Angela picked up one of my wishlist items this Christmas, and bought me a copy of a nice two-disc DVD of Fritz Lang's Metropolis, enabling me to patch over another hole in my education. So the other night, we sat down to watch the movie.
To start with the obvious - yes, it definitely lives up to its rep for production design and general imagination. The Art Deco futurism on display is clearly one of the foundation stones of modern media SF; I honestly don't know how much, say, Blade Runner or Dark City (or, more distantly, 2001 or Ghost in the Shell) can be said to have been directly influenced by Lang, but he sure as heck got there first, and made it look good. And the excellent modern clean-up job on display on these disks, and the original orchestral score on the soundtrack, make it quite a pleasure to watch as well as an education.
The content was also interesting, in a way I expected less, mostly because I'd forgotten most of the many comments I must have seen in the past about the film's oddly old-fashioned, Gothic, sometimes downright theistic elements. The biblical references go beyond stuff about the "New Tower of Babel" (rightly invoked in that British Museum exhibition, now I come to think of it) and a slightly pantomime-ish vision of the industrial machine as the demon Moloch, to scenes in a Gothic cathedral, complete with references to the Seven Deadly Sins (in handy statue form). Perhaps more interestingly, Rotwang isn't an SF mad scientist so much as he's a good old-fashioned wizard, Faust with a dash of Prospero and a touch of Merlin, never far from a plainly depicted pentagram. It turns out (the DVD notes say) that Lang originally planned to have some explicit magic in the film, in overt opposition to the technology; arguably, his status as a founding father of the European SF tradition is a bit compromised or compromising. There's also a sense of puritan disapproval breaking through in the nightclub scenes, which look like a slightly misplaced rant at Weimar decadence more than anything else.
Rotwang (Rudolf Klein-Rogge) is a fun character, though, but he wasn't the one who I found most interesting, funnily enough. Brigitte Helm worked hard in the dual role of drippy social activist and loopy robo-vamp, but the prize for actual acting probably has to go to Alfred Abel as the arch-capitalist ruler of the city - an oddly austere figure, who seems to be oppressing the proletariat out of a sense of propriety more than anything else.
The film's politics are certainly (notoriously, as it turns out) a bit drippy, with a simple-minded lets-all-be-friends ending that probably explains why H.G.Wells called the whole thing "the most stupid of films" - but I'd be prepared to write that off to its date and to commercial pressures. I don't think it's something that'd be fixed if the print hadn't been slashed so harshly by the early distributors; this DVD has slightly bemusing long intertitles explaining what happened at various points in the original script, seeking to restore various bits of actual characterisation and relative subtlety to the plot. Interestingly, it seems that a full version of the movie has been rediscovered in the past year; it'll be interesting to see how this changes things when the missing scenes are eventually cleaned up and the movie is restored to its original 153 minutes.