Arts & Events

Machine Anxiety: Metropolis and Modern Times on DVD

Wednesday December 08, 2010 - 10:54:00 AM

The mechanical age and the anxiety of industrial soceity gets a close examination with two new DVD releases from Kino and Criterion. The latest incarnation of Fritz Lang's Metropolis may very well be the last, as the film is now essentially about 95 percent complete. Kino's previous release was still missing about 45 minutes of footage, nearly a quarter of the original film. But after a near-complete print was finally unearthed in a Buenos Aries film archive, the 1927 silent-era masterpiece can be fully appreciated; the plot finally makes sense.  

One of the most influential of all science fiction films, Metropolis is a dystopian nightmare in which the age of machines enables a repressive societal structure in which workers are forced underground to work as slaves, running the machinery that enables the ruling class to thrive above ground. The film is full of typical Langian imagery—stark, symmetric compositions, grand in size and scope—including the iconic moment when the protagonist is bound to a machine that resembles a large clock, trying to keep up with the never-ending task of matching the movement of the machine’s arms to a series of flashing lights. The purpose of the machine is never explained but used merely as an Expressionistic and symbolic device: Mankind enslaved to both time and its own machines.  

Later in the film the mad scientist Rotwang sends his robot down into the workers’ netherworld, disguised as their saintly leader Maria, with the intent of using the machine-woman to spark a revolt. Again, man’s demise is threatened by the specter of his own machines run amok. Pairing Metropolis with  

Chaplin’s Modern Times makes for an interesting double feature. Neither film represents the best work of its creator, but both feature iconic moments that have stood the test of time. One of the most memorable images of Chaplin’s career comes when his beleaguered assembly line worker, in a mad frenzy of widget-tightening glee, hurls himself onto a conveyor belt and gets caught in the machine’s giant gears, only to single-mindedly begin tightening their bolts.  

Modern Times is perhaps Chaplin's most famous work, its curious blend of silence and sound rendering it perhaps a bit more accessible to the modern viewer who may tend to regard true silent films as old-fashioned. Unfortunately, it is not Chaplin's finest hour, for by this time the great comedian had become rather self-conscious, focused too much on expressing his political and social perspectives and shaping his comedy around them, rather than allowing his commentary to stem from this comedy. But Criterion's new edition allows even dissenters to develop a fuller appreciation for the film with bonus-laden two-disc set that includes deleted scenes; a commentary track by Chaplin biographer David Robinson; visual essays by silent-film historians John Bengston and Jeffrey Vance; an interview with David Raksin, who collaborated with Chaplin on the score; and home movies featuring Chaplin, Paulette Goddard and Alistair Cooke.  


Metropolis (1927). 148 minutes. $29.95.  

Modern Times (1936). 87 minutes. $39.95.