What do “Blade Runner” and Madonna’s 1989 “Express Yourself” video have in common? They’re both inspired by Fritz Lang’s 1927 silent epic “Metropolis,” one of the most influential -- and butchered -- movies ever made.
Lang’s original cut, including 25 minutes of recently discovered footage, is now available on DVD from Kino International following a one-year, $840,000 restoration.
Until three years ago, when a 16-millimeter copy of Lang’s version turned up in the Museo del Cine in Buenos Aires, it was presumed that the various heavily re-edited versions circulating since the film’s Berlin premiere were the only surviving prints.
With an original running time of 153 minutes, “Metropolis” was easily the most expensive movie made in Germany up until that time, costing the equivalent of $200 million in today’s dollars. Lang used 36,000 extras and 200,000 costumes for the financial flop, which was quickly withdrawn from theaters and then cut by almost an hour.
Set in a futuristic city with surreal skyscrapers that are almost a template for Ridley Scott’s “Blade Runner” (1982), Lang’s masterpiece is an extravagant, loony parable about plutocrats who live in Deco decadence while downtrodden laborers toil deep underground.
Dr. Strangelove Inspiration
The workers are inspired by Maria (Brigitte Helm), a kind of Weimar Joan of Arc. To crush their rebellion, city boss John Fredersen (Alfred Abel) enlists the help of fright-wigged Rotwang (Rudolf Klein-Rogge), a mad scientist with what looks like one mechanical arm. (He was clearly the inspiration for Peter Seller’s Dr. Strangelove.)
To lead the workers to their doom, Rotwang creates a Maria robot that morphs into a slinky temptress. In one of the film’s most perfervid moments, she performs a nightclub hoochie- coochie dance that sends the tuxedoed big shots into a froth.
But hope is on the horizon. Fredersen’s son, Freder (Gustav Frohlich), who wears ridiculously baggy knickers, loves the true Maria and sees through the false one.
The film’s intertitles summarize the reconciliation between business and labor: “The mediator between brains and hands must be the heart.”
Such pieties have little to do with this film’s deranged grandeur. Along with its manifold absurdities are sequences -- a re-imagining of the construction of the Tower of Babel and the flooding of the underground city, with masses of people coiling like rats through the choked streets -- that are as exciting and visionary as any ever filmed.
“Metropolis” may have been a commercial flop but Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s propaganda minister, was intrigued.
After banning the movie in 1933, Goebbels turned around and offered Lang the job of running the Nazi film industry. Goebbels didn’t know that Lang’s mother was a Jew who had converted to Catholicism, and the director was terrified that he would find out.
Lang, who by that time had made his classic “M” (1931) with Peter Lorre as a hounded child murderer, left Germany and eventually landed in Hollywood. Thea von Harbou, Lang’s wife and the screenwriter of many of his German films, joined the Nazi Party and became one of its official screenwriters.
If you’ve only seen the mangled versions of “Metropolis,” especially the execrable 1984 revamp by pop impresario Giorgio Moroder with music by Adam Ant and Pat Benatar, you should see the real deal.
(Peter Rainer is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. Opinions expressed are his own).
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Manuela Hoelterhoff in New York at firstname.lastname@example.org