1927 // Germany // Fritz Lang // July 26, 2010 // Theatrical Print (Landmark Tivoli Theater)
My first experience with Metropolis was, unfortunately, a relatively cheap DVD that was apparently released after the film's American copyright had lapsed. You can imagine the quality. I have never seen the 2002 Murnau Foundation / Kino International restoration, so the new "Complete" Metropolis now enjoying a limited theatrical release in the U.S. was akin to a brand spanking new film to my eyes. This iteration of the film seemed almost twice as long as the version I had recalled. Certainly, the narrative is more coherent, although still not without its plot holes. (As Glenn Kenny wonders, where exactly is the army that Joh Fredersen was presumably going to use to crush the workers' rebellion?) The "Argentinean footage" that was the impetus for this version of the film is in rough shape and not especially revelatory, but it does provide more connective tissue, so to speak, rounding out aspects of the story that might otherwise have seemed even more perplexing.
To contemporary sensibilities, the film's treacly message of cooperation and moderation seems like naive, feel-good moralizing, a ridiculously flimsy attempt to resolve the fundamental conflict between capitalism's grinding indifference and socialism's revolutionary flame. However, the visual achievements on display here are undeniable. And yet, for all of Metropolis' seminal design and stunning ambition—and those crowd shots do look remarkable on the big screen—the most fascinating aspect of the film for this viewer remains its curious (and under-developed) attitude towards robotics and artificial intelligence. Here we have one of the first cinematic depictions of a machine crafted to resemble a person, and yet such a marvel becomes secondary to the film's enthusiasm for sheer spectacle and its half-baked portrayal of the antagonism between management and labor.
Nonetheless, I think that the way that the Robot Maria is portrayed in the film is quite revealing. Our contemporary conception of artificial intelligence is tightly entwined with the notion of cold rationality, where even the most fearsome mechanical being (a Terminator, say), is assumed to simply be following its programming with ruthless efficiency. From the moment she attains consciousness, however, the Robot Maria displays an almost comically malevolent lust for chaos and destruction. Brigitte Helm's astonishing performance—which is grotesque even for a silent film portrayal—shrieks one message loud and clear: this woman-thing is bad, bad news. Helm conveys an automaton that visibly revels in its role as an instigator and idolatrous object. Heck, she's laughing with satanic glee even as they lash her to the stake for an old-fashioned witch-burning. The portentous use of biblical imagery simply bolds and underlines the current of moral terror that Helm establishes with her performance. One wonders whether Lang and writer Thea von Harbou thought that all artificial beings would necessarily turn out to be wicked monsters. Or perhaps Rotwang's own ambitions were so tainted by sorrow and vengeance that his creation was inevitably corrupted? Who can say? The film doesn't, so we're left to speculate. Nonetheless, the Robot Maria's almost manic need to destroy strongly suggests a deeply skeptical view of humankind's capacity for creation, well before words like "android" even existed.