The future's not what it used to be

Fritz Lang's 1926 vision of dystopian things to come has been restored, with an electrifying new orchestral soundtrack.
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The German film director Fritz Lang was evidently doomed to see the future. The silent films he made in Germany in the 1920s are full of criminals and masterminds who plot to take over the world. In 1933, the Minister of Propaganda, Dr Joseph Goebbels, objected that one film, The Last Will of Dr Mabuse, showed how any government could be overthrown by brute force, and he banned it. But he was obviously ambivalent about what Lang could teach the new Reich, and also offered to make him head of the country's film industry. Not liking the future he saw here, Lang reputedly left that night for Paris, and then on to a new career in America.

Before this, there was Metropolis, an epic vision of the future that Lang made in 1926. This was the 2001 of its day, state-of-the-art science fiction that took nearly a year to shoot, employed 30,000 extras, and was the most expensive film ever made in Germany. What it sees, of course, is dystopian. The future is fine if you're one of the ruling classes, living in paradisiacal gardens in the sky. But it's all kept going by armies of slave workers who toil at fearsome machines far below the ground. The film's visual splendours are still impressive, though it's startling to see that this is a steam-driven future and that the skies are full not of whizzing jet craft but bobbing biplanes.

But this is a future that is about to come again. A restored version of Metropolis - which was cut by between a quarter and a third of its running time soon after its Berlin premiere - will have two performances at the Queen Elizabeth Hall at the beginning of July. A new musical accompaniment written by the Argentinian composer Martin Matalon will be performed live by the Finnish chamber group Avanti! It's an international collaboration that may turn out to be more electrifying than the recent European venture into space.

This is not the first time Metropolis has attracted the attentions of a composer, eager to turn its visual symphony of driving, pulsating machinery, its shuffling, scurrying and even dancing masses of humanity, into real music. When the film was made, it had its own musical accompaniment (written by one Gottfried Huppertz, whose name is still in the credits), which apparently was a classical medley of Liszt, Wagner and Tchaikovsky. Then in 1984, Giorgio Moroder, the composer who launched the career of Donna Summer and won Academy Awards for his scores to Midnight Express and Flashdance, gave us Metropolis the rock video.

The musical nature of the film - its bold use of space and design, its soaring sets and slashing, semi-Expressionist graphics - may be stronger and clearer than its story or themes. Matalon has talked of using individual instruments in his score to identify particular characters - a bass guitar for the hero, an electric guitar for the heroine - but of ignoring overall themes or development in favour of an "almost physical" identification with the editing style of the film, with its powerful symbolism and elaborate visuals.

If Metropolis was always something of an abstract space odyssey, it's not surprising if its story never quite hung together. In the city of the future, the technocrat-overlord is challenged by his sensitive son, who discovers the misery and oppression of the workers through their beautiful spiritual leader, Maria. Then there's a mad inventor, once an ally of the father, now his bitter rival, who builds an evil robot version of Maria to goad the workers into smashing the city and destroying themselves. Revolution and anarchy are avoided when the true Maria brings the foreman of the workers and the hero's father together in a handshake: "The heart must mediate between the head and the hands".

It has been said that one reason why Metropolis was cut so badly was that the Communist flavour of many of its intertitles had to be suppressed for the American market. But the reactionary political sentimentality of that message is just as evident in this restored version as it ever was - a sentimentality that has usually been attributed to Lang's regular scriptwriter, his wife Thea von Harbou. What this version emphasises even more than before is the schizophrenia between sentiment and production value - between the mechanical, technological, architectural frenzy of the film, a true "space" movie, and its religio-political sappiness.

It's not a schizophrenia that Lang would take into his own future of tough urban thrillers. When he caught the night train to Paris in 1933, Thea von Harbou elected to stay behind in Germany's new political metropolis.

n 'Metropolis' is showing at the QEH, London SE1, on 4/5 July (0171-960 4206)