posted to on Aug. 12, 2002


Despite the permanent loss of 25 percent of the original footage, movie-goers can now see a version of Fritz Lang's "Metropolis" that is faithful to the 1927 version. This dystopian tale of downtrodden workers living deep beneath an ultra-modern city built through their labor includes many images that have become part of film iconography.


The most famous depicts men operating vast clock-like machines. Their desperate efforts to keep pace with the frenetic revolutions of the dial constitute a macabre version of Charlie Chaplin on the assembly line in "Modern Times". When Joh Fredersen (Alfred Abel), the corporate mogul who runs Metropolis, discovers that workers are organizing for better conditions, he recruits a mad inventor to build a robot that looks like their cherished leader in order to provoke them into a self-defeating rebellion. The inventor's workshop clearly inspired "Frankenstein" and many other films. These images can be found at: (


Restorationist Martin Koerber told the Village Voice, "What you've seen before of Metropolis is usually some kind of Frankenstein story. Nutty professor invents robot, robot wreaks havoc, and everything goes kaput." While this certainly is part of the narrative, there is much more. By discovering a first-generation camera negative in Berlin, Koerber was able to construct a new version using pristine images. For those passages that could not be restored, Koerber supplies a brief précis of the action. All in all, the film moves along without any jarring discontinuities.


"Metropolis" was last presented to modern-day audiences in 1984 when Europop impresario Giorgio Moroder put together a colorized version of the film with his own cheesy film-score. Based on the 87 minute version previously available, this version was *37 minutes* shorter than Koerber's. Moroder calculated that color and his score, which included artist Freddy Mercury, would attract a younger generation to the classic film, a strategy that might be likened to putting silver tinsel on Bauhaus furniture. Fortunately Kroeber makes use the original score by Gottfried Huppertz, who also wrote chamber music and orchestral scores in the same lush quasi-Wagnerian style that works so well for this rather grandiose film.


Although the film was made during the turbulent 1920s, it would be a mistake to assume that it was socialist propaganda. To the contrary, the main message of the film is class collaboration. When Joh Fredersen's young son Freder (Gustav Fröhlich) goes into the subterranean bowels of Metropolis in search of Maria (Brigitte Helm), the workers' leader whom he has fallen in love with at first sight, he is devastated by the sight of workers practically chained to their machines. No longer willing to live a life of privilege, he dons coveralls and takes the place of a suffering worker at the clock-machine. When he finally meets Maria, who returns his love, he agrees to be the "mediator" between the workers and his father. Between the head (managers) and the hand (assembly line workers), Maria preaches the need for the heart. Young Freder will be that heart.


It would take a PhD dissertation to sort out all the clashing ideas in "Metropolis". While on one hand sympathetic to a kind of neo-Luddism, it also expresses Fritz Lang and screenwriter Thea Von Harbau's (Mrs. Lang) infatuation with the United States that they had visited for the first time in 1924. Lang recalls from that visit: "The buildings seemed like a vertical curtain, shimmering and very light, a lavish backdrop hanging against a murky sky, dazzling, distracting, and hypnotizing. It was only at night that the city gave the impression that it was alive: alive in the way that illusions are alive. I knew that I had to make a film about all these impressions."


Even the most anti-capitalist moments of the film are shrouded in a kind of apocalyptic iconography. In a feverish state, Freder sees Metropolis being avenged by statues of the Seven Deadly Sins that have come to life. In one giddy scene that stands out among many, we see the building of the Tower of Babel by vast throngs of bare-chested slaves. With some 37,633 actors and extras at Lang's disposal, this scene and others achieve epic proportions. With a budget of 5 million marks, it was the most expensive film ever made in Germany.


In 1927, it was unlikely that the socialist movement, which was fighting for its life, would take such a film seriously. Gestalt psychologist and cultural critic Rudolf Arnheim wrote in "Stachelschwein":


"It's an old story: a heart looks pretty good in a film - not as a symbol of pulsing life, of vivid reality, but because hearts are sweet, as in 'sweetheart', and because the sun shines in your heart... At one extreme we have an engineer's idea of America. Of course, it is derived less from institutes of technology than from science fiction for boys: the smooth face of the planet disfigured past hope and beyond recognition by skyscrapers; neon signs of truly apocalyptic brightness; streets fairly jammed with cars; the industrialist, his muscles hard as steel, his finger on the pushbutton. At the other extreme, there is the whole dust-catching artsy-craftsy emotional life of the Europeans. If one looks into the hearts and minds of these people of the future, one might say: the world has stayed exactly the same. The only thing that's slightly changed is the fashion in houses.


