When Metropolis premiered in Berlin in 1927, no one had seen anything like it. For Baltimoreans, the same is true today. The movie spills over with wonders, like a sci-fi horn of plenty - and in the restored version opening today for a week's run at the Senator, for the first time all the marvels fall into place.
Pauline Kael rightly noted that H.G. Wells called it "quite the silliest movie." Yet director-designer William Cameron Menzies must have looked at it before shooting Wells' Things to Come. George Lucas and Ridley Scott borrowed from it for Attack of the Clones and Blade Runner (among others), and so did John Huston for the Tower of Babel sequence in The Bible. James Whale's laboratories in Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein gave off the same whiff of retro-futuristic medievalism as the lair of Lang's mad scientist Rotwang, and Rotwang himself was reborn as the title character of Stanley Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove.
Every contemporary disaster movie owes something to Lang's rampaging flood scenes. And the movie's strain of apocalyptic religious imagery - including the Grim Reaper and embodiments of the Seven Deadly Sins - might have lodged in Ingmar Bergman's memory long before he made The Seventh Seal.
The original English-language release prints of Metropolis were versions from Hell - or, I should say, Hel. Distributors bet that Brits and Yanks wouldn't understand that Hel was a German female name, and thus excised a key character from the picture, eliminating the reason for the antagonism between master builder Joh Fredersen (Alfred Abel), the creator of the dream city Metropolis, and Rotwang (Rudolf Klein-Rogge), the inventor of a mechanical woman who almost brings it down.
Brain, hands, heart
In this 75th-anniversary digital restoration, painstakingly put together from the best original materials, we learn that Joh and Rotwang once vied for a beauty named Hel, who married Joh and died giving birth to his son Freder (Gustav Frohlich). Rotwang then constructed a nubile robot to assuage his grief and lost one of his own hands in the process.
When the action in Metropolis starts, and Joh orders Rotwang to give this robot the face of a woman called Maria (Brigitte Helm) - an idealist Joh wants to discredit - Rotwang seizes the opportunity to wreak mammoth vengeance.
As Joh requests, Rotwang does program the robot Maria to rouse the rabble and betray the nonviolent labor-organizing of the real Maria - Joh wants an excuse to clamp down on workers. But Rotwang also commands the robot to set off a self-destructive, hedonistic frenzy in the ruling class, destroying Joh's "rational," plutocratic social order.
Rotwang's scheme is all the sweeter because Joh's son, Freder, is the real Maria's true love and ally. Maria's message is that "the mediator between brain and hands must be the heart" - and Freder is that mediating heart incarnate, ready to make peace between rigid authorities and enraged mobs.
In a decade of warring "isms" like the 1920s, the hands-brain-heart analysis of society offered by Lang and his then-wife and co-writer, Thea Von Harbou, was criticized from the left and right alike. Today, those criticisms seem foolish - like attacking Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde for touching on the id, ego and superego without being strictly Freudian. Lang's not a political philosopher, but an aesthetic visionary who sees the skyscraping community of Metropolis as a volatile group-character dwarfing individuals who contend with their own brain-hands-heart struggles.
The lead characters and performances vary wildly: Klein-Rogge's fierce, sensual Rotwang is the most formidable, and Frohlich's heavily made-up Freder the shakiest. But they magically coalesce in Lang's vision of the dysfunctional family of man.
At the top of society, stern patriarchs like Joh coddle sons of privilege like Freder, steering them toward Olympian athletics as well as a pleasure garden filled with courtesans playing hide and seek, and a red-light quarter named "Yoshiwara." (Both a sequence set outside a humongous stadium and most of the Yoshiwara episodes were cut from previous American prints.) When the robot Maria wiggles near-naked in front of wealthy men and winks at them with her mechanical eyes, these guys are lost. (Actually, what's nightmarish to us is how sexy the robot is when she's still just a featureless automaton.)
At society's bottom - and this society has several physical levels to its bottom, like a subterranean silo - workers are so weary of being human cogs in huge machines that when the false Maria ignites their Luddite revolt, they nearly abandon their own children to an ensuing flood. Aside from "brain," "hands" and "heart," perhaps the most frequently repeated word in the movie is "brothers" - and the simplest way to describe the remade world Lang envisions is as a brotherhood, not a top-heavy corporation.