If an alien fell to Earth and demanded an explanation for the 20th century, you could do a lot worse than hand over a copy of Metropolis. Shot throughout much of 1925 and 1926 and set in 2026, the film sketches a century-long cognitive arc, and like the 20th, it is visually stunning, colossal in scope, giddy with technology, occasionally scary, even depressing, but also utterly confusing as to what all the hoopla's ultimately about.
As for the film, there are two primary reasons for the confusion. The first is probably most tellingly revealed by a detail in the life of Thea von Harbou, wife of director Fritz Lang. When she died in 1954, the writer of the original novel and screenplay for Metropolis left two portraits hanging side by side on her bedroom wall. One was of Mahatma Gandhi. The other: Adolf Hitler.
The Nazis saw potential in Fritz Lang. Stories and opinions vary, particularly from Lang's own, but he could very well have taken the position eventually filled by Leni Riefenstahl. Instead, he would divorce his wife and flee to Hollywood after Hitler took power while von Harbou fared quite well back in Berlin during the short reign of the Thousand Year Reich. And yet Ufa studio bosses debated removing insert titles from Metropolis because of their "Communist tendencies". And what about all that Christian imagery, what with the devout Maria holding underground prayer meetings and all?
She foresees a liberator for the oppressed masses of Metropolis and Freder hears the call. Is he a Christ figure, forging a bond between his Father in the all but celestial realms of the city and mankind below? A revolutionary leading the workers to revolt? Or a young Aryan leader in the making?
Freder: The heart between the head and the hand. Or something. Before and after restoration.
Lang himself probably never knew exactly. With the perfectionism that would infuriate his producers in Hollywood, Lang obsessed on individual shots and sequences and relied on his writers to provide the narrative drive between them. But what shots, what sequences. The look Lang conjured with Metropolis has left its mark on countless movies since, most famously in Blade Runner and most recently in Minority Report.
The city of the future.
Since the film's premiere in January 1927, however, there's been a haze of scratches, tears, dirt and other crud, not to mention wholly lost scenes that has blocked our view of Lang's original vision. But a fiercely dedicated team of film historians and professional film restorers has now lifted that haze.