Bright Lights Film Journal

Metropolis, the Reconstructed Original Cut: Does It Make Sense? Does It Need To?

“The resurrection of Fritz Lang’s original cut has revealed how well this film functions with its associative network of image layered onto an adventure/SF thriller, but the reasons for its mysterious pull coalesce into an x-factor that resists analysis.”

In its decades as a forlorn but celebrated amputee, Metropolis has stood as one of the greatest paradoxes in cinema history. Unfolding before us as an undeniably great film, it nonetheless asked us to judge it a bad one. Once a nearly complete original cut was found in a dilapidated film archive in Buenos Aires in 2008, many wondered if the newly reconstructed Metropolis would suddenly resolve every last plot convolution and split end, not to mention, somehow make the film’s absurd messianic allegory less absurd.

Turns out, the reconstruction does allow Metropolis a coherent story-line — or, rather, it almost does. With all but around five minutes of footage accounted for (and those five minutes filled in with existing intertitles and stills), one plot thread still dangles. Furthermore, the restorers are not faith healers, and the allegorical silliness, with its strange right-leaning polemic, remains. Especially as Fritz Lang and Thea von Harbou have nailed the message — the greeting-card, hand/heart/mind solution to labor unrest — across the film’s fore and aft intertitles as if they intended the entire work as a cinematic parable to enlighten a childlike audience. It’s the film’s point d’assassin, a soft-headed didactic stance that threatens to kill off the picture. Due to the power of Lang’s filmmaking, it doesn’t –– especially now.

Upon its 1927 release, though, the film was condemned as a hodgepodge of naive agitprop, unfulfillable science-fiction prophecy, and indecipherable performances; in fact, it was because of these perceptions that the butchery of Metropolis began. Once it was exported to America, an editor created a new story-line for the film, which he accomplished by chopping more footage.1 The Metropolis we’re seeing now hasn’t been experienced since its premiere.

But lovers of this film are used to an incomprehensible Metropolis, or even a silly Metropolis. Latter-day fans who came of age in the 1960s and beyond have approached the film with minds leavened with forces unknown to audiences in 1927. Immersed in the gigantic image soup cooked up by movies and TV, these viewers also saw the shift in how media is made and viewed –– a new paradigm brought on courtesy of the drug culture of the ’60s. I have no desire to relegate Metropolis to a head trip, but viewers of a certain age can have the ability to take nourishment from its allusive imagery without the carbohydrate of a straight-ahead narrative. Morodor knew this when he created, with a pop soundtrack, his own edit of Metropolis in 1984, as did Madonna when she used images from the film for a music video in 1989.

Although it’s a task somewhat like nailing jello to a tree, Thomas Elsaesser, in his concise overview of Metropolis for the BFI Film Classics series, does a fine job, without resorting to postmodernist brouhaha, describing how the film can function at an intuitive level: “von Harbou’s plotting and Lang’s visualization must have structured these banal and sentimental commonplaces in ways that successfully imparted the illusion if not exactly of ‘depth’ then of archetypal resonance, reaching down into shared sensibilities and widely-felt anxieties as only myths and fairy-tales tend to do.”2

An apologia really, Elsaesser’s monograph appeared in 2000, way before any access to the original cut. Given the near-complete, more comprehensible Metropolis we have now, it’s become clear that Lang and von Harbou constructed their vision with more care than we’ve given them credit for. The Metropolis head trip –– a numinous stream of visualized cultural reference points –– was there all along, but in an admirable deliberateness of design.

Cunningly, the film’s imagery, characters, even plot devices are positioned as complementary opposites, so that they at least appear to vibrate meaningfully against each other (Elsaesser’s illusion of depth). Much of this design you could discern in the truncated Metropolis: Maria and the false Maria (sacred and profane, one of the oldest allegorical concepts), the shiny modernism of the New Tower of Babel, upwards into the light, and the worker’s city, downwards into darkness along with the catacombs, and Rotwang’s sorcerer’s cottage, a fairy-tale haunt among Metropolis‘ gleaming SF forest. Within Lang’s elegant, restored edit, one’s sensibility can leap merrily about like a rhesus monkey, mostly without the little fellow having a mishap.

