Few images from the silent film era linger in contemporary pop culture more than the dreary futuristic landscapes of Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis.” Whereas Charlie Chaplin remains the paragon of cinema’s capacity to entertain, Lang’s 1927 epic still provokes fears about modern technology. Conventional wisdom tells us that new media serve as a democratizing force, but the class struggle at the heart of “Metropolis” suggests its destructive potential.
Perhaps appropriately for an age dominated by remixes and on-demand personalization, several versions of “Metropolis” exist on DVD alone. The latest “definitive” one, cobbled together from a private collection discovered in Buenos Aires and now screening around the globe, offers a near-complete look at Lang’s intended version. But even with roughly half an hour of newly reinstated footage, “Metropolis” conveys the same underlying danger and excitement over the fetishization of technology that it did in the first place.
An earlier, unfinished cut of the movie contained a title card explaining its timeless appeal: “This film is not of today or of the future. It tells of no place.” Indeed, as “Metropolis” ages and its primordial vision of mechanized factory work looks increasingly anachronistic, the movie has gone from science fiction thriller to cautionary fable played out in abstract terms.
In every version, the central plot stays the same: Freder (Gustav Fröhlich) confronts the tyrannical grip that his father, the city’s brilliant architect Joh Fredersen (Alfred Abel), exerts over the impoverished workers miles beneath the surface. The family dynamic turns “Metropolis” into a personal story even as its climactic revolt of the underclass relates larger philosophical ideas. That intimacy gives the movie a universal quality, allowing it to address viewers across an endless spectrum of time. It takes place in “no place” but home.
The latest version enforces that perception. Several restored scenes revolve around the frailty of human will under the influence of monetary power. In one heretofore unseen subplot, Freder exchanges outfits with an overworked factory employee, establishing a switcheroo reminiscent of “The Prince and the Pauper,” although here the results have a seedy twist. Once in a cab, the freshly accessorized worker becomes overwhelmed by the potential to exploit his sudden wealth. Lang symbolizes this transition in a wonderfully frantic sequence of overlays, as a hedonistic spell leads the man to party at the city’s red light district.
Another potent addition involves the scheming inventor Rotwang, the literal face of technological empowerment gone awry. Although he eventually uses his technology under Fredersen’s direction to create an evil android version of activist leader Maria (Brigitte Helm), Rotwang has other plans. Having previously harbored affection for Fredersen’s deceased wife, the mad scientist keeps a gigantic bust of the woman in his laboratory – and plans to resurrect her in robotic form. Taking his cues from screenwriter and novelist Thea von Harbou, Lang anticipates the lure of alternate realities like Second Life with Rotwang’s twisted desire for digital wish fulfillment.
If “Metropolis” casts human nature in an overwhelmingly negative light, its dominant message (“The mediator between the head and the hands must be the heart!”) is optimistic. With Maria in jail, her robotic double leads the workers to destroy the machines, a feat that establishes the climactic flood scene. Too late, the workers learn that the machines holding them down also sustain their existence, necessitating that heartfelt mediator. As a result, “Metropolis” depicts a world not at the mercy of the machines, but rather the select few in the position to control them. In an era where the debates over net neutrality rage on, that’s not such a far-flung assumption. If it were produced today, “Metropolis” might not retain the same mystical hold on our society – perhaps because, on some level, we live in it.