Metropolis, ancient and modern

I was glad to catch the restored version of Fritz Lang's 1927 epic Metropolis at the Edinburgh Filmhouse last week.

The full version of the film was cut shortly after its initial release, the missing scenes only turning up as late as 2008 (a back room in Buenos Aires, curiously). So what we have now is more or less the director's cut.

Metropolis cityscape

Rotwang's house

Metropolis is rightly celebrated for its dreams of the future. The dramatic vistas of the imagined city - New York, magnified - reappear over and over through the history of western cinema, most notably perhaps in Blade Runner and the Gotham City of the Batman films. The awakening of the android Maria is the template for all subsequent sci-fi transfiguration scenes. Joh Frederson's offices atop the city's 'Tower of Babel' evoke the penthouse suites of today's City executives. And the film's obsession with the metronomic beauty of machines prophesy our contemporary obsessions with technology.

Maria in the catacombs

But the imagery of Metropolis looks backwards as well as forwards, owing as much to 19th century Gothic as bright visions of the future. The revolt of the workers whose labour turns the wheels of the great city is ignited in candle-lit, skull-strewn catacombs, whipped up by religious demagoguery. The reclusive scientist Rotwang in his curious little 'gingerbread' home evokes the archetypal figure of the wizard in the woods. There are striking evocations of the imagery of the Book of Revelation, and the cathedral scenes depicting the seven deadly sins and the Grim Reaper are straight from Grimm's fairytales.

Fall of the Tower of Babel

All of which makes for a curious brew indeed: an inexhaustible confusion of images, ancient and modern. And that for me is perhaps the most prophetic aspect of this strange old film. Nothing is neat, monochrome or pristine about the future it imagines. It's a world in which towering modernist architecture rises in the midst of medieval cathedrals, of shining technology and religious fundamentalism, of financial elites and labouring classes. Whether intentional or not, the chaos of Metropolis forecasts something like our world.

Cathedral scene

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