But then we have the dueling personas of Rotwang versus Joh Fredersen. As Glenn Erickson points out in his review of Kino’s Blu-ray of the reconstructed film, their pairing may be the most revelatory of all, yet it’s in the character of Fredersen that the narrative still carries a lapse.

Lang introduces Fredersen as the self-satisfied creator of Metropolis, who’s nonetheless reliant on technology, science, and a massive, oppressed labor force. In contrast, we see Rotwang’s anguished recourse to the dark arts, out of which he’s able to animate a female golem of steel and flesh. An icon instantly and universally recognized, the SF/horror creation of the robot Maria is the result of the Fredersen/Rotwang dialectic, the realization of mechanized grandeur through the power of cabalistic sorcery, all of which, due to the new reconstruction, we now see is neatly tied in with the men’s obsession over one woman, their dead lover/wife, Hel.3

In Lang/von Harbou’s melodrama, Rotwang and Joh Fredersen function a bit like the two-sides-of-a-coin characters from Wagner’s Ring cycle, in which the resentful dwarf Alberich, who rules the underground world of the Nibelungen, is the flip-side of the arrogant god Wotan, who reigns comfortably over the world of sunshine from his high-rise fortress, Valhalla. (In the Ring’s text, Wotan is sometimes referred to as the “Light” Alberich, in opposition to the “Dark” Alberich.)

In The Ring, it’s Wotan and Alberich’s paired struggle for dominance that leads to the destruction of world order; at the end of Gotterdamerung, the cycle’s final opera, as Wotan passively yields to the tragic consequences of his son’s rise and fall, Valhalla is set ablaze and the Rhine overflows its banks. In Lang’s film, Metropolis’ world order is destroyed as Fredersen passively yields to his city’s destruction by the rioting workers. But where Wagner, throughout the entire momentum of his four-part music drama, has prepared us for Wotan’s disengagement with power, Lang leaves Fredersen’s disaffection –– with its similar cataclysmic consequence –– unexplained.

With all its iconographic clamor busily alluding to this or that ideology, archetype, or religious fairy tale –– not to mention alchemy, Berlin fashions of the ’20s, and modernist sculpture and architecture –– nobody’s about to analyze Metropolis as character-driven, including me. Yet, discounting Freder’s instantaneous assumption of the messianic role of Mediator, there appears to be one character, Freder’s father, Joh Fredersen, who changes in the course of the film, if only because he suddenly acts in ways for which the film has not prepared us. His sudden personality switcheroo is the one plot thread, or linear event, the reconstruction has not tied up.

The most important extended scene missing from this “director’s cut” –– there are two –– occurs after Rotwang has unleashed the false Maria on both the upper and lower denizens of Metropolis. Freder, having caught his father in cahoots with what he thinks is the real Maria, suffers a mental breakdown and lies feverish and delirious in his bed. As the sexpot/inciter robot runs rampant, we cut to a scene in which Rotwang spills his scheme to the still captive Maria. In the extant footage Rotwang explains that Fredersen wants the false Maria to foment rebellion among the workers, after which he would allow them to riot, so that he can use force against them. At the same time Rotwang, without being specific about his own plans, declares that the robot obeys his will, not Fredersen’s.

Then, as the film goes to missing footage and title cards take over, Rotwang tells Maria he has actually tricked Fredersen twice, in that he doesn’t know of his son being in love with Maria and how he’s assumed the role of Mediator. But, a title card explains, Maria isn’t the only one listening to Rotwang; Fredersen himself has been eavesdropping on the entire conversation. Further missing footage is of the fight that ensues between Fredersen and Rotwang, which leaves the sorcerer unconscious and allows Maria to escape. Live footage resumes with a long shot of Maria fleeing Rotwang’s cottage. Meanwhile, the riot of the workers, led by the false Maria, is in full swing.

