Metropolis: still modern 96 years later

Even before cinema gained sound, in Germany in 1927 the first film was released still credited as the first mention of Artificial Intelligence in the world. That’s right, the brilliant and impeccable work directed by Fritz Lang, Metropolis. The film is the adaptation of a book written by his wife, Thea Gabriele von Harbou, and until today it yields studies and references in several fields besides Art.

The plot describes a dark future where an inventor obsessed with a young woman builds the android HEL to deceive oppressed workers and seize power in Metropolis. Deep in his analysis of the complexity of industrialization, the various psychological layers that build (and destroy) human souls and yes, the danger of the misuse of technology were conveyed visually with frightening brilliance by the director, with futuristic images that proved real with the advancing years, where tall buildings, big machines, advanced transportation, and human-like robots were a reality. Unsurprisingly Metropolis is still the biggest reference for any science fiction work, be it Blade Runner, Tron, Raised by Wolves, or The Matrix.

Metropolis, for better or for worse, also planted the tone of distrust and negativity with which technology is portrayed, which is a natural reaction to the possibilities and changes that all economic and technological advances bring. However, the figure of the scientist obsessed with Power and the lack of “control” over the machine became a dangerous tale. For example, it’s HEL, the humanoid who promotes social revolution by inciting chaos. In a world witnessing the Soviet bloc after the bloody Russian Revolution of 1917, there was certainly no subtlety in the message.

Cinema only returned to deal with the subject of Artificial Intelligence 24 years later, in the United States, with a little more positivity in the 1951 film, The Day The Earth Stood Still, born from the short story Farewell to the Master, by Harry Bates and which brought the robot Gort as a protector of the heroes. Unfortunately, in 1968, the genius Stanley Kubrick returned to highlight human distrust when he put questionable and manipulative decisions in the HAL 9000 system, in 2001: A Space Odyssey. Incidentally, it is ironic to remember HAL’s strong influence on Mother’s character in the ultra-original series, Raised by Wolves. HAL was the first system more humane than any robot seen, even Jarvis from The Avengers (later the hero Vision), was disembodied but omnipresent, logical, and in control. For Kubrick the “God in the machine” whose humanity makes him fear his own death. For many, it was Hal who changed the AI ​​game forever. The technological villain was born and in the following decades, they always put us at risk.

But back to the source of it all, Metropolis.

Thea, who was born into a family of the base of the German nobility, with officials in the government, grew up comfortably and soon revealed herself to be a child prodigy, already having articles about Art being published when she was only 13 years old. Her quest for independence (which wasn’t necessarily material as she was wealthy) led her to be an actress, much to her family’s disappointment. At the age of 29, already married, she settled in Berlin and Thea started to write books, almost all about epic myths and legends, but, in general, patriotic ones. Cinema only came into her life when one of her works became a film, Die heilige Simplizia, and Thea also became a screenwriter, quickly recognized as one of the best in Germany.

In a short time, the writer and Fritz Lang established a partnership, born out of a common interest in India and the director’s adaptation of one of her books on the subject. A love affair quickly developed between the two, with Thea divorcing to legally join Lang in 1922.

The vision for Metropolis‘ class conflict was born out of the post-war era, where the rising poverty of the 1920s was witnessed by Thea, who used to personally cook for the entire film crew during her husband’s jobs. When they decided to adapt the book, she became more involved than usual in the production, going beyond the scripts and even selecting actor Gustav Fröhlich for one of the main roles. Brigitte Helm (who resembles Thea), was chosen by Lang after auditions to be the heroine, Maria. Her image was immortalized as the most famous AI in cinema.

HEL is Artificial Intelligence in the form of a human machine, in the book also known as Maschinenmensch. In Thea’s conception, it is a “delicate and faceless being, of transparent material made of crystals instead of flesh and silver instead of bones”. With eyes that suggested a “tame madness”, she was created by the scientist Rotwag, who baptized her as “Parody”, in reference to being an imitation of the human condition. Another name he suggests for his creation is “Futura”, with a third possibility of calling her “Disillusionment” for being only partially a woman.

Are you breathless with the description of Thea to the AI ​​as far back as 1927? Let’s carry on. Rotwag points out that “Futura” is 100% obedient to him, but that she is also perfect for “leading men to their destiny”. The macho vision of the femme fatale led men astray, and that was still common in 1927. The big turn of “Futura” comes with Rotwang’s secret obsession with an innocent working woman, Maria, who is also the crush of the wealthy Fredersen. Jealous and wanting to overthrow the system, the scientist kidnaps Maria and gives her face and form to the machine, which is secretly programmed to disobey Fredersen and destroy him.

In the movie it is different. The creation already has the metallic shape of a woman (using actress Brigitte Helm as a model) and Rotwang calls her Hel and his lover, saying that she is not dead, but alive in the form of an automaton. With an outfit that resembles armor, she transforms into the image of the human Maria when the scientist kidnaps her. We know who HEL is and who Maria is due to the difference in makeup, with the villain being stronger and Maria being more natural. The suggestion that Metropolis eternalized (and that years later Ridley Scott explored in Blade Runner) is that the “lack of soul” in the machine makes it inherently evil, a reading reinforced with the editing of the original feature that cut the scene where Rotwang programs HEL to be destructive, leaving doubt the scientist’s real control over it.

The editions of the original Metropolis are part of the myth of the work. The original film (now lost) was extremely long, especially for a silent film that didn’t usually arrive, much less exceed 1 hour. There were almost three! The American version took almost 2 hours and “softened” the sexual connotations, as well as the brief nudist scenes. What was cut a lot was the part where HEL appeared, which was reduced to a minimum only because the name resembled hell in English and was seen as disrespectful. The edition took away the dimension of the character and erroneously fed her autonomy and motivations.

Outside Germany there were also significant cuts, not just to reduce time but to remove parts deemed “inappropriate” and that “encouraged” communism or were not respectful of religious imagery. In other words, Fritz Lang‘s revolt was of no use, the restoration closest to the original only reached the cinemas in 1984, in a colorized and musical version by Giorgio Moroder.

As reader Antonio Salles well remembered, 80 years later, the original film – almost complete – returned to the screens, with a special session at the Berlin Film Festival, in 2010. The restoration of this version, now considered definitive, was only possible because, in 2008, a 16 mm negative was discovered in Buenos Aires and it had thirty minutes of scenes cut from the previous most recent version, from 2001. Therefore experts celebrate that finally Metropolis is effectively restored. The 2010 Berlinale special session was screened with the original score by Gottfried Huppertz.

Metropolis is now in the public domain and it is a must for movie fans to see and review what is available. We don’t even get into issues of scenarios or politics, because, as we said, the genius of the work is to be contemporary, almost 100 years later.


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