The plot of this movie is hard to explain. It somehow makes sense, the way dreams makes sense even after you wake up. You sort of get it and it feels right for how it looks. The looks are so important to this film. The visuals are incredible. There isn't anything like them. The sets are huge and bizarre, and there are many scenes showing workers doing strange, coordinated movements around machines. It doesn't matter what they or doing – we understand they are doing it because they are one with the machines, with their jobs. They are lifeless. I can't describe it without making it sound weird – it's something you have to see for yourself. We are so used to complicated CGI and special effects that seeing a film with insane sets and effects from the 1920's is mind-blowing. It taps into the imagination that we lose when we see so much CGI. You can get lost in a film like this, because it feels so surreal and different. How did anyone think of these sets or build them? Is is really possible to have that huge of a cast?
It is. Lang is extreme. Ebert writes about how insane he was, writing, “the extra were hurled into violent mob scenes, made to stand for hours in cold water, and handled more like props than human beings. The heroine was made to jump from high places, and when she burned at the stake, Lang used real flames” (The Great Movies, 296). The fact that the cast was that large is sort of astonishing. Their treatment, even more so. During the burning at the stake scene, I thought to myself that it looked so realistic and wondered how he got that effect – now I know. As far as Ebert's essay, I didn't find it too helpful other than some of these facts. The version that Ebert watched that he wrote about for this book is not the version that I watched. Recently, footage lost from Metropolis was found in Buenos Ares, and it was painstakingly restored to a 2 hour 25 minute version. It has no color tinting, like Ebert writes of, and no strange “MTV soundtrack”, as he describes it. I feel privileged to have seen this better, restored version. I can tell without having seen the other one that I prefer the stark grayscale and orchestral score.
The restored version is actually pretty easy to find – I always see it streaming on lots of services, including Netflix. You must watch it, if you have any tolerance for silent movies. I understand that they are not for everyone, although I have a hard time of it. But as someone who loves them, it's hard for me to see what it is about them that can be off-putting. Metropolis feels much more modern than a lot of silent movies, because the sets and some of the plot is more familiar to us. I also think that the fact that it is so dreamlike and odd makes it easier to watch. It feels like a new canvas for storytelling, not something outdated. Let me know if you check this out!
Have any of you see Metropolis, restored or otherwise? Share your thoughts in the comments!
Ebert's Great Movie Essay on Metropolis