When we next catch up with Joh Fredersen, he’s not on the phone calling out the national guard — or however he planned to staunch the rebellion –– he’s on the phone ordering Grot, the superintendent of the vital Heart Machine, to allow the mob in through the gigantic steel doors that protect it. At this moment, Fredersen reveals that he actively wants his creation, Metropolis, destroyed; he’s not going to do a thing to stop the mob from trashing the one machine the city cannot function without. Grot is thoroughly puzzled by his master’s order, and so are we. Minutes later, as Fredersen sits passively in his office and the Heart Machine explodes, the lights go out.

Up until this point, the newly reconstructed film –– in spite of its heavy battery of image and parable –– has given us a linear plot, with elements, revived from the newly found footage, of a well-paced thriller, the kind of thing Lang knew precisely how to orchestrate throughout his career. With Fredersen’s sudden reversal of attitude, though, we hit a snag in the narrative –– but with the propulsive rush of his edit, Lang makes it easy enough to get past it. Just as Fredersen watches his city black out, his agent Slim runs in with news that his son has fallen into the grip of the mob; this rouses the old man from his brown study, whereupon he, Slim, and Josaphat hurry to the cathedral where Freder battles Rotwang on its ramparts, and the show hurtles to its conclusion.

It seems a small lapse for a film whose magic heretofore in whatever mutilated state has relied so much on a baroque pileup of confusing but evocative imagery, but it’s an intriguing one. If Fredersen’s change of character were more comprehensible, it could add depth and poignancy to the scenes that follow; it might even lift somewhat the banality of the final reconciliation scene. In the film’s previous mutilated state, Fredersen was little more than a signifier, and a sketchy one at that. Now, with the central cause of the Rotwang/Fredersen conflict restored, he seems potentially the film’s most interesting character, and as he acts crucially in a crucial junction (allowing the destruction of Metropolis), he’s got our full attention, except that, in leading up to that junction and that action, Lang appears to have left out something important for his character: motivation.

By eavesdropping on Rotwang, Fredersen hears enough to get him very upset, then violent. He’s plenty surprised, and probably dismayed, to hear of Freder’s involvement with Maria and of Freder’s role as Mediator, but in addition he understands that Rotwang intends to use the false Maria for his own purposes –– revenge for Fredersen taking Hel away from him –– by channeling the actions of the agitator robot to drive a permanent wedge between Fredersen and his son, who is all that Fredersen has left to love. Once Fredersen hears the full import of Rotwang’s plans against him, he tries to kill him.

But none of what Fredersen learns seems enough to make credible his mutation, once he’s back in his office, from merciless mastermind to depressed, self-destructing old man. It’s unlikely any revelations await in the missing footage to mend this broken character arc, and the final shooting script no longer exists. But clues lie elsewhere.

Reportedly, von Harbou and Lang (right) worked on a treatment for Metropolis as early as 1924, but in 1926, six months before the premiere of the film, von Harbou published a novelization of Metropolis that was at first serialized, then issued as a monograph.

No one today would confuse von Harbou’s “novel” with literature, nor, most likely, did the author. Much of it, in fact, reads like the script from which it was probably derived, and much of it, including some stretches of dialog, made it into the film. For a reader, though, whole reams of it are very tough going, featuring long passages that attempt to detail an entire mythos, into which the author throws all manner of cultural detritus, religious myths, Maria’s virgin/mother persona, Rotwang’s black magic, and much more. In von Harbou’s overheated prose, nearly all of it comes off as vapid, pseudo-profound kitsch.

But where von Harbou’s descriptions and scenes can be stultifying to read, Lang’s visualization of them can thrill, or disturb, or resonate at some chthonic level down around the solar plexus. The film was an attempt to wed epic myth with pulp excess, and in the final third of his film –– entitled “Furioso” –– Lang seeks the pulse of intricately cut action sequences. That the director, by 1926, had learned how to make a film is an understatement, and evidence of his virtuoso chops are all over Metropolis.

