Barbican Film: ‘Metropolis’

Over 80 years after its initial cinematic release, German expressionist Fritz Lang’s silent dystopian masterpiece Metropolis (1927) has now finally been re-assembled back into its near-original form, with the 25 minute addition of several long-lost, restored scenes discovered in 2008 on a rusty roll of celluloid deep in the archives of the Museo del Cine, Buenos Aires. This never-before-seen, 145 minute ‘definitive’ version of the film has recently enjoyed a nationwide cinematic run, and on Monday 18th October it was screened to an excitable audience of cinephiles and film enthusiasts at London’s Barbican Centre. Starkly, what is initially most remarkable about the film is just how fantastic it looks after all this time.

The film’s rights holders, the F.W. Murnau Stiftung (aptly named after Lang’s expressionist compatriot Murnau, perhaps best known for his chilling interpretation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula with the silent classic Nosferatu [1922]) have done an incredible, even miraculous job of remastering the original ageing film stock, turning out a beautifully crisp image that rivals black & white classics such as Lang’s own M (1931), The Third Man (1949) and Citizen Kane (1941) in terms of chiaroscuro and aesthetics. Secondly, it still truly amazes me just how timeless Lang’s chilling vision of the future remains.

Broken-spirited, faceless workers trudge through the lowest depths of Metropolis, tirelessly babysitting the city’s enormous, organ-like machinery (one is even openly referred to as ‘The Heart’) whilst above ground, the privileged upper classes gorge themselves on the arts, leisure, technology and politics. It is almost impossible to watch some of modern cinemas most successful sci-fi efforts, particularly Ridley Scott’s neo-noir hybrid Blade Runner (1982), without recognizing Lang’s unmistakable hand of influence.

The framing shots of Metropolis leader John Fredersen’s (Alfred Abel) Tower of Babel, the iconic centre piece of the entire city, are very clearly reincarnated in Scott’s Blade Runner, in the form of the introductory flyover of the Tyrell Corporation’s monolithic pyramid-like structure. In addition, Metropolis’ exploration of artificial intelligence was also far before its time. The film’s central antagonist, the ‘man machine’ copy of the film’s angelic heroin Maria (Brigitte Helm), shares many of the same maniacal character traits of Blade Runner’s cyborg leader Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer), displaying a similarly cold, yet inquisitive interest in humanity.

While the insertion of the additional Buenos Aires footage initially jars, due to the shift in quality between itself and the previously available cut of the film, its worth quickly becomes apparent as it sheds new light on Metropolis’ extended cast. Actor Fritz Rasps’ superb turn as the ominous Thin Man is given greater exposure, truly emerging as the cool, grimacing face of Fredersen’s quasi-dictatorship. Fredersen’s down-trodden clerk Josephat is also given more screentime, as is Fredersen himself, with the lost footage revealing a much more conflicted, emotional version of the megalomaniacal figure than seen previously.

The warm, hearty applause this classic restoration received at its denouement was entirely deserved, and anybody with even a passing interest in film history, or cinema as a whole, should seek out a screening as soon as they can. Lang’s Metropolis has been reborn, and reaffirms its status as one of early cinema’s true masterpieces. 

Daniel Green