Film4: Wednesday 4 November, 12.55am
After attending a screening of Metropolis, Adolf Hitler told his propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels he wanted the film’s maker, Fritz Lang, to create a National Socialist cinema. Lang made two silent pictures after Metropolis (Spies and Woman on the Moon) and his first two talking pictures – M (a serial killer thriller in which Lang invented the police procedural) and The Testament of Dr Mabuse – had both been banned by Goebbels. Even so, in the spring of 1933, Goebbels offered Lang the leadership of the German film industry. Lang, born in Vienna and long resident in Berlin, departed for Paris.
Within the year, he’d gone to Hollywood, where he made 21 movies for five major studios, including MGM’s lynch-mob melodrama Fury, several anti-Nazi pictures (Hangmen Also Die, Man Hunt, Ministry of Fear) and a clutch of classic psychological noirs (Scarlet Street, The Woman in the Window, House By the River and Secret Beyond the Door) that led to Glenn Ford’s early-50s Columbia hits The Big Heat and Human Desire.
His final film was made back in Germany in 1960, The Thousand Eyes of Dr Mabuse, completing a crazy gambling-man trilogy begun even before Metropolis. Lang’s vacant place at the head of the Third Reich’s film industry was taken by Leni Riefenstahl, who made the notorious Triumph of the Will in honour of the Ayran race and its Austrian master, Mr Hitler. Arguably the most influential film ever made, Metropolis outlives them all.
Before Metropolis, The Cabinet of Dr Caligari was Germany’s most famous film in a decade dominated by Expressionism. If Caligari was the first great Expressionist film, then Metropolis was the last. Even as the animated opening titles give way to intimidating close-ups of industrial pistons, the brilliantly designed Metropolis embraces the New Objectivism of the German art world. With mountainous cityscapes inspired by New York’s skyline and a crypt in the catacombs, it offers a world ordered by industrialist Alfred Abel lording it over an oppressed workforce who feed the machines that keep the city lit.
As the shift changes underground, the workers trudge like automatons, with no spark of life. Zombies. Above them, the elite lounge in their Club of Sons where semi-clad beauties cavort in the Eternal garden for the privileged sons of the captains of industry. (God alone knows what Hitler made of Lang’s satirical depiction of the one-percenters.) It is the mad genius Rotwang (Rudolf Klein-Rogge) who, in his crooked cottage anomaly amidst the concrete jungle, inadvertently brings industry and workers together with his replicant Hel, the double of saintly Maria (Brigitte Helm).
Instructed to cause chaos, the android Maria looks dissolute and depraved, wild-eyed and wanton as she dances like a dervish in the dens of iniquity: “Das ist nicht Maria!” wails Gustav Fröhlich, the young man who loves her. Mediating between head and heart, Lang made a visionary masterpiece that survived a misguided attempt in the 80s by Giorgio Moroder to turn it into a colour-tinted music video for disco dancing fools and being lopped almost in half by its overseas distributors following its 1927 premiere. (This superb restoration was made possible after a near-complete 16mm copy was discovered in Buenos Aires in 2008.)
Metropolis is not visionary in the sense of scientific discovery, of course, but in its iconic representations of the endless possibilities for cinema. Some of its most compelling effects were achieved literally with mirrors; others with ingenious animated miniatures. Its symphonic fusion of sci-fi fantasy and fairytale makes it a film for the ages, and its influence is keenly felt in movies as disparate as Chaplin’s masterful Modern Times and 20th Century Fox’s carnival barker bill-filler, Dante’s Inferno. Without Metropolis there’d be no Things to Come or Blade Runner. Forget D.W. Griffith’s shamefully racist epic The Birth of a Nation. Fritz Lang’s magnificent Metropolis is where modern cinema truly began.