Industrial Symphony


The greatest of all pulp fantasies, Fritz Lang’s 1927 Metropolis returns to the borough that inspired it in the most complete version since its Berlin premiere—and in most likely the most beautiful print as well. Showing at Film Forum for two weeks, this vision of a future city is a movie whose graphic intelligence is exceeded only by its conceptual audacity.

Metropolis was profligate in every sense—Lang’s attempt to top his previous Wagnerian epics and a German bid to challenge American primacy. A year and a half in the making, it wound up costing 10 times as much as the average Hollywood production and like its descendant Titanic was a continual source of journalistic copy. (“Even before its opening, the magazines have stirred us up and tired us out for so long behind the scenes of this film that we now stagger into the theater quite exhausted and apathetic,” the critic Rudolf Arnheim wrote.) Unlike Titanic, however, Metropolis effectively bankrupted its studio—if not an entire national industry. The German consortium UFA had to be reorganized and recapitalized, bailed out by Paramount and MGM.

Lang’s cut ran over two and a half hours. After its premiere, the movie was trimmed by 40 minutes, then shortened again and re-edited for American release. For 75 years, it has existed as a magnificent ruin. (Commercial cuts acted on Metropolis “as winds, rain, barbarians, etc., do upon classical edifice,” Stan Brakhage once observed.) In a suitably epic archival undertaking, all the surviving material was culled to create this restoration, which represents about 80 percent of Lang’s version and returns his narrative structure (reintegrating lost subplots and extending familiar sequences) while it revives the original score.

Even in 1927, Metropolis was recognized as the most ambitious spectacle in the decade since D.W. Griffith went broke with Intolerance—as well as the craziest. (Stroheim’s Greed is a close second.) Metropolis evokes the most extreme view of a class society. The rulers of this world-dominating city cavort in gardened palaces higher than the Sears Tower while the proles are confined to quarters somewhere below the subway. Freder, the pampered son of the Metropolis autocrat, has a revelation and joins forces with the saintly Maria (17-year-old Brigitte Helm) to liberate the workers; their efforts at reform are confounded when Freder’s father enlists the resident mad scientist, Rotwang, to replace Maria with a robot double (Helm again, flinging herself around in a dance of demonic arabesques) who leads the workers to destruction.

Metropolis‘s colossal scale was realized with a process using mirrors to place thousands of extras in the same frame as vast miniature sets. Deco is too tame a word to describe the design. Arnheim complained of Lang’s mad medieval-Americanist-Old Testament amalgam, but the film is even more eclectic in its aesthetic progeny. After Frankenstein and Flash Gordon, Leni Riefenstahl and Stanley Kubrick, Star Wars and Apocalypse Now, and the complete works of comic-book artist Jack Kirby, Lang’s mother city seems the mother lode of 20th-century iconography. (Indeed, thanks in part to the 1984 rock-scored reissue engineered by Giorgio Moroder, Metropolis remained a living part of pop culture long after silent cinema was consigned to oblivion—inspiring Whitney Houston’s bondage costume in The Bodyguard and Madonna’s video “Express Yourself,” as well as Blade Runner and Batman.)

On one hand, Metropolis celebrates its own mechanism. The movie revels in cinematic might, as manifest in its spectacular set pieces—the opening gear-and-piston montage, Freder’s hallucination of the machine as Moloch, and the flooding of the underground city (not to mention the studio). On the other hand, this is a movie in which every detail is subordinate to the overall effect—most notoriously in the ways Lang deploys the decoratively arranged suffering masses. (The restored print carries this sense of absolute ornamentation over into the titles, which drip sweat or “descend” along with the workers.)

This design is not without ideological implications. While Lang’s Mussolini moderne predicts the totalizing aesthetic of Nazi Germany, the movie itself seems haunted by the Russian Revolution as expressed by Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin, which opened in Berlin as Metropolis went into production. The workers are a naturally destructive force; the false Maria could be construed as Bolshevism personified. Not surprisingly, the Weimar left attacked Metropolis even as the right endorsed the idea that technocratic billionaires and brainless workers might be reconciled by an idealistic spiritual leader. Hitler and Goebbels were among the movie’s fans, and although Lang left Germany when Hitler came to power, his wife and collaborator, Thea von Harbou, co-author of the Metropolis screenplay, enthusiastically joined the Nazi Party.

