Created in 1927, Metropolis (dir. Fritz Lang) is a classic urban dystopian tale — we follow the story of Freder (Gustav Fröhlich), the son of the wealthy Joh Frederson (Alfred Abel), whose power and influence essentially keep the city running, and Maria (Brigitte Helm), a young woman who is a saint to the poor underground workers who keep the city’s essential machinery running through long, tiring shifts. With the class struggle as a core driving force of the plot, Metropolis was initially criticized for communist themes — and shortly after the premiere, the film was heavily edited and shortened. On Saturday night, Cornell Cinema played the most recent restoration of the film, done in 2010, which, amazingly, has restored 95% of the original film.
Despite the length of this restoration (over two hours), the film is well worth it — filled with the Art deco themes that are so indicative of the twenties, Metropolis feels strangely modern; it’s visually pleasing, even in black-and-white. Maybe it’s because it is a silent film. Silent films necessarily have this certain quality of expression to them — because of the lack of sound, the expressions and movements have to be more distinct, more animated. Metropolis is a perfect example, with frantic movements and dizzying edits that express the increasing craze and tension of the scenes — or the serene backgrounds and hopeful expressions that show peace and resolution in other scenes.
But the score performed by the Alloy Orchestra made the film really salient. A musical ensemble from Cambridge, Massachusetts, The Alloy Orchestra is well-known for its accompaniments to classic silent films; they graced Cornell with three of their current members: two percussionists, Terry Donahue and Ken Winokur, and a keyboardist Roger Miller. This year marked the group’s 25th anniversary and over fifteen years of working with Cornell Cinema. The accompaniment to Metropolis was scrupulous — hitting beats for emphasis and drama; adding dimension to the film with sound effects like the creaking of the gates and the hissing of industries; creating a sense of urgency when the workers of Metropolis became incited to revolt. The fact that the music was live at Cornell Cinema made it even better; the deep tones sunk into the audience and the percussion gave chills — it would probably be fair to say that without the accompaniment, the movie would not nearly have been as engaging as it was.
But overall, Metropolis remains a great watch because it’s such a classic sci-fi film — it’s easy to see why the film remains so iconic and famous in cinema. In a way, the movie might feel trite or cliché because of its predictable plot and the fact the dystopian storyline has been done to death by now. The plot and characters aren’t particularly sophisticated — they’re simple in their motivations, and they become archetypes more than people. Sprinkled with the usual dosage of biblical references, the idea of the evil temptations of a witch-like woman (versus a pure, saint-like woman) and the depiction of the abused masses, Metropolis is true to the era it was made in. Yet at the same time, it can feel strangely modern by relying on these classic archetypes and motifs seen and used today and through the futuristic spin of Art-deco themes.
The film is one of those classics that one should find time to watch — with clear motifs that don’t need words to be understandable, Metropolis is a weird, wacky ride. And with the Alloy Orchestra accompanying it, Metropolis becomes even wackier as well as infinitely more engaging and gripping. Next time Alloy Orchestra is in town, I’ll be sure to be there.
Catherine Hwang is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at [email protected]