Although borderline inept on its end, the novel yields the film’s basic plot structure, as it does a remarkable amount of the film’s iconographic outlay, the loosely wired ganglion that we can probably assume both Lang and von Harbou were responsible for. In novelizing their script, how much did von Harbou diverge from that source? Or, conversely, if Lang, in preparation to shooting, revised much of a co-written script that retained elements that survive in the novel, could he have left a thread of one of these elements dangling?

The novel indeed fleshes out what Fredersen intends to do with the ruins of Metropolis. He’s going to give them to Freder to rebuild. Once Fredersen allows the Heart Machine to be destroyed, von Harbou has Freder rush in to confront his father as to why the city is being laid to waste. Freder asks:

“Why do you allow Death to lay hands on the city which is yours?
“Because Death has come upon the city by my will.”
“By your will?”
“Yes.”
“The city is to perish?”
“Don’t you know why, Freder?”
There was no answer.
“The city is to go to ruin so that you may build it up again. . . .”

Fredersen goes on to tell his son why he killed Rotwang (his death a mistaken assumption as we find out). It’s a remarkably simple reason that, in the context of the film, would make no more sense than his sudden decision to destroy his city: “He died, chiefly, Freder, because he dared to stretch out his hands toward the girl whom you love.”

The novel’s Joh Fredersen has clearly had an epiphany. He wants the slate wiped clean: the whole glorious concept of Metropolis, which insidiously operates on a manacled workforce, must be swept away to make way for a new, humane society led by his son, the Mediator. In addition, he not only approves of Freder’s girlfriend, Maria, but takes violent means to protect her. Who or what caused this to happen?

The answer lies a few chapters back. Realizing he’s losing, or has lost, his son’s affections, Fredersen ventures out of Metropolis into the country, to seek advice from his estranged mother, a character not included in the film. In a long, awkward stretch of dialog, Fredersen’s mother admits that she’s worried about him and her grandson; Fredersen admits he’s got a problem with Freder and this girl, Maria. In response, his mother reproves Fredersen for his lifelong dismissal of core values, key among them being respect for the holiness of young love, reminding him of his youthful devotion to his dead wife Hel, for whom he’s never ceased mourning. Fredersen remembers, all right, and leaves the cottage a changed man.

Like most of the dialog in the novel, the exchange between Fredersen and his mother is less than convincing, and the business about the sanctity of young lovers goes way over the top, but at the very least it gives Fredersen an implicit motivation for his unexplained behavior in the film. He now sees his son as the future hope for Metropolis; as for his city, he’s become totally disenchanted with it and wants to abdicate his power. Yet, if the scene had ever made it into a shooting script, it’s clear why it was cut.

By introducing a new character and with explanatory dialog necessitating a flurry of intertitles, the scene would have ground the film to a halt. Lang wanted his Furioso, and by keeping his edit lean and mean, he got it. But the excitement of the film’s last third, especially the race to rescue Maria and the children from the flooding workers’ city, also depends on the destruction of the Heart Machine through Fredersen’s willingness to let it happen. It seems plausible to me that Joh’s inexplicable behavior is part of a scenario –– co-written or not –– previously abandoned or heavily edited upon shooting. By retaining so much of the plotting visible in von Harbou’s novelization, Lang had painted himself into a corner and realized he must allow the inconsistency. Maybe he hoped no one would notice.

Provocatively, the novel also provides an alternative ending to the tale, which Lang may or may not have considered and discarded.

After the lovers are reunited upon Rotwang’s death, von Harbou has them spiritually reconnoiter around the concept of a new city. Freder asks Maria if he should build it. No, she says, your father must, with your help: “Will you not allow them both, Freder, your father as well as my brothers, to pay for their sin, to atone, to become reconciled?” It’s a solitary Joh Fredersen who ends the book by traveling once more to his mother’s cottage where she presents him with a letter written by Hel on her deathbed. In it, she reveals it was indeed he, Joh, whom she really loved, closing with this salutation to her husband: “Lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world!”

