There are a lot of options to choose from when looking for something to watch on Netflix Instant – sometimes too many options to tell what is good and what isn’t. There is one movie available which stands out as a groundbreaking example of one of the world’s first sci-fi films.
Fritz Lang’s silent film “Metropolis” has an intriguing history. It first premiered in Berlin in 1927, but shortly after was withdrawn from circulation and about an hour of its footage was amputated and presumed destroyed. Since then, the search for a copy of the original version has become somewhat of a quest for the holy grail.
Made at a time of hyperinflation in Germany, “Metropolis” nearly bankrupted the studio that commissioned it, UFA. After lukewarm reviews and initial box office results in Europe, Paramount Pictures, the American partner brought in toward the end of the shoot, took control of the film and made drastic excisions, arguing that Lang’s cut was too complicated and unwieldy for American audiences to understand (clearly even then, Americans were not viewed as the most sophisticated of movie watchers).
Finally, after an 80 year search, a original cut of the film was found in the archives of a Buenos Aires museum. It was the only surviving copy of Fritz Lang’s complete film. Metropolis wasn’t completely lost to the world during those 80 years, however. The cut, “American-friendly” version has been wildly popular. In the 1980s, music producer Giorgio Moroder released a version of the film with a soundtrack by rock artists such as Freddie Mercury and Adam Ant. Along with the soundtrack, it also added some color to certain scenes. This version is available on Netflix Instant and is the first one that I watched. Also available on Netflix is the, now found, full version as Fritz Lang intended it. A great deal longer, it is in black and white and is set to a soundtrack of classical music.
The movie is set in a futuristic city which is sharply divided between the working class and the upper class. The working class spend their entire lives underground, working backbreaking hours at machines in order to keep the city up and running above them. The upper class, comprised mainly of the city planners and their families, live a life of luxury and pleasure. The majority of both classes has no idea that the other one exists. In the film, a member of each class falls in love with each other. One of them is a working class prophet, a woman named Maria who brings hope to the city’s workers. She predicts the coming of a savior, a savior who will mediate the differences between the social groups and give the city the start of new era. The other is the son of the city’s industrious owner, known as The Master. The Master conspires with a crazy inventor to kidnap Maria and replace her with the inventor’s robot. The robot is given the same physical appearance as her, and the Master hopes to use it to influence the minds of the working class, who trust and follow Maria. Following orders from the crazy inventor, the robot creates a lot of problems for the working class, but she soon forms a mind of her own, bent on chaos.
More important than the story are the unforgettable images: the endless columns of workers marching in nightmarish synch to and from their terrible labor; the monstrous “M” Machine, revealed in a visionary moment to embody the spirit of Moloch, the bloodthirsty deity of Old-Testament Canaan; Freder agonizingly laboring at the clock machine looking like Christ crucified; the mecha-Maria’s lacivious striptease seducing the privileged fathers of Metropolis into the Seven Deadly Sins; the immense gothic cathedral in which the final showdown occurs.
Religious allusions are everywhere. Maria and her evil doppelgänger suggest the Virgin Mary and the Whore of Babylon. Freder, the son, is a Christ-like agent of reconciliation, while the father, The Master, is a self-styled Jehovah taking the place of God in his own world, even unleashing a flood to destroy his people when they have displeased him. The Master’s offices are in a skyscraper called the New Tower of Babel, and the climactic conflict is replete with references to the Apocalypse.
The film’s resolution and message, “The mediator between the head and the hands must be the heart”, were criticized on release – and later by Lang himself – as being hopelessly naïve. The real strength of “Metropolis” is really in the presentation of the city and its people, where cathedrals and catacombs exist alongside towers and sky-bridges, and the primal and the industrial are merged into one. There is a sense of history and myth to go along with the film’s famed futurism, an understanding that, in fact, the future is not new. It’s older than anything that’s ever been. Science fiction, at its heart, is not and cannot be about disconnecting from the present or the past. It’s about the possibilities and ideas, the fears and hopes, which emanate from our time and before, and exploring them in new ways and contexts. “Metropolis”, in many ways, codifies this in film, and that is what gives it its fascination, and its enduring power. So the next time you’re scrolling through Netflix Instant, give “Metropolis” a shot. I personally would recommend either the 1980s restored version, or the original version. Both are thought-provoking, exciting, and entirely worth watching.