Upon its release in 1927, Fritz Lang’s Metropolis was cut to pieces by editors who thought it too long for audiences. For the past eighty-three years, the film has been in a seemingly never-ending rebuilding process, one that has approached completion with the newest restoration, just broadcast in Germany by the Murnau Foundation. I say approached because, even after more than eight decades, the film is still missing the entirety of one key scene—a fight late in the film between Frederson and Rotwang. However, with this newest restoration, two entire subplots have been added back into the film, bringing the film as close as it’s ever been in modern times to Lang’s original, majestic vision.
The plot concerns the life of Freder, son of the man who runs the entire city. Early on Freder becomes captivated with the world of the workers below ground and gradually morphs into a savior of sorts for the city, healing the long-standing division between the rich and the poor, the powerful and the powerless. Several subplots revolve around the central narrative, the most compelling of them involving Rotwang, a man who has created a robotic woman that can take whatever form he gives it, and who has designs of his own on the city. The 2010 restoration also restores two other subplots that give coherence to the overall plot—one involving a worker’s life above ground after Freder trades places with him, and another involving The Thin Man, a stooge sent by Freder’s father to keep tabs on the young man. None of this added material feels extraneous, as Lang’s film remains expertly paced.
What has always been most impressive about Metropolis is its grand vision of a futuristic world, one where humanity has achieved great heights of technological progress while at the same time has sunk into the depths in its treatment of one another. Lang reproduces this apparent paradox quite literally, conceiving of giant skyscrapers reaching into the sky and virtually blocking out the heavens, as well as multi-level skyscrapers entirely below ground whose foundations dig deep into the earth.
Everything in the world of Metropolis has a touch of the human creative spirit in it. Even a garden from an early sequence looks constructed and manicured. The world that has been created is certainly majestic, but it is also threatened with destruction because of the deep division that exists among its people. The world has turned in on itself, and finds itself in need of some recalibration.
In hope, Lang envisions a world where both powerful and powerless can come together in a spirit of unity and mutual benefit. But how does the film portray these people breaking out of this strictly human existence? Lang uses religious symbolism in significant ways to bring about the change that eventually occurs, envisioning machines as devilish gods or temples, making the heart of the rebellion come out of Christian meetings that take place below the lower city, or staging the final dramatic conflict in and around a towering cathedral in the midst of the city. All of these point to a reality beyond that of the tangible inventions that make up the Metropolis. For these people, peace comes not through human ingenuity and progress, but through the willingness to sacrifice and a mutual embrace of humility in the face of something greater than themselves.
Eighty-three years on and Metropolis remains a vital film. Its vision of the future, its understanding of human nature, and its nod to the importance of the transcendent ensure that it will be around for another eighty-three years to delight and challenge viewers in each new generation.