Every month on this blog I try to spotlight something different about classic/essential films. This month I will be highlighting essential silent films. If I had a dime for every person I’ve met who has never seen a silent film, I could have retired ten years ago. It’s really sad how many people won’t even give a film a chance because it’s in black and white or requires them to do some reading while they watch it because of title cards or subtitles. So this month I’m giving people a starting point to explore the stunning world of silent cinema. The first film I’ll be writing about is the first silent film I ever saw: Metropolis. Released in 1927 and directed by Fritz Lang, it’s a silent film that paved the way for films such as Blade Runner and Dark City.
The plot of Metropolis is pretty straight forward.
In a futuristic city sharply divided between the working class and the city planners, the son of the city’s mastermind falls in love with a working class prophet who predicts the coming of a savior to mediate their differences.–IMDB
Lang uses this simply plot as a vehicle to discuss things such as workers rights and class structure. If the plot sounds familiar, a Star Trek episode called The Cloud Minders had similar themes. But that’s not surprising. Many science fiction films drew inspiration from Lang’s landmark film. But I digress. In Metropolis, the working class prophet is named Maria. She is part of an underground work of workers who run the machinery that keeps the city of Metropolis going. Maria wants to bring the people in power in the upper world together with the workers. Well, as you can imagine, the powers that be are not to keen on the idea of a worker revolt. So they create a robot version of Maria to espouse their propaganda in order to maintain the status quo. I leave the plot twists for you to discover. I wouldn’t want to spoil the fun for first time viewers.
Now, let’s talk about the look of Metropolis. For a film made in 1927 the production design and artwork are absolutely stunning! It’s one of many reasons the film is an enduring classic so many decades later. Whether it’s the look of the factory, the underground world of the workers, or the skyscrapers in the city, this is one of the most incredible films just to look at. Here’s a little background on how they got some of those impressive shots of the futuristic city.
The establishing shots of the city – with cars, planes and elevated trains moving about – were shot using stop-motion photography. The cars were modeled on the newest taxicabs driving the streets of Berlin. It took months to build the city model and several days to film the few short sequences. Then the lab ruined the first shots. The backgrounds in the shot had been dimly lit to create a greater sense of depth, but the head of the lab, who developed the film himself, decided that was a mistake and lightened the backgrounds, thereby destroying the sense of forced perspective.–IMDB
Aside from the story and the striking look of the film, the print of the film has a complicated history.
For decades, all that survived of “Metropolis” were an incomplete original negative and copies of shortened, re-edited release prints; over a quarter of the film was believed lost. However, in July 2008 Germany’s ‘ZEITmagazin’ reported the discovery at the Buenos Aires Museo del Cine Pablo Ducrós Hicken by film historian and collector Fernando Martín Peña of a 16mm dupe negative copy of the original full-length 35mm export print, which had been sent to Argentina in 1928. Examining the reels in Buenos Aires, cinema experts realised that they contained almost all of the missing sequences (around 25 minutes-worth of footage, predominantly those involving the Thin Man who spies on Freder, and worker 11811 heading to and from Yoshiwara). Additionally, in October 2008 it was announced that another (hopefully) early copy in the obsolete 9.5mm format had been held in the University of Chile’s film library, intentionally mislabelled to avoid destruction during 1973’s military coup. It is as yet unknown if this holds any further viewable footage. After almost 80 years, the film is now practically complete, barring sections such as Joh Fredersen’s fight with Rotwang.–IMDB
I was fortunate to see the restored version of Metropolis at Ebert Fest in 2011, complete with accompaniment by the Alloy Orchestra. It was the opening film of the festival. If you get a chance to see it on a big screen, do it! Side note: in 1984 there was an attempt to restore the film by Giorgio Moroder. The visuals were tinted, special effects added, and there was a new soundtrack featuring Freddie Mercury and Pat Benatar, among others. It’s an interesting experiment worth seeing once. I saw it one time just to experience the pure oddity of it. Not sure I would ever seek it out again.
So many films owe a debt to Metropolis. The looks of Blade Runner and Dark City clearly drew some inspiration from it. The robot version of Maria inspired the look of C-3PO in Star Wars. The list goes on. Fritz Lang has one of the most impressive bodies of work of any director. Whether he’s directing science fiction (Metropolis), film noir (Scarlet Street), or crime films (Dr. Mabuse trilogy), he always makes films worth watching. Metropolis is one of his many cinematic masterpieces. It’s a great starting point to get you into silent cinema.