This is the motto with which von Harbou ends her tale; although the hand/heart/brain polemic is very much present in this chapter, it’s not unfurled as a banner. She also avoids our having to witness the unfortunate handshake between worker (Grot) and mastermind (Fredersen) that sullies the integrity of the film. In the novel, it simply doesn’t happen.

In 1927, Metropolis was ridiculed for many things, but most especially for its ending, which to some far-left political factions at the time was actually offensive. It’s easy to see why communists were furious: workers and robber baron reconciled? Indeed, why should Grot shake the hand of the man who, for no discernible reason, allowed his (Grot’s) beloved Heart Machine to be destroyed, thereby threatening the lives of all the workers’ children, and who has heretofore subjugated the working population to lives of mindless drudgery? Only to promise a reformed society that, while it might allow for a 40-hour week and a car in every garage, still gives all the power to an oligarchic Joh Fredersen, who, frankly, has blood on his hands?

Yes, it’s a tall order, and the film’s final and perhaps irremediable gaffe. Even Lang, in late interviews, wanted to distance himself from that final sequence and the polemic it espouses, admitting that the hand/heart/brain business would be a weak solution to the essential conundrum of capitalism.4

Yet, right before going to the medium shots on the cathedral steps for the handshake, Lang introduces a stunning long shot of a massive crowd of workers swarming from the bottom of the frame toward the facade of the cathedral; the crowd’s motion mirrors the similar swarm, again from the bottom of the frame, of the rebelling slaves in the visualization of Maria’s Tower of Babel sermon. Here Lang has his last resonant pairing, and it’s one of the best: at a sanctified site, the cathedral, workers come not in anger to destroy but in a mood of reconciliation to rebuild.

While Lang wanted his picture to be thrilling, he also wanted it to be epic. His final magisterial image (above) plugs into a Judeo-Christian mythic mix from which much of the film’s –– and even more of the novel’s –– epic energy derives. It’s the narrative’s Heart Machine. The messianic Mediator, Maria in the catacombs, the vision of Moloch:5 as conjured by our sophisticated filmmakers from a cultural database we still share, these images flash at us as emotional signals.

“Moloch who entered my soul early,” declaims Allen Ginsberg in his poem Howl, accessing, like Metropolis, deep-seated, uneasy associations sent from the Old Testament via multigenerational pulpits (Jewish or Christian). Unlike Mr. Ginsberg’s poem, the film also offers visions of virginal sweetness (Maria) by way of the Christian cult of the Madonna, and from the frowned-upon Book of Revelations,6 a remarkably complete imagining of the false Maria as the Whore of Babylon, this latter sequence presented with a nod toward the unbridled libidinousness of Weimar-era Berlin. When cathedral statuary come alive in Freder’s fever dream, and Death advances with his scythe, we all know what Dies Irae means (we know the tune, too, as interpolated by Huppertz in his score).

These strands of meaning are the hardiest among the multitude of other mythical (and secular) ones in Metropolis because they’re stuff and substance from church, synagogue, Bible, and Talmud; we are hard-wired with them, whether we choose to buy into them or not, and Lang is not asking us to –– he wants us only to respond to them as signposts, or linkages that our own synapses must complete. Unfortunately, as it concludes, the film reestablishes its need to mean something specific and moral, whereupon Lang’s last powerful image is shunted into just such a didactic ditch as we’d seen the entire show avoid.

Conveniently we –– we of the mind-enhanced, prepared audience of 2010, that is –– may have forgotten that the hand/heart/brain motto had been thrown across the front of the picture, anticipating the handshake. Lang too seems to have worried that we might, since, once the handshake is over, he gives us the motto again, in an animated intertitle that swells up and smacks us in the face to end the film. This is worse than the worry caused by Joh Fredersen’s inexplicable behavior. Handshake and message are not a lapse, but instead seem most pointedly intended by Lang to bring final cadence to a grand, epic vision.

