I have finished watching the restored Metropolis and it has been a revelation. However before discussing the film itself I will say something about its history since I think this is important to understanding its reception and the many misunderstandings and confusions around it.
Metropolis was filmed in 1925 and 1926 on the basis of a screenplay written by Thea von Harbou the wife of the film’s director Fritz Lang. The film originally lasted 153 minutes and was initially released and shown in this form in a single cinema in Berlin near the zoo by UFA the German film studio that made it in January 1927. No less a person than Sergei Eisenstein visited the film set whilst filming was taking place though he and Fritz Lang did not get on with Eisenstein finding Fritz Lang patronising. UFA was partly American funded and it was at all times intended that Metropolis, which was UFA’s most ambitious film, would be shown internationally and in the United States where it would be distributed by the important Hollywood studio Paramount. Both Paramount and UFA were unhappy with the length of the film and from July 1927 it was shown both in Germany and elsewhere (except as it turns out in Argentina) in a drastically cut form that lasted just 90 minutes. It seems that the executives at UFA arranged to have most of the unused footage destroyed. Most people who have seen the film and who have formed views about it have only seen the film in this shortened 90 minute form. The DVD I have just bought contains a review of the film written in 1927 by Luis Bunuel and extracts from a review by H.G. Wells. Both these reviews were obviously written on the basis of the 90 minute version. The rather beautiful tinted version of Metropolis released in 1982 in Britain with a rock music score is also based on the 90 minute version further cut to just 80 minutes. Apparently because of copyright disputes this version of Metropolis is no longer available.
After the fall of Berlin in 1945 the entire UFA film archive fell into Soviet hands and was transferred from Berlin to Moscow. The Soviet archivists on going through this archive discovered in 1961 a version of Metropolis that though incomplete seems to have been in a better condition than any other version then in circulation. This inspired them to embark on a project to restore the film as far as possible to its original form. They located additional missing scenes in an archive in Prague but then took the decision to transfer all the Metropolis material in their possession, both that from the UFA archive and that found in Prague, to the East German film archives who took the restoration project over. The East Germans eventually released their restored version to general indifference at a film festival in Bucharest in 1972. The East German restoration however formed the basis of a further project to restore the film undertaken in his spare time by a West German film historian called Patalas who added to the East German version further material he had located in film archives in New York and in Australia and New Zealand. The final result, known as the Patalas version, came to 120 minutes and was released for the first time at a film festival in Moscow in 1987 and on DVD in 2006.
I have not seen the East German or Patalas versions. I suspect that the true nature of the film would be obvious from a viewing of either. Given that the East German version has been around since 1972 and the Patalas version since 1987 it is disturbing that perceptions of the film still seem to be largely based on the 1927 90 minute version.
Whilst all this was going on in Europe right up to 1959 Metropolis was being shown in Argentina in its original 153 minute form. There is no clear or fully satisfactory explanation in the leaflet that accompanies the DVD as to why Argentina should have been different and should have been showing the film in its original 153 minute version, which it was assumed had been destroyed, and not in the 90 minute version shown elsewhere. It says much for Argentina’s isolation that the fact that Metropolis was being shown there in its original 153 minute version seems to have passed completely unremarked and unnoticed.
After 1959 cinemas in Argentina stopped showing Metropolis in its original 153 minute form because as a result of overuse the 35 mm film on which the film was recorded and which had presumably been acquired in 1927 had deteriorated to the point when it had become unwatchable. At some point in the 1960s this original film found its way into the possession of a private collector who in 1968 bequeathed it to a small film museum in the suburbs of Buenos Aires. In view of the terrible condition of the film at some point in the early 1970s the museum transferred it from its original 35 mm film tape onto 16 mm film. This was done in a slapdash way with no attempt to clean or repair the original 35 mm film so that the version preserved in the museum perpetuates all the damage in the 35 mm original making it unwatchable in its raw state.
Bizarrely, it seems that the fact that right up to 1959 Metropolis was being shown in Argentina in its original 153 minute form up was thereafter forgotten even in Argentina itself so that when the film was rediscovered in the museum in 2008 this caused as much of a sensation in Argentina as it did everywhere else. The condition of the film is however so bad that the Munich archive that owns the rights to Metropolis decided to use the Buenos Aires material to fill out the gaps in the Patalas version rather than release a new version of the film based entirely on it. The DVD I have just seen is therefore a combination of the Patalas version and of the Buenos Aires material, which after digital enhancement is just about viewable. The Buenos Aires material has added a further 25 minutes to the Patalas version, bringing the total up from 120 minutes to 145 minutes out of 153 minutes.
