In this new segment entitled director versus, we take two acclaimed films from the same director in a fight to establish the better of the two. This time it’s the turn of the German-Austrian director Fritz Lang, and his two most famous works; 1927’s Metropolis and 1931’s M. Dubbed the “Master of Darkness” by the British Film Institute, Lang’s films were often groundbreaking in their depiction of violence, special effects, and radical political ideas (ideas some might even argue are still radical today). Both M and Metropolis have clearly influenced hundreds of filmmakers in their respective genres, and Fritz Lang’s uncompromising stance on cinematic vision over financial success has rightfully earned him a place amongst the most groundbreaking and critically successful directors of the 20th century. But which of his masterpieces is better?
At the time of its release, Metropolis was the most expensive silent film ever made, and it is easy to see why; huge sets, literally thousands of extras, and revolutionary visual effects. But Lang’s 1927 work has far more substance than it is often given credit for. The prominent class warfare themes often make it seem more like Marx and Engels in motion rather than anything from the science fiction world. But this is certainly no bad thing; after all, all good science fiction has audience-relevant ideas at its heart. Even if Metropolis has the qualities of a more fable-like, fairytale story than M’s narrative does, it is not necessarily weaker as a result. Its socio-religious messages are also well realized, but aren’t forced, and fit well within the story.
Of course the visual effects should not be ignored at the expense of this. In fact it can be legitimately argued that they are better executed than the story itself. But within this of course, rests Metropolis’ biggest weakness. When watching the film with its 1927 release in mind the behind-the-scenes technology and illusions used to create the wonderful, groundbreaking effects can quickly become distracting. Indeed they are wonderful, but this means that the story takes more of a backseat and at times almost appears to be a means simply to show the visual effects off, groundbreaking though they may be.
M too, was groundbreaking, albeit not in the same way that Metropolis was.
M too, was groundbreaking, albeit not in the same way that Metropolis was, with its visual flair and complete creation of a world, but it was still hugely unique for its time, and therefore hugely influential. Very much a precursor to the film noir genre, the film has the guts to kill its first child within the first ten minutes of screen time, and though it is not seen on screen (a move by Lang that arguably actually makes this more effective), it’s nonetheless a bold move across a line that most films nowadays would not dare cross, let alone in 1931. M is also daring in the way that it presents its characters – in sharp contrast to Metropolis, in the first and second (and arguably even the third) acts of the film, there is no clear single protagonist. There are of course characters that have more lines and dramatic emphasis than others, but this doesn’t seem to be for the sake of the story. Instead it simply seems to represent the fact that these people would speak more than others – mafia bosses as opposed to low-level criminal employees, police commissioners as opposed to police officers, etc. In this, Lang creates a much more realistic world than he does in Metropolis. Obviously, it is not the point of Metropolis to be realistic, as its realism should (and does) come through microcosmic metaphor, but the point still stands. This is because this realism is precisely what makes the film spectacularly atmospheric – the viewer really feels as if they’re along with the ride of the manhunt – and that’s exactly what a film like M should feel like. It all flows well and because it rarely shows you anything of the killer outside of the murders themselves (and when it does, it doesn’t help you get ahead of the game – a flaw of many others in the crime genre), you feel just as lost as the police and criminals trying to track him down do.
Linking to this is Peter Lorre’s excellent performance as Hans Beckert, and the acting in general. It’s grounded in reality with a gritty realism that helps to maintain the tension. On the other hand, even for a silent film, the acting in Metropolis seems melodramatic and even clunky at times. It doesn’t ruin the entire experience and certainly not the visual spectacle of it, but it serves, unlike the acting in M, to drag you, just a little, out of your immersive experience.
So which is better? It’s a tough one, not least because they’re very different films in both style and substance. On the whole, M is arguably the better film of the two, whilst Metropolis was the more groundbreaking and revolutionary spectacle.
By Oliver Rowe