Throughout its running time, Metropolis is grand, all right, but not always epic, and it’s one thing to have Maria lecture her worker-disciples and quite another to have the film lecture the audience. Maria’s lecture, warning of man’s hubris through the parable of the Tower of Babel, is inside the film’s frame; the message of hand/heart/brain appears to come from the filmmakers, who are outside the frame. Maybe it’s become too easy, these 80+ years later, to pass judgment on what appears to be an aesthetic miscalculation.

The resurrection of Fritz Lang’s original cut has revealed how well this film functions with its associative network of image layered onto an adventure/SF thriller, but the reasons for its mysterious pull coalesce into an x-factor that resists analysis, unlike, say, Ridley Scott’s Metropolis-influenced Blade Runner (1982). Blade Runner, like Metropolis, courts mystery and a kind of tragic mythos (an android’s self-awareness of machine destiny) that appears to take itself seriously. Adapted from Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, Blade Runner also features a mastermind living in high-rise splendor above crumbling infrastructure and a swarm of multiculturalism, which emphasizes –– instead of Metropolis‘ grandiose whorehouse, Yoshiwara7 –– Japanese noodle concessions. Scott’s visuals of the city at night strongly suggest FX retreads of Lang’s futurism, and, in a potentially witty amalgam of Maria and false Maria (but without Brigitte Helm’s fundamental erotic charge), Blade Runner’s robot is a pretty yet vapid android that wants sex with Harrison Ford because she thinks she’s human.

But where Metropolis‘ story-line mystifies, even discomforts, Scott’s narrative crosses it’s t’s and dots its i’s, fitting itself comfortably, even laconically, into a neo-noir concept that gives its audience a secure entertainment commodity and an easily deconstructed media objet for a graduate thesis. Securely nailed down Metropolis is not, and while UFA and Paramount may have wanted an entertainment commodity, they got something else entirely.

It’s a fact that Metropolis now makes more sense than it ever has, but lovers of the film remain confused, and that’s as it must be. Staring into its heart, looking back toward its origins, we understand that the film is at conflict with itself; Lang’s prescient filmmaking creates a rift between allusive intent and polemic meaning. But with scenes restored and, perhaps more importantly, Lang’s original edit back in place, Metropolis regains its dignity while retaining its paradox, a paradox we may as well embrace.

* * *

As reconstructed by Friedrich-Wilhelm-Murnau-Stiftung, the restored, nearly complete cut of Metropolis made its theatrical premiere in February 2010; toward the end of the year, Masters of Cinema (Great Britain) and Kino International (U.S.) released home video editions of the film on Blu-ray and DVD. As licensed from the Foundation and accompanied by a new re-recording of Gottfried Huppertz’s original orchestral score, the film comes to disc virtually the same on either side of the pond. Both carry nearly the same supplements, the major one being a new documentary on the discovery of the missing footage and the restoration (Die Reise nach Metropolis, 2010, 53 minutes). Masters of Cinema, however, includes a newly recorded commentary by David Kalat and Jonathan Rosenbaum; in addition, it contains a nicely designed, 56-page booklet, with articles by critic Rosenbaum, Luis Buñuel, Fritz Lang, and others.

  1. Reportedly, he was concerned the name Hel, the dead wife of Joh Fredersen, was too close for comfort to the English word Hell. []
  2. Elsaesser, Thomas. Metropolis, London: BFI Publishing, 2001, p. 68. []
  3. Rotwang’s rule of dark forces goes vividly pictorial not only with the robot’s transformation scene, but with his earlier bestial stalking of Maria in the black, death-haunted spaces of the catacombs, which culminates in his metaphorical rape of the girl with the beam of his flashlight. []
  4. Then, he would contradict himself by referencing the anti-establishment youth of the time, saying, maybe “the heart” is the solution. []
  5. It’s easy to conjecture that Freder’s hallucination of Moloch feasting on workers was inspired by the Moloch sequences in the Italian spectacle from 1914, Cabiria. []
  6. In my Lutheran childhood, at least, Revelations was studiously ignored. []
  7. Lang/von Harbou named their pleasure palace after Tokyo’s red light district during the Edo period. []