Metropolis – Fritz Lang’s Science Fiction Classic

Metropolis Fritz LangJanuary 2nd, 2012

The Original

In 1927 Austrian film maker Fritz Lang (1890-1976) released the black and white silent movie Metropolis in Germany. It is now regarded as a science fiction classic and an influence on many future movies. Back then the movie had an original musical score that would have been performed by orchestras accompanying the film in major theatres. A very different cinema experience from today!

Fritz Lang presented his vision of a future world set in 2026 where the wealthy and the powerful live above ground in the technologically advanced city of Metropolis which is ruled by the powerful industrialist Joh Fredersen from his office in the Tower of Babel. The workers of Metropolis live underground operating the machines that help run the city above. While the citizens above ground live a hedonist and decadent lifestyle, the monotonous life of the workers as they file in and out of their 10 hour shifts has made them mere automatons, much like the machines they operate.

Metropolis Fritz Lang
Tower of Babel
Metropolis Fritz Lang
The shift change

A young woman Maria, takes children from the underground to see the world above, they are quickly escorted back underground but  Joh Frederson’s son Freder see’s Maria and becomes intrigued. He follows her underground, seeing the vast machinery that operates down there for the first time, he witnesses an explosion in which many workers are injured and killed.

Metropolis Fritz Lang
Metropolis Fritz Lang
The Machines

Freder realises that his hedonistic life above is exploiting the harsh life of those below. He completes a shift for a worker and learns that in the catacombs Maria gives the workers a sense of hope through her prophecies of a better future.

Metropolis Fritz Lang

Joh Frederson learns about the experiments of the inventor Rotwang to create a  Maschinenmensch (German for “machine-human” aka a cyborg) based on the likeness of Hel, their mutual love and Freder’s mother. He also discovers what Maria is doing and fears that such hope will mean the loss of his control over the workers and the city.

Metropolis Fritz Lang
Joh Frederson, Rotwang & the Maschinenmensch

Joh Frederson instructs Rotwang to capture Maria, give her likeness to the cyborg and send it underground to deceive the workers. Rotwang uses his technology to transform the cyborg.

Metropolis Fritz Lang
The transformation

The cyborg Maria ends up inciting the workers into a riot that leads to the destruction of the machines and flooding of the underground city. While the cyborg celebrate her success above ground, the children of the workers nearly drown in the flood.

Metropolis Fritz Lang
Cyborg Maria incites the Workers

The real Maria who has escaped from Rotwang saves the children with the help of Freder. When the workers discover the truth they stop their rebellion and destroy the cyborg in a fire (where the outer skin that looks like Maria burns off to reveal the metal skinned cyborg below).

Metropolis Fritz Lang
Saving the children

Meanwhile a crazed Rotwang is chasing the real Maria, which leads to a cathedral rooftop struggle with Freder and the death of Rotwang. Freder becomes a hero and acts as a mediator between the workers and his father. The film ends with Maria’s prophecies of a better future for the workers becoming a reality.

The imagination of Fritz Lang is exemplified in his presentation of this film and the two worlds of the city, one decadent and one downtrodden are beautifully bought to life before your eyes. His use of futuristic Metropolis cityscape matte paintings, models and various special effects are very effective and quite spectacular for 1927!

Screenings Around The World

After it’s German release, Metropolis which ran for 153 minutes, was heavily edited for release in countries such as the United States, reducing the running time to about 90 minutes! This left the movie being heavily disjointed and not how Fritz Lang wanted it to be shown at all. As a result of such changes over the years film segments had been lost and by the early 1980’s good copies of the movie were very hard to come by. The East German Film Archive had attempted to restore the movie, but gaps remained and no definitive version was available.

Metropolis Fritz Lang Giorgio Moroder

New Wave Metropolis

In 1984 Giorgio Moroder (three-time Academy Award-winning composer and pop music producer) released an all new version of Metropolis with some missing footage re-edited into the film and newly found still photos filling the gaps where footage was not available. In addition sound effects, colour tinting and a pop soundtrack featuring Pat Benatar, Billy Squier, Freddie Mercury, Bonnie Tyler, Adam Ant, Loverboy, Jon Anderson, Cycle V and Giorgio Moroder’s own music were added to the original movie.

These changes took 3 years to complete and created an all new Metropolis experience but it still only ran for 82 minutes, just over half the running time of the original release – this was partially due to a sped up film rate but also the removal of numerous intertitle screens. His version apparently created a lot of debate at the time by film critics and fans alike (good and bad).

Today I saw a screening of this 1984 version of Metropolis at the SIFF Uptown Cinema (run by the Seattle International Film Festival). This newly remastered HD presentation is being shown on the big screen for the first time since 1984. Although this movie was not the ideal or complete restoration, it does provide for an interesting snapshot of the original and a bit of a flashback to the 1980’s music scene which was fun. I enjoyed it.

New Restorations

In the past ten years lost segments of Metropolis film has been found and new restorations of the original 1927 movie have been released. In 2008 an almost complete version of the original was found in a film museum in Argentina and around the same time another version was found in National Film Archives of New Zealand that had scenes that were missing from the Argentine print! The newly discovered scenes provided the opportunity to return the original movie to our screens once again.

The Argentine print was in poor condition and it took German restorers at the Murnau Foundation (who own the rights to Fritz Lang’s work) 2 years to restore the film (with the aid of new digital technology) and combine the additional scenes from the New Zealand print for release in 2010 (first screened in Berlin, 83 years after its initial release). This final restoration was an almost complete  version of the original, only missing a few  frames, plus some scenes had to be deleted simply because the applicable film sections were too badly deteriorated and could not be restored. The final running time of this newly restored Metropolis was 145 minutes and intertitle screens were added to describe the missing footage (just 8 minutes short of the 1927 original).

It is amazing that after all these years something like this fragile film can not only survive but be bought back almost to its original glory (now being digital it can be saved more easily for future generations). I hope to one day be able to also see this newly restored version of such a classic science fiction movie, but for now the 1984 new wave musical version of Metropolis will have to suffice!

Late in his life Fritz Lang was quoted as saying the following when asked a question about Metropolis:

“Why are you so interested in a picture which no longer exists?”

I am sure if he was still alive he would be pleased to know that his masterpiece does once again exist!

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