Cinematic research – Metropolis (1927)

In one of our lectures, ‘Contexts of production’, our lecturers mentioned the 1927 silent film ‘Metropolis’. I found out there are a couple of versions of the film on YouTube, so I watched this one, which later turned out to be the least close to the actual story, missing lots of episodes and using a different score. Still, it was a good start for me:

Later versions of the film with more restored material and better understanding of the story, better picture and score quality are listed later in the post.

A bit about the film (from the article in Wikipedia):

Metropolis is a 1927 German expressionist film in the science-fiction genre directed by Fritz Lang. Produced in Germany during a stable period of the Weimar Republic, Metropolis is set in a futuristic urban dystopia and makes use of this context to explore the social crisis between workers and owners in capitalism. […] The most expensive silent film ever made, it cost approximately 5 million Reichsmark.

The film was substancially cut just after its German premiere (so probably this first version I watched could be one of these cut copies of the film:

When it was first screened in Berlin on January 10, 1927, the sci-fi epic ran an estimated 153 minutes. After its premiere engagement, in an effort to maximize the film’s commercial potential, the film’s distributors (UFA in Germany, Paramount in the U.S.) drastically shortened METROPOLIS, which had been a major disappointment at the German box office.  By the time it debuted in the United States later that year, the film ran approximately 90 minutes (exact running times are difficult to determine because silent films were not always projected at a standardized speed). (from the KINO blog)

There is one more version which could be found on YouTube, with some of the missing scenes restored. Here is part 1/12 (somewhere in the related videos are the other parts):

This week, a Blu-ray version of the film is released with 25 minutes reconstructed and restored footage newly found in 2008 in Argentina, that claims to show the film as the authors first intended it and as it was first screened in Germany in 1927. Still, there are at least 8 minutes of footage missing from the original version. The 2010 version can be found here (in a German version, originally aired on the German/French channel ARTE – this is part 1/16, the rest can be found in the related videos). If you understand German, I highly recommend this version:

Official website of the film: kino.com/metropolis

Official website of the UK release: metropolis1927.com

Metropolis is an impressive piece of cinematic art, especially given the time period it was made. Released in 1927, it was the first full length science fiction film ever made. In the film, various visual effects were used, some of them for the first time in film history. Two of the more popular ones are:

Schüfftan Process

Schüfftan Process (click on the image for the whole Wikipedia article)

Robot - Transformation

Robot – Transformation

Plot (various sources cited):

  • IMDb:
    In a futuristic city sharply divided between the working class and the city planners, the son of the city’s mastermind falls in love with a working class prophet who predicts the coming of a savior to mediate their differences.
  • Netflix:
    In the year 2026, when the populace is divided between workers who must live underground and the wealthy, who enjoy a futuristic city of splendor, a man from the upper class abandons his privileged life to join oppressed workers in a revolt.
  • crazeclassics (Youtube channel):
    It is the future, and humans are divided into two groups: the thinkers, who make plans (but don’t know how anything works), and the workers, who achieve goals (but don’t have the vision). Completely separate, neither group is complete, but together they make a whole. One man from the “thinkers” dares visit the underground where the workers toil, and is astonished by what he sees.

One of the most popular quotes from the film:

The mediator between head and hands must be the heart.

The film combines modernist and futurist ideas, a conspiracy with a detective, mind control, the concept of the antichrist from the biblical mythology, the seven deadly sins, burning of witches, references to the Marxist theory, the social structure of classes, the Frankenstein theme, etc. The New Tower of Babel in the film is a reference to the Chrysler building which the director Fritz Lang is believed has seen during his visit to New York in 1924 (source). There is a love story, a story about loyalty, justice and salvation, the good and the evil, a lot about the power of the crowds… and lots and lots of more references. It reminds of the aesthetics and structure of the opera – a lot of emotion rich gestures and expressions, with music accompanying the whole story, and the film is broken into four sections – Prelude, Interlude, Intermezzo, Furioso. Another detail in the film is the 10-hour clock – used to easier count the 10-hour working shifts. There is a common misconception that this is the Metropolis clock used to count the time, but actually, the decimal clock is only used to count the shift hours. There is another 24-hour clock above it which counts the actual time.

