BFI Classics: Metropolis

Author: Thomas Elsaesser

Thomas Elsaesser’s cerebral approach to Lang’s mega-movie Metropolis is not for the faint-hearted. Sample quote: “For the structuralists, Lang/von Harbou’s mythopoetic scheme fits into a broader ideological model of popular story-telling as the imaginary resolution to real contradictions, and the see the film respond to Weimar’s political deadlocks, while addressing anxieties over masculinity and authority.”

Elsaesser is a professor of film and television studies, the discipline often used as evidence of the dumbing down of academia. Bah! This is a suitably knotty and serious discourse about a knotty and serious film. Metropolis is not a slapstick comedy, after all. The films (Elsaesser makes the point that there is no one definitive version) are more than strong enough to withstand the pointy-headed battering it is subjected to here.

The reader is assumed to be familiar with the film, and have at least a passing knowledge of early twentieth century European culture and politics. This is the right tack: even now, Metropolis is one of those films that will either thrill you or bore you rigid. If you’re in the latter camp you’re unlikely to want a companion book anyway.

For those in the former camp, this is an impressive if necessarily brief examination of the film in context – in the acknowledgements, Elsaesser wryly thanks his editor for keeping an eye on the word count – and to his lasting credit Elsaesser’s not above dishing a bit of good old Hollywood-style dirt on the breakdown of Lang and Thea von Harbou’s marriage and working relationship. (Fun fact: von Harbou wrote Metropolis by dictating it to her secretary. This left her hands free to knit, which in turn helped her concentrate.)

Those frustrated by the perception of Metropolis as a product of Lang’s singular vision will appreciate the attempt to explain and defend von Harbou’s script, and there’s plenty of background information and behind the scenes photos and film stills to keep the boffins happy. Highly recommended.

Clare Moody

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