When it came out in 1927, Fritz Lang’s Metropolis showed audiences the kind of wholly invented reality, hitherto beyond imagination, that could be realized in motion pictures. Its vision of a society bisected into colossal skyscrapers and underground warrens, an industrial Art Deco dystopia, continues to influence filmmakers today. This despite — or perhaps because of — the simple story it tells, in which Freder, the scion of the city of Metropolis, rebels against his father after following Maria, a good-hearted maiden from the underclass, into the infernal lower depths.
In the role of Maria was a then-unknown 18-year-old actress named Brigitte Helm. “For all the steam and special effects,” writes Robert McG. Thomas Jr. in Helm’s New York Times obituary, “for many who have seen the movie in its various incarnations, including a tinted version and one accompanied by music, the most compelling lingering image is neither the towers above nor the hellish factories below. It is the startling transformation of Ms. Helm from an idealistic young woman into a barely clad creature performing a lascivious dance in a brothel.”
Halfway through the film, Maria gets kidnapped by the villainous inventor Rotwang and cloned as a robot. It is this robot, not the real Maria, who takes the stage in the scene in question, practically nude by the standards of silent-era cinema. Lang used the sequence to push not just the bounds of propriety, but the aesthetic capabilities of his art form: viewers would never have seen anything like the frame-filling field of eyeballs into which the slavering crowd of tuxedoed men dissolve. Here we have a medium demonstrating decisively and powerfully what sets it apart from all others, in just one of the scenes restored only recently to its original form.
When Thomas alluded to the many extant cuts of Metropolis in his 1996 obituary for Helm, the now-definitive version of the picture that made her a star still lay in the future. 2010’s The Complete Metropolis includes material rediscovered just two years before, on a 16-millimeter reduction negative stored at Buenos Aires’ Museo del Cine and long forgotten thereafter. Now, just as Lang intended us to, we can behold his cinematic vision of rulers employing the highest technology to keep even the elite mesmerized by titillating spectacles — a fantastical scenario that has nothing at all to do, of course, with the future as it actually turned out.
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.