Metropolis - The Tower of Babel

Metropolis – The Tower of Babel (click on the image for the source gallery)

Metropolis clock

Metropolis 10-hour and 24-hour clocks

In 1984, a controversial version of the film was released – composer Giorgio Moroder constructed a ‘pop’ version with newly composed score featuring songs by Bonnie Tyler, Freddie Mercury and Jon Anderson. Here is an episode featuring Bonnie Tyler’s song ‘Here She Comes’:

Interestingly, because Freddie Mercury’s song ‘Love Kills’ was used in Moroder’s film, in exchange Queen were granted the rights to use footage from it in their ‘Radio Ga Ga’ video:

A bit more about the context of the film when it was originally released (from the Synopsis leaflet, section Release and Reaction, link to the PDF here):

[…] Metropolis was submitted in November of 1926 to the German censors, who declared the film “educational” and “artistic” and approved it for release – but UFA’s new partners at Paramount were less appreciative when shown the same version a month later. Accustomed to star-driven films with simple plots and an absolute minimum of symbolic underpinnings, Paramount demanded extensive cuts to bring Metropolis in line with their idea of audience-friendly entertainment.
The film officially premiered in Berlin (at Lang’s original, un-cut length) on January 19, 1927, and received decided mixed reviews – the studio’s hysterical publicity had backfired by creating unrealistic expectations in the press. As the most ambitious and expensive film ever made in Europe, Metropolis needed to be everything to everyone – and the social, political and artistic tensions of the time meant that it was evaluated as a barometer of Weimar Germany’s past, present and future, rather than as a movie.
The left wing, appalled at the portrayal of an anger-blinded working class abandoning their children and destroying their own homes, found the film fascistic. The right wing (along with UFA and Paramount) was equally disturbed by the destructive revolt of Metropolis’ Lower City denizens, and found the film borderline Communist. Technocrats saw the film’s industrial nightmare world as being anti-science, and clergy found its vision of a sex-crazed upper-class killing themselves over a libertine robot both prurient and reprehensible.
[…] the film was soon pulled from theaters and redone for its US release; […] Much of the symbolism was removed. […]
This new version of Metropolis – nearly an hour shorter and far less coherent – premiered in the US in March of 1927 […] Though the film was relatively well reviewed in the US (“a weird and fascinating picture,” opined the New York Herald Tribune), it was quickly forgotten in the sensation created by the arrival of talking pictures that same year.

Many ideas and influences seen in the film are then repeated in various pieces of art, mixing the themes in a new context. It is described as ‘The mother of all sci-fi films and a major influence on Ridley Scott (Blade Runner), George Lucas (Star Wars), and pop culture in general (referenced by Madonna, Beyoncé, Janelle Monáe, and countless others)’ (source)

There is also a huge number of videos produced with Metropolis footage, using music by Pink Floyd, Kraftwerk, and many many more. Here are two of them:

As I was digging deeper and deeper, lots of more references came to mind, if you start thinking you’d think of at least one film or music video that was inspired by scenes in Metropolis. There are a number of Madonna and Lady GaGa (to name but a few) videos that cite ideas from the film.

For me, one of the most interesting things to learn from the film’s history is the importance of editing and how cutting just one scene out can help construct a completely new story. After seeing the last version of the film and comparing it with the first one I saw, I found a totally new story. It is almost like a new film.

Editing is sometimes underrated. But Metropolis’ history is one big proof of how important the editor’s role is.

Sources and references:

Steve Dawkins, Contexts of production (lecture) http://keyconceptsinmc.wordpress.com/2010/10/10/week-2-contexts-of-production/

Metropolis – film uploaded by crazeclassics (video on YouTube) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rD_-flw9IcQ

Wikipedia article http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Metropolis_%28film%29

Kino.com – blog http://kino.com/blog/2010/09/kino-international-releases-the-complete-metropolis-on-dvd-and-blu-ray/

Official Metropolis website – Kino.com/Metropolis – http://www.kino.com/metropolis/

Official Metropolis UK release website – Metropolis1927.com – http://www.metropolis1927.com/

Schüfftan Process – Wikipedia article – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sch%C3%BCfftan_process

IMDb – Metropolis FAQ page – http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0017136/faq#.2.1.2

IMDb – Metropolis page http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0017136/

Netflix – Metropolis http://www.netflix.com/Movie/Metropolis/60026474

Synopsis – brochure on Kino.com/Metropolis [PDF] – http://www.kino.com/metropolis/metropolis_synopsis.pdf

‘Here She Comes’ http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eBaPL5bviaw

Freddie Mercury – ‘Love Kills’ http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UUwakwHrVEo

Queen – ‘Radio Ga Ga’ http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ydW94sVEwfU

Metropolis clock http://www.dvdtalk.com/dvdsavant/images/3200d.jpg

Article about Metropolis on CultureVulture.net http://www.culturevulture.net/Movies/Metropolis.htm

Metropolis – a restored version – part 1/12 http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zAuSEdPbqmo

Metropolis – 2010 restored version (German) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lDn-3C8DN_o

Metropolis with Pink Floyd’s ‘Welcome to the Machine’ http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0AY09DJkQMY

Kraftwerk + Metropolis http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6P2iUJucbk4

The whole 2010 restored version (in German) – in parts 1-16: http://www.youtube.com/user/xxPenumbraxx#p/c/E003511F2F43D8DD/0/lDn-3C8DN_o

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