The basic plot is probably familiar to most film fans. The futuristic city of Metropolis is a city of machines, and it is also two cities. The upper city is a playground for the rich. The lower city, deep beneath the earth, houses the workers who tend the machines. The city was the creation of the single-minded will of Joh Fredersen, although it took the genius of the inventor Rotwang to make it a reality. Joh Fredersen’s son Freder has fallen in love with a kind of prophetess/populist leader from the lower city, a woman named Maria, and at the same time he has discovered the true conditions under which the workers labour. She preaches non-violent resistance.
Rotwang has created a robot and has given it the form of Maria. This sham Maria incites the workers to destroy the city.
This was the most expensive of all German silent movies, costing Ufa Studios an estimated 5 million Reichsmarks. It took just 75,000 Reichsmarks at the box office. This catastrophic commercial failure proved ruinous for Ufa but the movie’s legend has subsequently grown steadily year by year.
The screenplay was co-written by Lang and his wife Thea von Harbou, one of the most controversial figures in the German film industry of that era.
Ufa had hoped this movie would give them a major foothold in the US market but Paramount, who distributed the movie there, were horrified by its inordinate length and cut the movie by about half an hour. Ufa, responding to the film’s poor performance box office, subsequently released the edited version and destroyed the additional footage. The original version survived only in an unbelievably poor quality 16mm copy languishing in a Buenos Aires film museum.
Much of the newly discovered missing footage is inconsequential, representing merely the trimming of scenes that were in truth overlong. It does restore a subplot that had ben almost entirely eliminated, a subplot involving the search for the hero Freder by the character variously described as The Thin Man and Slim. In all honesty this subplot is not vital to the film. There is however one absolutely crucial element that the missing footage restores to the movie, the material relating to Hel, the mother of Joh Fredersen.
Hel had been Rotwang’s wife. Joh Fredesen had stolen her from him, only to see her die giving birth to his son Freder. The character of Hel provides Rotwang’s motivation for creating his robot - he wants revenge on Joh Fredersen and he wants to recreate Hel.
Metropolis is a movie that had been persistently misunderstood. It was attacked by both the nazis and the communists at the time of its original release. On the commentary track by film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum accompanying the Blu-Ray release by Eureka he says that he originally saw the movie in Marxist terms but now believes it’s best understood in Freudian terms. I suspect he’s wrong on both counts. While modern film critics are happy, indeed overjoyed, to interpret any movie in either Marxist or Freudian terms, they’re much less happy when they encounter a movie which demands to be interpreted in religious terms. That’s not an acceptable method of analysis in the world of the film school.
But you only have to watch Metropolis to realise that it’s overloaded with religious symbolism. Maria is both the Virgin Mary and John the Baptist. And Rosenbaum to his credit recognises this, but he seems reluctant to push the religious interpretation to its obvious conclusion. Freder is clearly a Christ-figure, Joh Fredesen is God the Father and Rotwang is Lucifer. What makes the film so interesting is that there is layer upon layer of religious symbolism. Hel can be seen as Eve, and as a Virgin Mary figure. Lang was raised as a Catholic and continued to identify himself as a a Catholic throughout his life.
While Thea von Harbou’s novel (written concurrently with the screenplay) stresses the religious themes even more strongly than the movie it is likely that the themes of the movie derive equally from Lang and von Harbou. Luis Buñuel in the 60s began the practice by which critics have tended to attribute everything they approve of in the movie to Lang and everything they disapprove of to von Harbou (and they apply this to all the collaborations between Lang and von Harbou). It’s a practice that Lang himself deplored.
The original intention was apparently also to stress the conflict between the technological and the magical, with Rotwang being more explicitly a magician (as in von Harbou’s novel) . Lang admits that he lacked the nerve at the time to fully develop the mystical and magical themes, something he later came to regret.
Of course the lasting popularity of Metropolis can be attributed not just to its visual brilliance (which is undeniable) but to the fact that it lends itself to multiple interpretations. I have little patience with Freudian interpretations but if you’re a devotee of such mumbo-jumbo you can certainly interpret Metropolis that way. Metropolis is in fact a movie that is so overloaded with ambiguous symbolism that you can simply add your own meaning to it. If you’re a Marxist it can be a Marxist film; if you’re a political reactionary then it’s an ultra-conservative and elitist film; if you’re a follower of Ayn Rand it can be a proto-Randian film; if you’re a Freudian it abounds in mother symbolism.
However you want to interpret it the one inescapable fact is that in purely visual terms it’s a staggeringly brilliant achievement.
The Eureka Masters of Cinema Blu-Ray release includes a commentary track and an excellent German TV documentary of the reconstruction of the movie, plus an illustrated booklet with various articles on the movie. The previously missing footage is of atrocious quality (it was so badly damaged that a proper restoration was simply not possible) but the rest of the movie looks absolutely superb. It’s also been released on Blu-Ray by Kino in the US but the Eureka edition seems to be generally regarded as the better of the two releases.
Note: the screencaps are not from the Blu-Ray.