This means that there are still 8 minutes missing, which have presumably been irretrievably lost. Unfortunately these 8 minutes cover two important scenes that have a vital bearing on the development of the plot. However the content of these scenes is known and with 145 out of 153 minutes now recovered it has now become possible to arrive at a properly informed impression of the film as it was originally made. An important aid to understanding the film is the inspired decision of the Munich archive to release the film on DVD with its original musical score. This was specially composed to accompany the film and is tightly integrated into the plot and is a very valuable aid to understanding the film.
All earlier impressions of the film including those of Luis Bunuel and H.G. Wells have been based on the 90 minute version, which is the version I have previously seen. On the basis of that version the assumption has been that the film is about a workers’ revolution in a dystopian city of the future. The ideology of the film is supposed to be left wing or even Socialist or Communist. The film however ends with a scene of reconciliation between capital and labour, which seems so grossly inconsistent with what has been shown that it is universally derided lame and farfetched and even absurd and which is condemned as a compromise or even a betrayal of what the film is presumed to be about. It is often suggested (and continues to be suggested in the leaflet accompanying the DVD) that this seemingly bizarre happy ending was inserted to satisfy either Paramount or the directors of UFA who would otherwise have been unhappy about the film’s supposedly Socialistic message. Various other supposedly vulgar and sentimental elements in the film have also been routinely blamed on Thea von Harbou, the film’s script writer, who was Fritz Lang’s wife.
Having now seen the film in something very close to its originally form I can conclusively say that all of these impressions and assumptions are completely wrong. The story of the film is completely coherent and the happy ending is fully integrated in the plot and is indicated in the film from the outset. The elements in the film that have been called vulgar are also fully consistent with the plot. In my opinion they are not vulgar but disturbing a fact which I find to be the case not just with these scenes but with the whole film.
Briefly it is clear to me that the film has been completely misunderstood and that its ideology is not as most people think left wing or Socialist or even Communist but volkisch and fascist. That this is the case is demonstrated by the plot, which I would summarise as follows:
In a great European city of the future class tensions have reached breaking point as the city’s rulers press on with their plans heedless of the suffering this is causing the city’s workers. These tensions are being secretly manipulated for his own ends by a sinister individual called Rotwang who is part occultist and part scientist. Rotwang enjoys the confidence of the Ruler of the city, whom he manipulates. At the same time by using a robot he has created Rotwang is inciting the workers of the city to revolution whilst demoralising the city’s elite by drawing it away from healthy activities such as sport, outdoor sex in the Eternal Gardens and nature worship into a life of luxury, decadence and hedonistic pleasure.
Rotwang’s intentions are purely destructive. He seeks to destroy the city out of jealousy and thwarted sexual passion. Throughout the film he is obsessed by lust for two women both of whom reject him, the first being the Ruler’s wife and the second a Christian maiden who is the heroine of the story. In the end Rotwang’s criminal plans are thwarted through the intervention of a Messianic figure called the Mediator, whom Rotwang tries to kill, whose coming is foretold throughout the film, who turns out to be the Ruler’s son and who is the hero of the story. At the end of the film the Mediator fulfils his destiny by effecting a reconciliation between his father the Ruler of the city and the workers (ie between capital and labour). In order to achieve this he has to demonstrate his virtue and gain the workers’ trust by saving their children whom Rotwang has tried to destroy.
To my mind this is as clear an expression as it is possible to get of the sort of fascist and volkisch ideas that were current in Germany and elsewhere in Europe in the 1920s. Central to fascist and volkisch ideology was the desire to create a volkgemeinschaft, a harmonious national community into which class tensions would supposedly be subsumed. This of course is precisely what the Mediator achieves at the end of the film and what the happy ending is all about. To reinforce the point the film constantly invokes bruderschaft (as opposed to kamaradenschaft) with the Mediator for example always referring to the workers as his “brothers”. Needless to say neither the Mediator nor anyone else in the film is ever elected to the role he fulfils. Instead the Mediator emerges (or “comes”) to fulfil his destiny in exactly the way that a fascistic Duce or Fuhrer is supposed to do.
