Metropolis

Thomas Elsaesser,  Metropolis (London: BFI Classic, 2000) 87 pp.

book coverMetropolis (1925) is a monumental work. When it was made it was Germany's most expensive feature film, a canvas for director Fritz Lang's increasingly extravagant ambitions (it took sixteen months to film). Lang, inspired by the skyline of New York, created a whole new vision of cities. One of the greatest works of science fiction, the film also tells human stories about love and family.

In this book, Thomas Elsaesser explores the cultural phenomenon of Metropolis: its different versions (there is no definitive one), its changing meanings, its role as a storehouse or database of the 20th century.

 

 

 

Reviews

[…] One measure of Thomas Elsaesser's achievement in this book is that, despite its slim nature (87 pages including notes, bibliography, and appendix), he manages to survey and provide interesting discussion on most of these concerns.

More than just a formulaic introduction to the film and its place in cultural history, Elsaesser's book is elegantly written and draws together from various archival sources and recent accounts two important histories that bear on practically every discussion of Metropolis. The first is the history of the film's origins - a history that speaks significantly to issues of authorship, collaboration, and reputation. In the pattern of such other recent film scholarship as Klaus Kreimeier's The UFA Story: The H istory of Germany’s Greatest Film Company, 1918-1945 (U of California P, 1999) and Patrick McGilligan's Fritz Lang: The Nature of the Beast (St. Martin's, 1997), Elsaesser cautions against accepting traditional accounts of the genesis of Metropolis, particularly Fritz Lang's version that rather romantically attributes the film to his first glimpse of the New York skyline from onboard the SS Deutschland in October 1924, and that further implies the film is another instance of Lang's auteurist inspiration. In fact, as Elsaesser's sources show, Lang and his wife, noted science fiction writer Thea von Harbou, had by that time been working on the film script (as well as her simultaneous novelization) for nearly a year, and Lang's producer Erich Pommer had publicly announced plans for the film in January 1924. The second of those histories is of the various versions of the film-versions different enough that, even after several recent efforts at restoration, we still lack a truly authoritative text. Metropolis, as it debuted in January 1927, ran for approximately three hours. Like other classics of silent cinema, most notably Griffith's Intolerance (1916) and Von Stroheim's Greed (1925), it was subsequently subjected to repeated cuts that transformed the film, as Elsaesser suggestively offers, into "a ruin-in-progress." With remarkable clarity and economy, Elsaesser traces out the intricacies of those re-editings and retitlings that produced rather different American, British and Commonwealth, and general European release versions, and that subsequently resulted in the most common prints today having a running time of under 90 minutes. This sort of compact history, of both Metropolis's beginnings and its ends, alone makes Elsaesser's book a valuable addition to any film library and a compulsory introduction for film students.

The volume also nicely represents the early critical reception and commentary on Metropolis. One of the book's pleasant surprises is its ability, through a relatively brief sampling, to afford a satisfying flavor of the original reactions to the film: citing German Communists' scathing responses to Metropolis, summarizing the technologists' reaction to what would become one of the key "Machine Age" texts, and situating it squarely in the context of the Weimar era's industrial politics. Because it was such a powerful film, it clearly provoked varied responses – responses that, because of the tensions t hat marked the Weimar Republic, w ere quite often strident. Placing Metropolis in a later context, Elsaesser effectively represents the complex efforts of the Nazis to disown the film (even though it was avowedly one of Hitler's favorites) by situating it as a misguided effort by UFA "to imitate the soulless civilization of America." He also allows us to see that effort in an ironic light cast by what is surely the most famous commentary on the work, Siegfried Kracauer's landmark history of early German cinema, From Caligari to Hitler: A Psychological History of the German Film (Princeton UP, 1947). That book would trace in Metropolis the rising spirit of National Socialism and eventually damn it as "proto-Nazi." Certainly, this sort of quick overview of responses is critical and cultural history in a nutshell, but it is also most effectively done and a nice model for what such volumes can accomplish.

By comparing his viewings of different versions of the film with the recently unearthed original intertitles and a pre-shooting script that belonged to Lang's composer Gottfried Huppertz, Elsaesser has put together an account of Metropolis that should become a useful resource for all students of the film. In offering his "Telling and Retelling of Metropolis" as an appendix to this volume, the author has created a companion piece that helps us better recognize the connections between various characters and plot developments, imagine the full development of particular themes( especially the sexual impact of the robotic Maria), and gauge how this film fits into other pointedly Langian concerns, such as the surveillance and manipulation that are central to such works as M (1931) and The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (1932). While this appendix alone is highly useful, its inclusion in a work that offers a concise and informative picture of the industrial and critical context of Metropolis marks the volume as a valuable addition to the critical literature on Lang and his most famous film. -Jay Telotte, Georgia Institute of Technology (From Science Fiction Studies (no 85, vol 28, part 3, Nov 2001).

 

In his brief introduction to the British Film Institute's BFI Classics series, editor Rob White states that the series' primary purpose is "to introduce, interpret, and honor" key works in the history of cinema. Writing on Metropolis, Thomas Elsaesser succeeds admirably in achieving these aims, offering a concise yet thoroughly detailed analysis of the film's origins, reception, and subsequent cinematic influence. Elsaesser begins by considering Metropolis' origins, taking special care to debunk a number of long-cherished canards. He addresses, for instance, Lang's oft-quoted assertion that the source of his sci-fi vision lay in a nighttime experience of the New York skyline. (In actuality, Elsaesser points out, Lang and his wife had been working on the Metropolis-idea for nearly a year by the time the director first arrived in New York in 1924.) Having investigated this and other "origin myths," the author then proceeds to discuss concrete particulars of the movie's production, presenting a wealth of information on Lang's "subtly knowing" iconography, the composition of his film crew, and the various special effects techniques developed specifically for his futuristic fable. Particularly interesting in this context is Elsaesser's discussion of differences between German and U.S. film-making practices of the time. For example, Germany's UFA studios did not employ a special effects department as such; instead, they operated more in the spirit of the medieval master builders and hired experts on a project-by-project basis. Often directors brought not only their own assistants, but their own trade secrets to a film.

After commenting on these and related issues, Elsaesser traces the long and troubled history of the film's reception. Here he reflects at some length on the role played by prescreening publicity (for Elsaesser, Metropolis was the prototype of the "designer blockbuster"), audiences' and critics' aesthetic expectations, and the film's numerous re-releases and "corrections" for mass consumption. In an important sense, he argues, there is no "original" version of the film, and a growing acceptance of this fact has led to Metropolis' rebirth as a kind of postmodern "found object" (as well as a more positive reevaluation of Thea von Harbou's scriptwriting techniques). Indeed, Elsaesser shows that since Giorgio Moroder's pop-music Metropolis-pastiche of 1984, the one-time popular/ critical flop has actually achieved "cult classic" status. In much the same way, Metropolis has managed to weather the numerous, often diametrically opposed critiques to which it has given rise. Elsaesser concludes by considering these critiques, pausing to focus especially on now classic readings, as those by Kracauer, Sadoul, Williams, Tulloch, and Huyssen, among others. In so doing, he underscores his evaluation of Lang's film as a "classic," a work which "provokes ever new interpretation."

However, a "classic" work of criticism must do more than merely enumerate the interpretations to which a text has given rise; it must also offer a compelling reading of its own. On this score, it seems to me, Elsaesser's text falls somewhat short. Notwithstanding its anticlimactic conclusion, Elsaesser's book nevertheless is a thoroughly readable treatise on Lang's problematic masterpiece. As such, it should prove useful to neophyte and expert alike. (Kelly Meyer, German Studies Review 25/2 (2002). 381-2


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