once I have finally ticked Metropolis off my Films-You-Really-Should-Watch-Because-You-Write-A-Film-Blog list.

So, what was it that encouraged me to take this daunting plunge? I was to be a guest on a radio show to discuss the best introductory films to subtitled cinema. Metropolis, though a silent film, has its intertitles in German and so includes English subtitles; it was therefore on my list of films to watch for research. Plus, this film is an astonishing ninety years old today and has survived a bit of a battering to still be screened today, so if this piece of cinematic history isn’t worthy of a blog post to celebrate its dotage then I don’t know what is. So, I sat down and started watching it, dreading the trudge I was about to embark on. Were there any chores I had forgotten to do? No. Have I alphabetised my wife’s spice rack? No, she’d done that already. There was no escape; I was watching Metropolis.

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Set in a dystopian 2026, the elite enjoy a luxurious lifestyle above ground because of the enslaved workers that power the city’s machines below it. When Freder, the son of the leader of Metropolis, discovers the squalid conditions of the workers who provide his privileged way of life, he meets and falls in love with the aspirational Maria, who prophesied to the workers that a Mediator will unite the class divide and save them from their living hell. Freder tells Maria that he can be that Mediator, but little do they know that Freder’s father has been watching Maria from the shadows and plots to smear her character.

Metropolis is an incredible film. This had me hooked and on the edge of my seat from start to finish because of how fresh this story was to me. I thought that as this is the great-grand-daddy of all sci-fi films gone by that I would have seen every idea that Metropolis had to offer in all the films it has inspired. I don’t claim to be an expert on the sci-fi genre, but I found Metropolis to be an incomparable masterpiece that is well-paced, full of surprises and builds genuine threat and tension throughout. My wife was half-an-hour late going to her mother’s because she too was enthralled by this captivating film – not bad for a movie older than penicillin!

The one thing this film does have in common with Pirates of the Caribbean 4 is that they were both the most expensive films ever made when released. This is where the comparisons end though, as Metropolis wasn’t just a by-the-numbers blockbuster. Whilst other science-fiction films of the early 1900s were mostly adaptations of classic novels, Metropolis followed a similar path to its fellow European releases and was more of a foretelling of a possible future and a reflection of society.

Fritz LangDirector Fritz Lang was notoriously difficult to work with and the cast of Metropolis were at the mercy of his quest for creative integrity. Examples allegedly include Lang’s insistence that all five-hundred of the child extras work in pools of freezing cold water, and his determination to use real fire that nearly set his leading lady alight. This didn’t prove to be a cathartic exercise for Lang either; just ask Peter Lorre, who was apparently thrown down a set of stairs by Lang in his 1931 “talkie”, M, to give him an authentic roughed-up appearance!

Despite the trials of the cast and crew, the critics were not kind to Metropolis. The visuals were praised but the running time was condemned along with an alleged theme of Communism within the story. Even Lang didn’t like it, claiming it to be “silly and stupid.” As a result of the negative reaction from the critics, the film was drastically edited before its general release and the public were given an obscure movie that didn’t make sense. A lot of Lang’s original footage was thought to be lost, and many attempts have been made to piece the movie back together by film enthusiasts so that it could once again truly reflect the director’s original vision. Miraculously, a complete but damaged print of the first cut of the film was found in 2008 in the possession of a collector in Buenos Aires. A restoration could finally be assembled that was as close to the original as possible. This new print is deemed as the final version of Metropolis, a film that rivalled Blade Runner for the amount of theatrical cuts it had been subjected to! I didn’t think that was possible…

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What I find to be the most astonishing piece of Metropolis trivia is that Joseph Goebbels offered to make Lang an honorary Aryan, despite being of Jewish decent, because both him and Adolf Hitler were huge admirers of the film. Goebbels apparently told Lang: “…we decide who is Jewish and who is not”, straight after which Lang left the country. Who could blame him!

So, happy birthday, Metropolis. Like most seminal pieces of art, you were ahead of your time and misunderstood by your audience. You survived a brutal edit, harsh criticism from your creator and praise from Nazis to be hailed today as a cinematic landmark and an example of film-making at its finest.

I wonder if we’ll be reflecting on Pirates of the Caribbean 4 in the same way in eighty-four years’ time…

 

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