Metropolis (Paramount, 1928)
If you’re reading this at all, you must have at least a passing interested in silent cinema, so I think it’s safe to say that we’ve all heard the story of Metropolis (1927). We know about the Berlin premiere version that was presumed lost decades ago. We know about the reconstruction attempts that began in the 1980s and culminated with the then-definitive Kino version in 2002. We know about the discovery of a nearly complete print of the film in Argentina that, in 2010, allowed us to see the premier version again for the first time in 80 years. But if you’re like me, you may not know much about what happened between 1927 and 1984.
The international release of Metropolis was handled by a company called Parufamet, a joint venture of UFA in Germany and Paramount and MGM in America. Paramount was to be the American distributor. UFA, who produced the original film, gave Paramount (through Parufamet) carte blanche to re-edit the film to make it more profitable in America. They hired a playwright named Channing Pollock to make the necessary changes. Pollock’s Metropolis premiered in America in 1928 and between that date and the first reconstruction, if someone said that they had seen Metropolis, it was Pollock’s version that they were referring to.
I’m not going to talk about Fritz Lang’s original Metropolis. There would be no point – I’m sure you’ve seen the recent 2010 reconstruction and probably one or two of the others as well. But in a curious reversal of history, if someone today said that they had seen Metropolis, they’re never referring to the Pollock version. That’s the film I’m going to review.
The first two acts of the film are spent weaving a Christ allegory around Eric Masterman (Freder Frederson in the original – Gustav Fröhlich), a man metaphorically borne of Mary (Maria – Brigitte Helm) and come as a savior to the workers of Metropolis. It manages this to good effect, even repurposing the scene where Freder takes over for 11811 (Erwin Biswanger) on the V-machine as a metaphorical crucifixion. It tries to carry it forward into the final act, but frankly, Pollock’s film kind of falls apart after the introduction of the Machine Man, or “Efficiency” as they name it.
I suppose now is a good time to bring up Rotwang (Rudolf Klein-Rogge). Of all the characters, Rotwang is the most changed in Pollock’s edit. In the original film, Rotwang’s reason for creating the Machine Man is to bring his lost-love Hel back to life. He’s motivated by a deep-seated hatred for Joh Frederson, the man he lost Hel to and the man he blames for her death, as she died giving birth to Frederson’s son, Freder. When he gives the Machine Man the likeness of Maria, he does so to trick Joh. Joh thinks he’s helping him to quash the worker’s nascent uprising, but the Machine Man really obeys only Rotwang and he intends to use it to spur the workers into open rebellion and crush Joh’s city.
In Pollock’s film, Rotwang is working with John Masterman (Alfred Abel) in creating a soulless and untiring race of machine men to replace the workers of Metropolis, and Efficiency is their prototype. The soullessness part is John’s idea. John sees himself as a god (and, taking the allegory Pollock has so carefully constructed around Eric to its natural conclusion, he sort of is) and wants to remake man in his own image of the perfect worker. Rotwang warns that a man without a soul can have no loyalty to his creator and will quickly turn on him, which is just what Efficiency does.
It wasn’t a bad idea on Pollock’s part, and it could have worked had he been writing the script for a new movie, but limited to just the scenes available in the original Metropolis, there isn’t the necessary footage to convey what Pollock is trying to say and the third act feels cobbled together in a way that the first two acts didn’t.
What surprised me most about Pollock’s Metropolis isn’t what was changed but what wasn’t. I had always heard that the reason Paramount didn’t simply release the original film was because they feared its Marxist themes wouldn’t play in America, but if that’s true, then Pollock failed spectacularly with his edit. Pollock’s injection of religion does nothing to diminish the overarching class struggle between the proletariat “hands” of the workers’ city and the bourgeois “brains” of Metropolis. If anything, his Christ allegory emphasizes the film’s socialist message – Pollock’s Eric is no Supply Side Jesus. It strikes me that Paramount was less concerned with the film’s politics than it was with its length (Pollock’s version is a good half-hour shorter) and accessibility (it goes out of its way to explain visual metaphors like the Moloch machine where the original had more faith in the audience’s intelligence).
I confess that, before sitting down to watch it, I was unprepared to like to Pollock’s Metropolis, but it very nearly won me over. Had it not collapsed in on itself by the end, I would have said that, while it was a very different film from Fritz Lang’s vision, it more than accomplished its goal. But with the almost incoherent third act, it lost whatever praise I could have given it. It exists as a curiosity that a fan of the “real” Metropolis may be interested to see, but I wouldn’t recommend it to a first-time viewer.
My rating: Meh.
You may also be interested in the novel the film is based on, which I read and wrote about on my other blog.