Back to the Future


Easily trouncing the recent Hollywood heat rash of over-extended superheroes and Hasbro infomercials, this summer’s most satisfying sci-fi blockbuster is a crypto-Marxist, proto-Fascist spectacle first released 80 years ago: Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, the legendary art deco futuro- fable of industrialist excess, proletarian rebellion, and robot romance, one of the last big-budget exhilarations of the pre-talkie era. Once considered merely hokey and excessive, Lang’s hyper-capitalist vision of workers oppressed by mechanical Molochs as their labor sustains a paradise for wealthy technocrats now seems both quaintly steampunk and disjunctively contemporary.

Though silent cinema has all but disappeared from the 21st-century zeitgeist—Charlie Chaplin is now nothing but a hackneyed video store logo, Louise Brooks a mere hairdo—Metropolis paradoxically has gained greater influence on pop culture. Lang’s impossibly vast skyscraper-ziggurats (inspired, it’s said, by his first view of the Manhattan skyline) are the blueprint for nearly every science-fiction movie city of the past 30 years, from the run-down neo-noir of Blade Runner to the corporate urbanism of Minority Report. References pepper other media as well: Pink Floyd, Kraftwerk, and Madonna have all nicked bits from Lang over the years. Synth god Giorgio Moroder produced his own notorious MTV-style remix of the film in 1984, complete with songs by Freddie Mercury and Pat Benatar. Though frequently lamented by purists, Moroder’s version nonetheless cemented the film’s cult rep. (Desperate side note to repertory programmers: What the hell are you waiting for??? The ’80s revival won’t last forever. . . . )

Moroder’s New Wave mash-up isn’t the only reworking. Like a city demolished and rebuilt from its own ruins,
Metropolis has endured its own epic saga of reconstruction. The film ran 153 minutes at its much-ballyhooed 1927 Berlin premiere. One of the most expensive European productions of its era, Metropolis emerged with an unprecedented level of pre-release buzz, but UFA and its American partner, Paramount, slashed the film drastically for international distribution. Characters disappeared; whole plotlines were cut. It wasn’t until the 1960s that the effort to rebuild Lang’s original vision began, starting with footage rediscovered in an East German archive. Metropolis mutated through a number of additional fix-ups until it reached its current form in 2002, finally clocking in at 124 minutes.

Though still missing about a quarter of the original film, the 2002 restoration (which will appear in a new 35mm print at Film Forum) simulates heretofore lost segments of the narrative with new intertitles and a few still images, culled from notes by the German censorship board of the time. More crucially, the release includes a stereo soundtrack of the film’s original symphonic score. But the visual impact of Metropolis remains by far its most powerful aspect. Mixing European avant-garde techniques with Hollywood mass-cult extravagance, Metropolis‘s staggering architectural scale and syncopated near-musical choreography still seem surprisingly contemporary in an age that has far from tired of seeing the future in harshly dystopic terms.