“Ninety percent of everything is crud.” – Theodore Sturgeon
It’s time for another installment of “The Ten Percent,” a regular column where every other week we’ll take a look at the inverse of Sturgeon’s Law; in other words, the small portion of everything which is not crud. Remember, for each film or television show that gets people talking years or even decades after its premiere, there are hundreds of others that were deservedly strangled early on. The Ten Percent are the works which stand the test of time and such works are not limited by something as puny as genre classifications. You’ll find quality animation here, along with tear-jerking melodrama, slapstick comedy, heart-stopping horror, fantastical science fiction, flashy musicals, and more besides! The Ten Percent last because they are high quality productions which demand more of their viewer than simple passive reception.
One of the older films to bear the Ten Percent marker is 1927’s Metropolis. While short, one-reel science fiction films, such as Georges Méliès’ charming A Trip to the Moon, had found an audience, Metropolis has the distinction of being the first feature-length science fiction film and yes, it’s a silent film. Director Fritz Lang showed the world life in a sharply dystopian society, with the fortunate and unthinking few living a life of ease and comfort at the expense of a much larger segment of society who work in unrelenting ten-hour shifts to supply those above with this carefree existence. To any science fiction fan worth his ray gun, Metropolis is a must-see film.
Made in Germany during the Weimar period, Metropolis is a stunning example of German Expressionism, which can be characterized by a rejection of strict realism in favor of exaggerated heights and angles in an almost cartoon-like style. To give just one example from the set design of Metropolis, look at the gargantuan machine which must be constantly tended in order to furnish the necessary power to the glittering skyscraper-filled city above. German Expressionism in film also involved heightened contrast in lighting and exaggerated camera angles to emphasize outsized emotion on the faces of the actors, many of whom had been trained on the stage to use oversized gestures and expressions to reach the back seats of the theater. In close-ups on film, the effect can be grotesque, yet oddly effective. Lang spared no expense in bringing this vision to life. Costing approximately five million Reichsmarks when originally made, Metropolis was the most expensive movie ever produced at that time.
Metropolis follows Freder, the son of Metropolis’ ruler, as he discovers life down below through his accidental meeting of Maria, a worker who yearns to bridge the gulf between the two halves of this society. She is an angel of hope and compassion, preaching a gospel of harmony to a congregation of worn-out workers who are simply fuel for the machines – blood as well as oil greases the gigantic cogs that run Metropolis. In addition, Lang gives us the incredible Tower of Babel, a still-saucy red-light district, and Rotwang, an inventor driven mad by unrequited love, who is determined to destroy all his rival has built – which in this case is the entire city.
Oh, and a robot.
Not just a robot – the robot. Seriously – you’ve seen this robot over and over again because all of them – Doctor Who’s Cybermen, Star Wars’ C-3PO, Futurama’s opening credits, even Blade Runner’s Replicants – owe their very existence to Metropolis. In addition, the video for Madonna’s 1989 song “Express Yourself” lifts scenes, plots, and even its epigram straight from Metropolis. (Incidentally, when “Express Yourself” was made, it was the most expensive video to be made at that time – another way the video echoes Lang’s work.)
Praised for its technical achievements and incisive social message, Metropolis was an international hit and Lang was the toast of Germany. Several years after the international success of Metropolis, however, a new government rose to power in Germany. Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels, who saw the far-reaching value of films with a social message, wanted Lang to serve as head of the German Cinema Institute. Lang quietly sent his money out of the country and fled to Paris. Leni Riefenstahl would take the job instead.
Despite the praise Metropolis received, the film was deemed far too long, especially for American audiences, and the film was hacked to about half its original running time for global distribution. The shortened version was quite successful, but over the years, finding an original print of Metropolis became a sort of cinematic Holy Grail for film scholars. Despite the lack of a complete print, in 2001 Metropolis became the first film to be included on UNESCO’s Memory of the World Register, an international list of the “greatest hits” of mankind’s shared heritage. Then in 2008, a damaged print of Lang’s original cut was found in Argentina and, following years of restoration, it is now possible to see about 95% of Lang’s original version, thus sparing viewers from the 1984 version with the Loverboy and Adam Ant soundtrack.
You can find more information about the restored version here. Without a doubt, Metropolis deserves its place in the Ten Percent.
Ensley F. Guffey and K. Dale Koontz are co-authors of Wanna Cook? The Complete, Unofficial Companion to Breaking Bad, and of the forthcoming Dreams Given Form: The Unofficial Companion to the Babylon 5 Universe (fall 2016). You can find Dale online at her blog unfetteredbrilliance.blogspot.com and on Twitter as @KDaleKoontz. Ensley hangs out at solomonmaos.com and on Twitter as @EnsleyFGuffey.