Thomas Lowery, Contributing Writer
Though historically the first science fiction movie was Georges Méliès’ A Trip to the Moon, the prime early landmark of the genre is undoubtedly Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. It’s both beautiful and frightening to look at, an astonishing feat of visual imagination and technical innovation. The notion of the dystopian futuristic city so prevalent in classic books, movies and television shows was really established by Lang’s film.
The movie’s title refers to a great city, an exorbitantly wealthy place on the surface that seems to be the mark of futuristic industrialism and success. Yet at the root of this opulence is a secret, namely that the city is divided and has a lower half, in which the poor are forced to suffer while the wealthy bask in luxury above them. Adding insult to injury, the poor are also slaves, forced to endure brutal conditions while working the elaborate machines that run the upper city.
Lang of course has a fairly solid plot to go along with his foundation, which, in short, concerns the son of the city’s head, his discovery of the underground world, and his quest to find a mad scientist to aid those under his father’s power.
But for Lang (who was a bit of a mad scientist himself), Metropolis was not just a chance to delve into issues of urban plutocracy, but to produce a fully realized future dystopia through an amalgam of innovative sci-fi design and German Expressionism. The latter was an artistic movement in Germany, mainly popular during the 1920s, characterized in cinema by elaborate sets, unusual shadows, warped images and an overall lack of realism.
The dichotomy of German Expressionism and reality is expressly meant to relate a mood, state of mind or idea. Many of the sets and visual images do not make logical sense, yet they impart something Lang wants to communicate about the city. But more importantly, they are a marvel to look at. Lang is operating on a vast canvas, creating sets and visual effects that at the time were inconceivable and today still look surprisingly real. It is hard to comprehend how such a bold vision translated onto the screen without modern digital trickery.
Metropolis was not an instant success upon its release – people complained that not only was it derivative of Lang’s own early literary mishaps, but that the story was fanciful and illogical (perhaps they did not consider the film’s German Expressionist roots). But the movie quickly ascended in prominence and is now seen as both a cinematic masterwork and a watershed in science fiction. Among its most obvious descendants are Blade Runner, Dark City, Inception and even Batman’s Gotham City.
Yet while the film has flourished, it has always been slightly tarnished due to significant amounts of lost footage. For most of its existence, the film compensated for missing reels by using subtitles explaining pieces of the lost story. While this helps with the continuity of the narrative, it does not do Lang’s original vision justice.
Yet almost miraculously in 2008 one of the original prints of the film was found in Argentina, and after two years of pain-staking restoration it was released back in theaters and then on Blu ray. Barring new discoveries, the movie is now likely as close to Lang’s intended version as it will ever get. It’s still not perfect, but considering that most silent films are fully lost, the restored Metropolis will yield complaints from no one.