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Metropolis
by Becky Tan

Who wants to see Metropolis, that 1927 silent movie by Fritz Lang, yet again? Pieces of it have been floating around the world for years. In 2001 I even went to a special showing of a “restored” copy at Zeise Cinema in Hamburg. Wouldn’t you know it: they found thirty more lost minutes in the Museum de Cinema in Buenos Aires and have “restored” it yet again just in time for the 60th Berlinale where it showed seven times. Two thousand people sat outside in minus five degrees clutching thermoses of hot coffee at Berlin’s Brandenburger Tor to watch it. Inside, Berlin’s Friedrichstadtpalast was packed with an audience who watched it with a live orchestra playing music by Gottfried Huppert, directed by Franz Strobl. Obviously, people are still interested and I was, too, in spite of myself.

In Metropolis a few rich people led by Joh Fredersen rule the world. Everyone else lives deep under ground “where they belong.” Known by numbers, e.g., 11811, they work in the mines to keep the city running according to plan. The city’s logo is “Mediator between hand and brain must be the heart.” Joh’s son, Freder, a naďve idealist, falls in love with Maria, a proletarian girl who takes care of orphans. He enters her world. A mad magician, C.A. Rotwang, makes a robot that looks like Freder’s deceased mother whom both Joh and C.A. loved. This robot comes to life (Brigitte Helm, playing both the robot and Maria, makes the film worthwhile.) In the end this pseudo world, which still looks very modern after 83 years, comes tumbling down and the people rejoice.

Metropolis set many milestones. There were 36,000 extras; 300 little model cars were shoved back and forth to imitate traffic. There were highways in the sky; elevators below the earth; a Tower of Babel which crumbled; a robot which walked the earth, interesting Art Deco gates and architecture and a clock with only ten hours. The old-fashioned jerky movements of the actors in time to the live music were often evocative of ballet: groups of men march to the mines; Freder frolics in the garden wearing ridiculous jodhpurs; the children climb up the stairs in rhythm. This film is evident in today’s cinema, especially the scenery recreated in Blade Runner. You see influences of Metropoplis in Back to the Future and Star Wars, even Avatar, Billy Elliot and The Hunchback of Notre Dame. I love it best because people ride up and down the Pater Noster (old-fashioned elevator) of which there are still only a few in Hamburg.

Maybe they will find the still missing eight minutes in time for the 70th Berlinale in 2020.