There’s no denying that much of Metropolis is absurd—and always was. The young Luis Buñuel was particularly straightforward, writing in a Spanish newspaper that the narrative was “trivial, bombastic, pedantic,” and redolent of “antiquated romanticism,” but if the story was ignored in favor of the movie’s “plastic photogenic basis,” Metropolis had the power to “overwhelm us as the most marvelous picture book imaginable.” A similar law governs Lang’s politics. Metaphor rules: Image trumps text.

No movie has ever more vividly visualized the industrialization of social relations. The metaphor of a dehumanized urban proletariat buried alive beneath the city it built is worthy of Marx. Calling for his father while crucified on the clock that balefully regulates the Metropolis time-space, Freder is the ultimate worker—a sacrificial wage-slave as 20th-century poster boy.

Directed by Sam Mendes from Max Allan Collins’s graphic novel, Road to Perdition is pulp that aspires to Greek tragedy. The rain machine works overtime in this gloomy tale of Depression-era gangsters as they (and their sons) stalk each other through a sepulchral Chicago and across the bleak Midwest.

Cast against type as mob muscle Michael Sullivan, Tom Hanks is dignified and forbidding—if not quite Collins’s killing machine, nicknamed the “Archangel of Death.” Still, this dour paterfamilias—who plugs more than one opponent point-blank—is nearly a John Woo protagonist by the time of his last mission, and it’s a shame that Woo didn’t direct this potentially delirious material (itself an Americanized version of the popular Japanese manga Lone Wolf and Cub, in which the outlaw samurai decimates armies while tenderly trundling his infant son). Mendes’s overrated American Beauty managed to be both bland and nasty; Road to Perdition is grim yet soppy.

Collins spent years scripting the comic strip Dick Tracy, and his mythology combines big-city mobsters of the Irish persuasion with rural, bank-robbing outlaws. David Self’s screenplay adds a bit of The Godfather to the stew: The enforcer’s dark Irish destiny is apparent in the opening scene, a boisterous wake held at the vast home of his employer, John Rooney (Paul Newman, who squeezes out a memorable turn as a lovable codger with a papery voice and the cold twinkle of death). Mike is Rooney’s spiritual son, and his own kids, Peter and Michael Junior (Tyler Hoechlin), whom he brings along, are treated as family—the brothers shooting craps with comfy old Mr. R.

All hell breaks loose after curious Junior stows away on one of his father’s missions and consequently becomes a dangerous witness to a murder by Rooney’s trigger-happy scion, Connor (Daniel Craig). “Sons are put on this earth to trouble their fathers,” muses the master of blarney when he gets word of the debacle. After first seeking an audience in some grand marble Chicago mausoleum with Al Capone’s second in command, Frank Nitti (played by Stanley Tucci with the practiced solicitude of a headwaiter), the two Mikes take it on the lam. The somber boy clutches his Lone Ranger “Big Little” book as he learns to be his father’s Tonto.

Aside from reconfiguring a few names, Self’s major contribution to Collins’s cast of characters is the sinister Maguire, a tabloid photographer who moonlights as a paid assassin (Jude Law with bad teeth, an Odd Job bowler, and a tic lifted from the George Raft character in the original Scarface). Maguire, the ultimate media bloodhound, stalks Sullivan, and the movie peaks early when the two meet up in an all-night diner on a barren stretch of highway. Thereafter, as Big Mike and Junior bond, Road to Perdition takes a turn toward the rollicking, with occasional pit stops for father-son heart-to-hearts.

Mendes covers some of the same ethnic territory as the Coen brothers’ Miller’s Crossing, albeit without the Coens’ heartless panache. Road to Perdition is visually more coherent than American Beauty, but despite the burnished mahogany of Conrad Hall’s cinematography, Mendes still doesn’t quite know how to fill a frame. Like the Hanks character, he’s a slow study: The action is stilted and the tabloid energy embalmed.