Is Fritz Lang’s Metropolis Actually Good?

Or is it just an artifact whose nostalgia quotient outweighs its artistic and filmic value? This question arose when the Remake Factory Hostage Situation podcast invited me to help them remake Metropolis

A girlfriend moves to Hollywood, and a young man crafts a connection with her by watching as many good films as possible during the months that she is gone. He succeeds only in forging a connection with movies…

I lived in a room at the top of my parents’ house and had a squeaky VCR hooked up to a color drive-through monitor rescued by a sound engineer friend from the renovation efforts of an old Hardees. Six inches diagonal, maybe, if that, smaller than the iPad that would come out nearly fifteen years later and not quite as conducive to comfort-viewing. Before heading off to work the evening shift at the hospital, I would walk down to the treasure trove of a video store whose owners never even bothered to alphabetize their massive movie collection, which to my wide eyes numbered in the tens of thousands. It had a footprint larger than the biggest Blockbuster I had ever set foot in, and smelled better, too. It was 1997, Pulp Fiction and Desperado were still fresh and unscathed by Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels, and names like Antonioni and Polanski prowled just around the corner. The first two films I rented the day she hopped on the plane were Lynch’s Blue Velvet and Altman’s The Player, and a couple days later, The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover. Imagine watching Greenaway’s lush masterpiece on that tiny screen set on an apple crate on the carpet, my body cramped and sprawled on a large  pillow, cans of Mountain Dew compelling me through the night, my neck getting sore,  shoulders aching, bare toes tapping the baseboard, stiffly switching positions all while trying not to miss a single frame, each frame loaded with paragraphs of detail and subtleties that were enhanced by the barely audible sound coming from the speakers in tinny mono, the light from the moon coming through the south window left to right, and always thinking, always connecting, always admitting myself into this cinematic world unguided…

Razor across the eye, from Dali and Bunuel's Un Chien Andalou. If you've never seen this image, you haven't looked very hard.

Razor across the eye, from Dali and Bunuel’s Un Chien Andalou. If you’ve never seen this image, you haven’t looked very hard.

No widescreen editions. No commentaries. No infinite number of internet blogs or articles to accomplish all the explorations of movies on my behalf. Better times? Nah. Just different. Outside of the city, few people shared my interest in film, fewer still who upon hearing that I watched Blue Velvet would then say, “Oh, yeah, but have you ever seen Eraserhead?” or after The Player, “My god, but you’ve got to check out The Long Goodbye. You won’t believe Elliot Gould and what they do to Chandler.” For a suburban cinephile, the only hope lay in used bookstores, where the discarded books of other cinephiles lurked as dog-eared and beaten up as the best dime-store mystery or bodice ripper—those who loved movies devoured these books. Never in color, rarely on high quality paper, these books offered too few samples of the low line-count movie stills printed in murky ink from the films one could only hope were at the shop around the corner. Anything by Murnau, old Hitchcock, Chaplin as a Keystone Kop, Alain Delon, Catherine Deneuve, and the endlessly reproduced razor across the eye from Un Chien Andalou. But none of these stirred as much longing as the stills of the android from Fritz Lang’s Metropolis.

Who would you fear? Maschinenmensch on the left, Gort on the right.

Who would you fear? Machinenmensch on the left, Gort on the right.

She moved. On a throne surrounded by rings of light, she pulsed. Behind the body of a naked woman upon a table, she reigned. Illustrated in the movie posters, she threatened in a way Gort could never. Maschinenmensch. What a hideous name for such a sublime creature. I wanted to see her move. I wanted to see her overthrow humanity.

Essays that accompanied these images told the story, which sounded interesting enough. The simplicity of its war between money and labor seemed logical given the rich architectural detail of the city, the stark, grinding horror of the under-city, and the stills of a flood that must have murdered its extras. Other Fritz Lang films filled the books, too, but Metropolis sat at the top of the heap, followed at a distance by M.

It's not just me, is it? Say it's not just me…

It’s not just me, is it? Say it’s not just me…

And so desire fed by deprivation created a rabid need to see Metropolis. I asked the proprietress of the video store if she had it. She didn’t know what I was talking about. I spelled it and she found it. She led me to the aisle and handed me something straight out of a Def Leppard album. Whoever this maniac Moroder was, he had replaced whatever passed for silent film scores with the most godawful music I had ever heard in my life, and this was the mid-90s, so come on! I had to watch the film with the sound turned down. The movie was short and confusing and left me wishing I had left the film to my imagination. Disappointment would be too harsh: uncertainty, befuddlement, and a slight loss of faith. I liked it, sure, but that wasn’t saying much.

As the years passed, though, more complete, less Moroder-ish versions of the film came out, each one slightly more comprehensible—and tasteful—than the last. A few years ago, a fine Blu-ray edition with a decent score and most of the film restored made it into my library. And then I watched it in preparation for a guest appearance on the Remake Factory Hostage Situation: Metropolis podcast. The podcast provided me with an opportunity to unravel the film and re-ravel it into something to that could be. “No problem,” I thought, “I like that movie.”

Listen to these guys. They're one heck of a good time.

Listen to these guys. They’re one heck of a good time.

As the restored edition played, the thoughts came easy. “This is not a good movie. It’s also a pretty good.” “It’s too simple and kinda dumb.” “Really?!” It became apparent that the spectacle was the allure, both in the film stills I had seen twenty years earlier and in all editions I had seen since. The first half hour is full of amazing sights: The Shift Change, the Pleasure Gardens, The Explosion/Moloch, Metropolis Itself. Stunning visuals, inciting lust even as they play. “Linger longer, Fritz Lang, please, please.” And sometimes he does. But always a return to the terrible narrative, the awful motivations, the love-at-first sight with Maria surrounded by under-dwelling urchins, things that Fritz Lang would eventually grow out of. The only human highlights come from the performances of the father, Maria, her alter-ego as the Maschinenmensch, the leering of the eyes. I found myself desperate to see one more version of Metropolis released by Kino: The Subtle Metropolis. Hell, maybe that’s how the hosts at Remake Factory Hostage Situation could pitch their rewrite.

What happened? How is it that this film has a 99% Tomatometer from the Critics on Rotten Tomatoes? An astonishing 92% Audience Score? Silent movies should have a ravenous audience given the love lavished on this film. Murnau’s Sunrise has 98%, Nosferatu 97%, his Faust 94%. Buster Keaton’s The General is a laggard with 92%. And these are the easy ones. But this is a bad measure of a film’s quality, right…?

A critic’s job takes many forms: voice in the wilderness, police captain, thief in the night, mentor, guru, traffic cop, analyst, physician, and lighthouse keeper. Metropolis is an okay movie, but it’s not a great film. It’s a classic because of its age. It’s a keeper because of its bravado. But it’s pretty bad. It lacks everything Lang’s better films effortlessly achieve. Yet it stands proudly above them all. An icon. A symbol.

After finishing it the first time, lying flat on my belly, thinking of a distant girlfriend living it up on the set of Home Improvement, I felt empty. I still caressed the film stills, sketched storyboards of the frames that startled me, and couldn’t stop staring at Evil Maria. But unlike those films whose brilliance lay in the humanity, the subversion, the richly textured life they painted across the hours, Metropolis made me simply reach for the next cassette. The double feature that night introduced me to Charlie Chaplin, and The Circus made its way into nighttown.