It is not anachronistic to see these concepts in a film made in Germany in the mid 1920s. Volkisch and fascist ideas were already by this time widespread and anyone in Germany who in the mid 1920s was looking for an example of a fascist Duce or Fuhrer already had the example of Mussolini to hand.
At this point I would just make one further though rather tentative point. This is that there is what seems to me to be one rather obvious similarity between the Fuhrer of Metropolis and the man who eventually became the Fuhrer of Germany. The Fuhrer of Metropolis is always referred to as the Mediator, which in German is “Mittler”. “Mittler” rhymes with “Hitler”. A coincidence? In 1923, the year before Thea von Harbou wrote the screenplay for Metropolis, Hitler had for the first time publicly staked his claim to lead Germany and achieved national prominence as a result of the Beer Hall Putsch. Possibly the similarity in sound between “Mittler” and “Hitler” was unintentional. After all the idea of the Mediator is fundamental to the film’s plot. However the fact remains that at the time the film was made there were in Germany a great many people who had volkisch views, who were receptive to the idea of a Fuhrer and some though by no means all of whom were already starting to think of Hitler in that role.
As for Rotwang, who is the pivotal character in the story, the film is careful not to identify him too obviously as Jewish, which would have been unacceptable to a film intended for international and American distribution. He does not for example look obviously Jewish. However the film contains a number of clear hints about where his allegiances lie. He has a pentagram drawn on his front door and on the wall of his laboratory. This is the occult symbol not the Star of David, which is a hexagram. Rotwang is however a scientist not a magician. He does not engage in magical or occult activity so his reason for displaying the pentagram on his front door or on the wall of his laboratory is obscure. Fritz Lang much later tried to explain this away by claiming that the original intention had been to make Metropolis a film about magic and that though he eventually abandoned the idea some visual elements of this such as presumably the pentagram survived in the film. I find this completely unconvincing and as even the leaflet and documentary that accompany the DVD make clear nothing that Fritz Lang ever said about Metropolis can be taken on trust. Frankly the suggestion that Rotwang was originally a magician or a sorcerer is so completely at variance with the rest of the plot that to my mind it makes no sense at all. I accept that there is a scene in which the doors of Rotwang’s house appear to open and close in a mysterious way but given the emphasis placed on Rotwang’s work in his laboratory there is no reason to think that this is due to occult as opposed to scientific powers. In my opinion the presence of the pentagram is intended to hint at the Star of David. The two symbols are sufficiently similar so that given what Rotwang is and does I suspect that anyone receptive to the thought would have no difficulty making the necessary connection. That after all is how racism and anti Semitism often communicate: through hints, suggestions and coded signals recognisable immediately by those in the know rather than through crude and direct statements.
Rotwang’s name in my opinion also provides a further clue. “Rot” is German for “red” and his name therefore links Rotwang with the colour red, which is of course the colour of international Communism and of the Communist movement, which in Germany in the 1920s was often called and called itself the “Red Front”. Rotwang’s manipulation of both the Ruler of the city and of the workers of course corresponds exactly with the common volkisch and fascist belief that capitalism and Communism are both tools of the international Jewish conspiracy. Rotwang’s lust for Christian Aryan women and his attempts to destroy the workers’ children are of course standard anti Semitic fantasies. Lastly his misuse of his intellect and of his scientific knowledge to achieve his criminal purposes corresponds exactly with volkisch notions of “diseased Jewish intellectualism”.
There are more elements of the film that betray its nature. Some of the scenes modern audiences find so attractive were surely intended to suggest the supposed cultural decadence that the volkisch in Weimar Germany found so objectionable. There are scenes of wild semi naked dancing accompanied by (“negro”) jazz music. There are scenes involving black performers (hints of miscegenetation) and of orgies and of sexual passion ending in murders and suicides. The music written to accompany some of these scenes breaks into jazz sounds (“jungle music”). In contrast in other scenes including those involving the heroes the music uses a conservative late romantic Nineteenth Century “Germanic” idiom. As in many other films of this and other periods virtuous women are chaste or sexually passive whilst the sexuality of wicked women (“femmes fatales”) is unbridled. This film takes this conceit to an extreme.
The film goes out of its way to emphasise the connection between this sort of decadence and physical and moral annihilation. This theme was of course almost a commonplace in 1920s conservative and volkisch circles and still finds echoes in some conservative circles today.
