Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927) is one of the most amazing films ever made—that it was made at all is amazing in itself. It also has one of the most torturously convoluted histories of any movie—leaving a trail that runs from Berlin in 1927 to a library in Argentina in 2008. (For more on this, see “Cranky Hanke’s Screening Room: Metropolis, Fritz Lang and Me” at http://avl.mx/0u.) Lang’s remarkable vision of the city of the future has been a cinematic staple for as long as movies have been considered a valid art form. There have been a variety of mutilated, truncated versions of the film, but these days it’s finally back in the form Lang intended 87 years ago.
Not to take away from the film’s deeper—if somewhat simplistic—meanings or its still astonishing vision of the future, but at bottom Metropolis is an epic melodrama of exactly the kind that Lang thrived on. A familiarity with his Dr. Mabuse films (both the silent and the 1932 talkie The Testament of Dr. Mabuse) andSpies (1928) attests to this. Interestingly, Rudolf Klein-Rogge, who here plays mad scientist Rotwang, is the criminal mastermind in all these films. A great deal of Metropolis is the kind of wild-and-woolly stuff of melodrama, pulp fiction and the serial film. And to some degree the rediscovered footage actually adds to this—putting back a large dose a duplicity and some hair-breadth escapes. If anything, here’s a case where an increase in length actually adds in long lost thrills—along with dramatic coherence.
At the same time, Metropolis is a film with much on its mind. It envisions a world in which humanity has been enslaved by technology—and also a world in which a fabulously rich favored few control everything at the expense of everyone else. In some ways, it foreshadows the Nazi elite, but in just as many ways, it’s a work that resonates as much today as ever. It’s also the story of a young man acquiring a social conscience. Granted, this is partly the result of becoming enamoured of a pretty girl, but it’s undeniably at the core of the film, even if the girl started it all. Few films—and even fewer melodramas—are so rich in thematic material. Metropolis is a milestone—one of the inescapable and essential classics of film.
Classic World Cinema by Courtyard Gallery will present Metropolis Friday, June 20, at 8 p.m. at Phil Mechanic Studios, 109 Roberts St., River Arts District (upstairs in the Railroad Library). Info: 273-3332, www.ashevillecourtyard.com