In a Class by Itself

Kino Video has just released The Complete Metropolis, what will likely be the most complete edition of one of the greatest films ever made that suffered some of the worst editorial treatment in film history. The Fritz Lang silent sci-fi masterpiece has gone through a remarkable history of reincarnations after its initial release in 1927. The time of its premiere was an era of technological advance and cultural upheaval in the film industry. The revolutionary switch to sound films and the tug-of-war between censors, producers, distributors, and exhibitors left little concern for the filmmakers’ intentions.  It was in this environment that Paramount, the American distributor of Metropolis, cut the original 153 minute film to 90 minutes, leaving much of the story incomprehensible. It has been a long road back to a fuller restoration since then, going through a pop rock incarnation with a score by Blondie and Queen in 1984, and a 124-minute 75th anniversary version in 2002, commissioned by the F.W. Murnau Foundation.

The final pieces of the puzzle came together in Argentina in 2008, in a story that deserves to be made into a film itself. The odyssey of film scholar Fernando Peña, waiting for twenty years for the access to the vaults of the Museo del Cine in Buenos Aries where he was sure a complete copy of the film existed, only to be allowed access once his ex-wife became director, is a love story/detective story that needs to be retold to a tango beat. For an account of this tale, see this article in the New York Times.

Since its restoration, the film has been touring theaters around the world. Richard Lindsay and I were fortunate to see the film at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival this summer, with a live performance of a score by the Alloy Orchestra. (Their score, which is a modern musical update, is far more interesting than the Germanic orchestra score included with the DVD. It’s available as a play-along CD for the restored version which you can order from the group’s Web site, Viewing the film in its fullness, along with this magnificent modern score, will allow you to experience what John Anderson of Newsday called “The plutonium template for sci-fi moviemaking.”

Here’s some of our reactions to seeing the restored version at the SF Silent Film Festival that we saved until the DVD release. Any serious film buff needs to add this one to their collection.

Ryan: I think we need to talk about just how iconic this film is, especially for readers who might not have seen the film or be wary of a two-hour-long silent film.  Even though I’d seen it a couple of times, I guess I never thought at length about what it is directly or indirectly responsible for in sci-fi today.  I’m thinking about Star Wars, The Fifth Element, Blade Runner, Battlestar Galactica, The Seventh Seal, and I think the list just goes on and on.

Richard: THX 1138, the “1984” Macintosh ad, Dr. Strangelove, James Whale’s Frankenstein, music videos from “Radio Gaga” to Lady Gaga. I’d love for all the people who complain about the supposed lewdness of Lady Gaga to see the scene where Maria/Hel is writhing around wearing nothing on her chest but a couple of pasties (image and video below).

Ryan: These observations aren’t necessarily new, but they’re a good reminder of how filmmakers have drawn from and continue to draw from this film in crafting visions of our/the future. On the other hand, I feel like there’s a genuine spiritual and religious message to Metropolis, which is applicable even today. Unfortunately, many contemporary audiences might find its explicit message rather hokey: “There can be no understanding between the hand and the brain unless the heart acts as mediator.” In thinking about the role of religion and the church in society, it struck me that this is exactly what contemporary ministers should be striving to do. They/we should be mediating between the “warring” factions in our political, social, and popular cultures, pointing out the best in each side and the genuine fears and needs that they might have as individuals/organizations while ameliorating their (sometimes) irrational fears of the other. In its own overly-dramatic way, Metropolis does just that.

Richard: Yeah, if there was ever a society in need of “heart mediation” between the hands and the head, it’s ours. I liked the film’s Marxist interpretation of the Tower of Babel: that it’s not so much different languages that cause division, but the different understanding that comes from capital and labor, or the “head” and the “hands” of the economy. Politically the film tries to strike a middle course between communism and capitalism. It acknowledges the Marxist problem of workers being separated form the products of their labor, but also questions the ability of the workers to overthrow complex systems of government which they don’t fully understand. Substitute a hyper-capitalist, libertarian vision for the Marxist, and the yeoman yokels in this film who tear down the structures of society, leading to its doom, could easily be the modern-day Tea Party.

It seems the Tea Party is responding to the same issues as this film, but blaming the state rather than industry, as the Communists did in the early part of the 20th Century. There’s a sense of mistrust of huge impersonal forces that take away the dignity of one’s human work, which the Tea Party sees as being embodied in the government. But they don’t acknowledge that giving unregulated control to corporations and industry leads to the same thing as unregulated government.

Ryan: Great points.  I’m especially drawn to your comment that unregulated control of government and industry leads to the same outcome. The thing that frustrates me so much about the link between conservative Republicans and conservative evangelical Christians is the unerring faith in the righteousness of their politics. Of course, living in the Bay Area we know some crazy liberals that do this too.

But bringing this conversation over into a more explicitly theological realm, I am mindful of Jesus’ assertion that His kingdom is not of this world. I don’t think any of us fully have a handle on that. We are certainly in this world and willing to follow Jesus in it, but there is this sticky wicket called politics and economics. Of course, Jesus says render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s and to God that which is God’s, but I think a big problem, again, is that many people get the two confused. Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove’s book, God’s Economy, really pushes this point.

Richard: I wonder if this is really the moral problem of the capitalist system, that head and hands are so rarely brought together by heart. Capitalism is a system that is based on the baser nature of human beings, the “original sin,” so to speak, of greed and self-preservation. It may be realistic to say in a “fallen” world (and you know I have problems with that cosmology) that capitalism is the only system that works. But there’s no sense among current Christian-capitalist Americans that the model for human economy is ever supposed to get better, something more based on love and community. In this way, capitalism becomes an idol itself, like Moloch, the giant furnace that eats the workers in Metropolis.

Getting back to your point about the limits of human agency, it seems like the religious warnings about man playing God are all there. Rotwang the evil scientist is the template for pretty much any evil scientist who has tried to interfere with the proper place of humanity in the cosmic order. The statues of the Seven Deadly Sins coming to life along with the rise of Hel the robot as anti-Christ and whore of Babylon were some of the creepiest and most arresting images in the film.  I also can’t help but sense that the filmmakers had a sense of impending disaster in Germany–the masses of children in this film who were rescued from the deluge of a crumbling society may have ended up as the foot soldiers of the Third Reich. Do you think the film could be a Christian allegory?

When we first left the film, I said it used Christian symbolism but wasn’t a Christian allegory. This was based on the tendency I’ve observed among sci fi films to feature Christian-esque symbols and characters, but to structure them in a non-Christian story. Now, I have to rethink that a little. Freder, the son of the industrialist comes down from “on high” from the Eternal Gardens to the workers’ city “down below,” and tries to become like “his brothers” by sharing their labor and pain. This is a pretty good example of incarnational theology, even though he’s not sacrificed in any way. The concept of the son as a “mediator” between the struggling workers and a distant and somewhat cruel God figure/industrialist is also pretty consistent with more orthodox conceptions of God and Christ. Although, again, for that to be complete, the son would have to be sacrificed to atone for the Father’s wrath.

Ryan: I think these are all good points, but, like you seem to be, I am a bit wary of whole-heartedly making that connection. In looking back over our comments and thoughts about the film, they all go to show that, even 83 years later, Fritz Lang’s Metropolis has the power to not only inspire socio-political, theological conversation but to provide a moving film-watching experience. I hate that many people will miss out on a theatrical screening of the restored version (not to mention with the live orchestra performance), because it was truly one of the greatest movie-going experiences of my life.