Robotic heroines and a vast cityscape make Fritz Lang's black and white vision of 1927 a must-see movie, says Mike Catto
I’ve seen more 'edited' (ie. butchered) versions of Fritz Lang’s 1927 Metropolis than you can possibly imagine. I still have shivery flashbacks about the 1980s release with a soft rock Giorgio Moroder soundtrack and the appropriation of Lang’s images for the video of Queen’s 'Radio Ga-Ga'.
So, given that we are talking here about a black and white silent film first released in Berlin on 10 January 1927, why should I be urging you all to go to the QFT between September 10 - 17, when you
could dive headlong into Avatar instead?
Quite simply; anyone, of any age, who claims to love cinema has to see what is probably as near to Fritz Lang’s original print and unique vision as you are likely to get.
When I first saw it, on a scratchy 16mm print at my university film society exactly 38 years to the day after its premiere (you can work that one out), the running time was 67 minutes.
Four years later I saw a 107 minute version, and over the years, the run time, due to newly found old prints and negs, has steadily crept up. Thanks to the chance discovery of a 16mm dupe negative in the Museo del Cine in Buenos Aires in 2008 and the work of German scholars, the Eureka print at the Queen's Film Theatre runs to 2 hours and 30 minutes.
The technical quality is superb, with sharp definition, a wide greyscale and none of the 'ghosting' that some earlier VHS and DVD copies had. But that technical precision, the use of Gottfried Huppertz’s original score and a full 25 minutes more than previous prints would mean absolutely zilch to the average cinema-goer if what emerged was an academic exercise, a curio, a dinosaur with wild silent gesticulation in lieu of acting.
Metropolis is still an astoundingly modern and prescient future vision. Set in 2026, it imagines a technological world where the rich live in skyscrapers above ground and the workers toil in subterranean factories.
Yes, the architecture may look like a Bauhaus catalogue, the technology on display is primitive and pre-computer but the entirety of the project still astounds. Indeed, even the 67 minute travesty I first saw was visually thrilling and the film still excites me to this day.
Even people who have never seen the film know images from it. The vast cityscape (albeit with cars and planes that date it to the 1920s), the Moloch-like furnace with streams of exhausted proles and, above all,
the image of the robot version of the heroine, Maria; all of these have been reproduced in popular culture and have been acknowledged by generations of film-makers.
In the new print, the narrative is more coherent. But given its universal premise of the honest poor rising up against the idle rich, we can still understand that even the cut-down version of the film was embraced (or reviled) by all shades of political thought.
You really must see this still influential film on the big screen, and, who knows, if more material continues to turn up, we might yet see Fritz Lang’s more than three hour original in time for its centenary in 2026/27.
Metropolis can be seen at the Queens Film Theatre from Sept 10-17. There will be an introduction to the film by George Fleeton on Friday 10 September.