City Lives

Issue section: 

Review of 'Metropolis: Special Edition', director Fritz Lang

During the first half of the 20th century many of the great milestones in world cinema were repeatedly censored, re-edited and generally mutilated beyond recognition. In particular, the most highly politically charged films were most liable to be either banned or bowdlerised and 'Metropolis', the classic German Expressionist film of 1926, was no exception.

Ostensibly, 'Metropolis' tells the story of a vast, luxurious and thriving city in the not so distant future. But there is a contradiction in this supposedly brave new world. While the children of the rulers of this city play games, dance and relax in the lavish clubs and gardens that sit atop the numerous skyscrapers, far below, in the depths of the city exist the workers. Here an army of dehumanised, enslaved, indistinguishable people toil endlessly on the giant machinery of Metropolis, keeping the city alive. Their lives are miserable and short and they enjoy few of the things they work to produce. The film deals with the inevitable conflict that arises between these classes.

A few years before 'Metropolis''s original release the British Board of Film Censors decreed that no film should contain 'any reference to the relations between capital and labour'. Clearly a difficulty for this film! It is scarcely surprising then that what was actually a fairly straightforward narrative was described as 'incomprehensible' by the likes of HG Wells when Metropolis emerged in its officially sanctioned format. The film has appeared in various guises since, few of which bear any resemblance to Lang's original vision. This newly assembled special edition is therefore especially welcome, coming the closest to recreating the version shown at the German premiere.

Stylistically, 'Metropolis' is an undoubted work of radicalism and genius. The use of fluid, mobile camerawork at a time when shooting conditions tended to be quite static; intricate montages in which the same piece of film was exposed repeatedly to different images; the skilful deployment of both real action and fake models within the same shot to create impossible scenes--all of this combines to tell the story in an imaginative, original and utterly engaging way.

Politically, however, 'Metropolis' remains very problematic. For example, to most viewers the class divide described in the film would appear to be one based on the ownership (or lack!) of the city and its machinery. Instead Lang simplifies this social gulf as being an inescapable result of the division of labour in society. John Fredersen--the industrialist and governor of the city--and his cohorts are 'workers of the brain', while the oppressed and angry masses underground are 'workers of the hand'. Not only does such an analysis fail to explain why one of these groups of workers should enjoy such great privileges over the other, but it is anyway fundamentally false. Today's modern working class consists of a whole army of office clerks, administrators, call centre operators and other 'white collar' workers or 'workers of the brain'... yet their conditions are no better than traditional manual labourers and are often worse.

Lang created 'Metropolis' at a time when many office workers did enjoy substantial privileges over other groups of workers. However, the film gives the impression of a director more interested in simply 'mirroring' what society superficially looked like, albeit through the distorting glass of Expressionism.

Ironically it is actually the great 'realist' films of Soviet cinema, such as October 1917 and Strike, which provide the really visionary cinematic ideas about society and how it could be changed. This contrast is especially evident in the final scenes of 'Metropolis' when the workers smash up everything in sight and generally cause carnage, only to realise how foolish they have been, in what is clearly meant to be Lang's portrayal of a revolution. Indeed the film's only real suggestion of a way forward for society comes in the symbolic final shot, which features the revolting sight of the workers' foreman embracing hands with the industrialist. Most viewers will find this a pretty miserable thought, but it does at least make clear Lang's misguided belief that the differences between rulers and ruled may be unjust, but are not irreconcilable.