As if to drive the point home the film is saturated with apocalyptic Catholic religious imagery. At the beginning of the film one of the machines turns into the Biblical monster Moloch, who is the god of greed and avarice. At the mouth of the monster as it devours the workers are two priestly figures in antique Middle Eastern robes. A direct link is made between the city and the Biblical city of Babel with a parable at the start of the film about the original Tower of Babel and the discovery later in the film that the great skyscraper at the centre of the city in which the Ruler has his office is called “the new Tower of Babel”. The film contains two readings from the Apocalypse of St. John (one being in one of the two scenes that is missing) with the emphasis in both scenes on the Whore of Babylon. As Fritz Lang and Thea von Harbou would certainly have known “Babel” and Babylon” were one and the same place.
The city is therefore the new Babylon, a city which like its predecessor is descending into a whirlpool of corruption, cruelty and decadence and which like the old Babylon is as a result hurtling towards its destruction. Again in order to drive the point home the robot in its seductive female guise is expressly identified as the Whore of Babylon with the link between the sexual corruption and luxury that the robot embodies and the city’s destruction emphasised by the playing of the dies irae as the robot performs its erotic dance. At the end of the dance Death himself appears carrying his sickle and we are informed by a caption that Death has come to the city.
The person responsible for the sexual corruption and decadence that overwhelms the city is ultimately Rotwang who is the robot’s creator and who is of course simultaneously also using the robot to incite the workers to revolution. The supposed sexual corruption and decadence of Weimar was popularly attributed to Jewish influence. In Weimar as in the film such corruption and decadence was condemned as demoralising and destructive and even death obsessed. Again the parallels are too strong to seem unintentional.
As for the film’s famous slogan, that “the heart should mediate between the head and the hand” (taken up by such luminaries as Madonna) this is simply an expression of the well known fascist and volkisch mistrust of the intellect and their contrasting glorification of “feeling” and emotion. It is this glorification of “feeling” and emotion at the expense of the intellect that Luis Bunuel and H.G. Wells and scores of later critics have found sentimental and vulgar. Seen against the film’s ideological premises they are neither. The film’s two heroes, the Mediator and the Christian maiden, are virtuous precisely because they let themselves be guided by their “feelings” and emotions. By contrast the film’s characters who rely on their intellect: Rotwang and the Ruler, meet with disaster. The outstanding intellectual in the film is Rotwang who is of course evil.
In the light of all of this it is not surprising to learn that Hitler and Goebbels were great admirers of the film and that Thea von Harbou, Fritz Lang’s wife who wrote the screenplay, joined the Nazi party in 1932 (before Hitler came to power) and remained an ardent Nazi until her death in the 1950s.
The major objection to this interpretation of the film is that Fritz Lang was himself partly Jewish and eventually became a strong anti Nazi going into exile after Hitler came to power when he also separated from his wife.
I do not think this is a valid objection. Fritz Lang’s mother, though Jewish, had converted to Catholicism before he was born and he was brought up a Roman Catholic, which doubtless explains the Catholic and Christian imagery in the film. At no point in his life (even after he went into exile) did Fritz Lang ever identify himself as being in any way Jewish. On the contrary he always downplayed his Jewish heritage. In the mid 1920s it was still possible to hold volkisch views whilst possessing Jewish ancestors. At this time anti Semitism still tended to define itself more in cultural than racial terms and still tended to acknowledge that it was theoretically possible for a Jew to repudiate his Jewishness by rejecting his religion and by assimilating entirely into the volk community. That of course at the time was also a popular Christian belief and was also the official policy of the Catholic Church. Significantly one character in the film appears to follow precisely this course. The Ruler’s secretary is given what appears to be a Jewish name (“Josaphat”) but joins the Mediator and becomes his first disciple. This of course mirrors the conduct of Christ’s disciples who before they converted and became disciplines were also Jews. With the rise of the Nazi movement this position eventually became unsustainable and in the 1930s it was categorically rejected. However in the mid 1920s it was still viable and there is no reason to suppose that Fritz Lang at that point did not share it.
Significantly Fritz Lang later made known his own dislike of the film. In the light of what I have said it is not difficult to see why. Fritz Lang’s own embarrassment about the film doubtless also explains the many misleading and untrue statements he subsequently made about it, such as for example that it was inspired by a visit he made to New York even though the plot outline was certainly written before this visit.
Why then and despite the circulation since 1972 and 1987 of the East German and Patalas versions has the film’s volkisch and fascist outlook been overlooked? Apart from a reluctance to believe that a well known anti Nazi such as Fritz Lang could have directed such a film I would suggest a number of reasons.
Firstly, in drawing out the fascist and volkisch ideas in the film in order to clear up misunderstandings and explain its plot I have inevitably given these elements excessive emphasis and perhaps conveyed the impression that the film is an exercise in political propaganda. It is nothing of the sort. This is emphatically not a political film. The makers of the film, Fritz Lang and Thea von Harbou, were first and foremost seeking to entertain and made the film for the purpose of entertainment not propaganda. The film in fact is entertainment not propaganda. It contains fascist and volkisch ideas because those were the ideological beliefs of the film’s makers. However though these ideas are woven into the fabric of the film, the film is eminently watchable as pure entertainment. I have no doubt that that was Fritz Lang’s and Thea von Harbou’s intention when they made the film and I have also no doubt that was how the film was generally received in 1927just as it is how the film continues to be received today.
Secondly, we have moved so far from the ideological and intellectual world of the 1920s that we have difficulty taking volkisch ideas seriously and even recognising them when we see them. We do not for example today associate ideas about the inhumanity of a world ruled by machines with volkisch notions or with the far right. Today we tend to associate these ideas with the left. This was emphatically not the case in the 1920s when the left on the contrary tended to embrace industrialisation and machines. In fact hostility to machines and urban landscapes such as we see in the film and the worship of nature were in the 1920 and 1930s volkisch commonplaces that were much more likely to be associated with the far right. They partly explain why so many people found the volkisch critique of contemporary society so attractive and why volkisch and fascist ideas had such a hold.
There is also a fundamental reluctance to admit that one of the great iconic modernist cinematic masterpieces of the Twentieth Century could be fascist in its ideology. The belief that fascism was anti modernist is a stubborn though fundamentally mistaken fallacy as Modernism and Fascism an important new study of the subject makes clear. It is also of course an equal and perhaps even greater fallacy that fascism is incapable of producing great art.
Lastly, the very incomplete form in which the film has been shown for most of its history has inevitably distorted impressions of it. Having now seen the film in almost its complete form it is now clear to me that the severe shortening of the film whether intentionally or not had the effect of downplaying its fascist and volkisch aspects. It has also had a further consequence in that it has fostered the idea of Metropolis as first and foremost a film that depends on its visual effects and which is a science fiction film. The scenes that show the great modernist sets were left uncut with the result that since the story line has been drastically shortened and distorted they have dominated the film at the expense of the plot. Now that that the film has been restored to its proper dimensions we are able to see these in their right places and contexts and reduced to their proper proportions. The result is that we can now for the first time since 1927 take the story seriously. Though Metropolis remains in some sense a science fiction film it is now also clear that it is one that remains firmly rooted in the cultural and political conditions existing in Germany in the 1920s.
Finally, having discussed the film’s ideological premises I feel I must say something about the quality of the film. It has been suggested that the new material has added little of any artistic value and that the film remains a disappointment and that it is considerably less than the sum of its parts.
Having seen this film in what is almost its entirety, I can say that I totally disagree with this view. in my opinion it is based on misunderstandings and expectations about the film still formed from watching the revised 90 minute version. In my opinion the film is on the contrary an astonishing masterpiece with a well constructed and suspenseful plot and with all the elements fitting perfectly into place to make a well integrated and consistent whole. Though the film is long and the plot intricate Fritz Lang never loses the thread and the film proceeds at a cracking pace. Though the Mediator and the Christian maiden, the two heroes of the story, are trite and annoying and Rotwang is grotesque, seeing the film in almost its complete form has allowed the exceptionally strong cast of secondary characters to emerge from the shadows. These include the Ruler of the city, Josaphat, the Ruler’s secretary who becomes the Mediator’s first disciple, Grot the foreman of the Heart Machine who controls the city’s electricity supply, Georgy the worker with whom the Mediator exchanges his clothes and who gets swept into the city’s cesspit of corruption and, most formidable of all, the Thin Man, who is in charge of the Ruler’s secret police. Dominating the film is the character of the robot, performed by the same 17 year old actress who plays the Christian maiden, in what is one of the most astonishing star turns in all cinema. The quality of the filming is at all times remarkable and the suspense is maintained throughout.