The year of Metropolis
All summer (depending on what city you live in), a restored extended edit of Fritz Lang’s 1927 science-fiction avant-spectacle Metropolis has been playing in American theaters, augmented by a nearly full-length print discovered at Buenos Aires’s Museo del Cine in 2008:
Adolfo Z. Wilson, a man from Buenos Aires and head of the Terra film distribution company, arranged for a copy of the long version of “Metropolis” to be sent to Argentina in 1928 to show it in cinemas there. Shortly afterwards a film critic called Manuel Pena Rodriguez came into possession of the reels and added them to his private collection. In the 1960s Pena Rodriguez sold the film reels to Argentina’s National Art Fund - clearly nobody had yet realised the value of the reels. A copy of these reels passed into the collection of the Museo del Cine (Cinema Museum) in Buenos Aires in 1992, the curatorship of which was taken over by Paula Felix-Didier in January this year. Her ex-husband, director of the film department of the Museum of Latin American Art, first entertained the decisive suspicion: He had heard from the manager of a cinema club, who years before had been surprised by how long a screening of this film had taken. Together, Paula Felix-Didier and her ex-husband took a look at the film in her archive - and discovered the missing scenes.
I wrote a chapter of my dissertation about Lang, so I was pretty familiar with how the film had been hacked and mangled. Early cinema was a lot like the early years of print books. No two extant copies of Shakespeare’s First Folio are exactly the same, because the printer made small changes and corrected errors before finishing each one. Likewise, filmmakers and producers made edits on the fly, and different countries, and sometimes different theater owners, would recut prints to suit their taste. Without an original master print, most early movies have been restored, screened, and transferred to disc in versions cobbled together from various sources, in most cases still quite different from what was initially shown to the public. Metropolis was really only different in that we knew most of the content of the scenes that had been cut.
If you haven’t seen Metropolis this summer, you may have seen Inception, another science-fiction movie featuring corporate intrigue, a sentimental subplot, and a setting consisting of multiple levels of a highly allegorical dreamlike city. Annalee Newitz goes deeper, finding subtle affinities with the dream-city of Inception and another Metropolis, the utopian city imagined by King Camp Gillette, who woud go on to invent the safety razor.
Gillette wanted to solve the problem of social inequality with his perfect city, which he named Metropolis. The city, which he outlines in his book The Human Drift, would be built on top of Niagara Falls. Gillette wanted to Nikola Tesla design a water-powered electrical grid, which would be amply supplied with energy from the falls.
The sidewalks of the city would be transparent so that workers laboring beneath the buildings, dealing with plumbing and other infrastructure, would have light. But Gillette also wanted the city’s residents to see the people at work below their feet. The idea was to prevent people from forgetting about all the essential work that goes into making a city run.
Freud compared the unconscious to a city:
Now let us, by a flight of imagination, suppose that Rome is not a human habitation but a psychical entity with a similarly long past—an entity, that is to say, in which nothing that has once come into existence will have passed away and all the earlier phases of development continue to exist alongside the latest one.
And in The Human Drift, King Gillette talks about a city’s economy like the unconscious, too, and panics and depressions like a neurosis:
Never in the history of the world has business been organized as a whole in any country. It has always been a tangled skein beyond the power of man to unravel. It has been impossible to regulate supply and demand within reasonable limit, simply because every man is for himself, and he never knows what the rest of the world is doing. As a result, we have a constant fluctuation in prices of articles of consumption. At one time the whole country is overstocked with certain lines of goods, and there is a depression of prices. Then the manufacturers shut down or restrict the output, and the next thing we hear is that the whole country is short of these goods. It is here that the institution of speculation, or gambling in necessities, has its birth; and this lack of knowledge and power to regulate supply and demand, is, in part, the cause of our periods of depression and failure.
The solution, in both cases, is to become aware of those subterranean, unknown forces, and bring them into consciousness.
Finally, and less depressingly, there’s Janelle Monae, whose terrific album The ArchAndroid, is part of a suite titled Metropolis, which also creates a kind of imagined not-quite-retro-future that tries to touch on the uneasiness in culture.
Also, you may think Lang’s and Gillette’s Metropolis had some funky horns, but clearly not a horn section as funky as this.