"Once upon a time a woman set out to find the word everybody had been waiting for - in a novel that would at the same time work as a screenplay. Looking cute with her bobbed hair, she peeks out at us coquettishly from the program, and yet she is dangerous. For she plants mawkish sentiment in a field where there's already a profusion of it even without her assistance - sentiment that should be ruthlessly weeded out if there is to be progress in the world. Let lady writers keep on painting by the numbers in the sexual sphere a la Hedwig Courths-Maler - but I wish they'd keep their manicured fingers out of socialism."


Lisbeth Stern commented in "Sozialistische Monatshefte":


"By the way, nowadays one keeps running into an artistic style that the National Socialists would call 'volkisch' (= characteristic of the German race). There's a touch of that in Fritz Lang. That's where his huge pathos-filled spaces belong, with tiny human figures in them. This is true of his big contrasts in general, and particularly those gigantic formats that are not sufficiently filled with life from the inside, and therefore leave us empty."


As it turns out, it turns out that it was no accident that the film had a 'volkisch' quality. Thea Von Harbau was an ardent German nationalist who remained in Hitler's Germany after her husband went into exile. Some critics ascribe everything that is negative in Lang's work in Germany to her influence. Lang himself said that he was happier with the technical accomplishments of the film than he was with the message.


One of the film's biggest fans was Joseph Goebbels, who also admired the work of Sergei Eisenstein and had hopes that Lang would direct a "National Socialist Potemkin." On January 30, 1933, Adolf Hitler became chancellor of Germany. On March 11 he appointed Dr. Josef Goebbels Minister of Propaganda with jurisdiction over film. Goebbels, who once described himself as "a passionate admirer of filmic art," had a particular fondness for the work of Fritz Lang. In a speech before the organization of German film producers at the Hotel Kaiserhof on March 28, he singled out Lang's Nibelungen for special praise: "Here is an epic film that is not of our time, and yet it is so modern, so contemporary, so topical, that even the stalwarts of the National Socialist movement were deeply moved." Goebbels, who also admired the work of Sergei Eisenstein, may have thought that Lang would direct a "National Socialist Potemkin."


Not long after Hitler's rise to power, Lang received a summons to appear at the Propaganda Ministry on the Wilhemstrasse. Lang scholar Frederick W. Ott recounts what happened there:


>>Lang arrived on the appointed hour, dressed in striped trousers and a morning coat. He waited in an anteroom observed by brown-shirted storm troopers until an adjutant ceremoniously ushered him into the office of the Reichsminister. "It was a big room with four or five big windows," Lang recalled. "At the far end was a big desk, and Goebbels came forward dressed in the party uniform." Goebbels, who could be charming when the occasion demanded, effused cordiality during his meeting with Lang. According to Lang, Goebbels told him that he and the Fuhrer had seen Metropolis in a German town "and Hitler had said at the time that he wanted me to make the Nazi pictures." Goebbels offered Lang the key position in the German film industry, telling his astonished visitor, "[You are] the man who will make . . . the Nazi film."


Throughout the interview, Lang sweated profusely. At one point he ventured to remind Goebbels that he had Jewish ancestry on his mother's side. This would be overlooked, Goebbels replied, in light of his service during the Great War. Of course, Lang never seriously considered Goebbels' offer, although he told the Reichsminister that he would reply in twenty-four hours.


But Lang had no desire to assume a key position in National Socialist film production. Strong-willed and independent, a firm believer in freedom, he could never bring himself to conform to the Weltanschauung of the New Order. ". . . Many people have forgotten what freedom means," Lang noted in a 1973 interview with Charles Champlin, recalling his meeting with Goebbels. "When I came in 1934 to this country, it was the land of the free. And I learned here about a song that was sung at the start of the century and it goes: 'Freedom doesn't come like a bird on the wind; freedom doesn't come like a summer rain; freedom, freedom is a very hard earned thing.' And every generation has to earn it again." The Goebbels interview confirmed Lang's decision to leave Germany.<<




Metropolis is playing at the Film Forum in NYC through Thursday, August 15th. See for more information.


The restoration project for the film has an excellent website at: