Metropolis — Reviewed
What a futuristic masterpiece tells us about our past and the future.
Screenplay by Thea von Harbou and Fritz Lang, from von Harbou’s novel of the same name, directed by Fritz Lang, starring Gustav Frohlich and Brigitte Helms, filmed 1925, released 1927, original length 153 minutes, restored and rereleased 2010. Ranked 35th by the British Film Institute and 12th by Empire Magazine among the world’s greatest films. Remastered 148 minute 2010 version available on Netflix.
The Lumiere brothers produced the world’s first moving picture, as we know them, a 46 second shot of workers leaving their factory, one shot of people walking, in 1894. In 1894 it was the state of the art.
Something we must keep in mind when watching Metropolis, the world’s first major science fiction film, coining the genre and introducing techniques never before seen in moving pictures. If the effects are less spectacular now, they were huge accomplishments then, costing $1.3 million to produce, making Metropolis, in its time, the third most expensive film ever produced.
Another thing to remember while watching it, though Metropolis is futuristic, it was, like almost all futuristic stories, a reaction to and preoccupied with the world of its time. What preoccupied people in 1925? The latest invention, the assembly line, and the disaffection it created in the people who worked on it.
Metropolis was a reaction to industrialization and the resulting concentration of wealth.
Lang said the concept for Metropolis came to him while on ship, gazing at the Manhattan skyline, and his design reflect that, with art deco skyscrapers and elevated roadways. The film predates the Chrysler and Empire State Buildings but the die was already cast, at the time Lang visited, New York’s first art deco skyscraper, the Barclay-Vesey Building was under construction.
His wife, Thea von Harbou ran with his vision and wrote the novel on which the film would be based, set in a dystopian 2026, in which the lifestyles of the rich contrast with those of the poor, who spend their lives underground —
— curiously, living in subterranean high rises and working in plants looking very much like late nineteenth century factories, complete with boilers, steam whistles and analogue gauges.
Our hero is the adult child of a powerful industrialist, who spends mornings engaged in childish athletics and afternoons chasing more adult delights.
Yes, that’s him, Gustav Frohlich, complete with white tie and silk riding breeches, at the exact moment when his world would change, when he met the now to be expected, girl from the other side of the tracks or, in this case the girl from underground—
— yes, that’s her, Brigitte Helms. What’s she doing above ground? Showing the hopeless tunnel urchins how the other half live, just before they’re hustled out and sent back to the tunnels.
Our hero is, of course, immediately smitten. He has to be, not because Lang’s making a statement about opposites attracting or sex making the world go round, because if our hero’s not smitten, he’s never going to see what life underground is like, and we’re never going to move the story forward.
Upon finding his way underground, our hero witnesses an industrial accident, resulting in injuries and deaths. He swoons and, in his swoon, relives the scene as though the machines are vengeful gods, devouring the workers.
Wrought with guilt, our hero prevents a second accident and swaps clothes and lives with the worker he saves, so he can see what life is like for the common folk.
And, of course, it’s not good. Common folk spend ten hour days laboriously manipulating the controls of unseen machines, controls which, if left unattended for even a minute lead to catastrophe.
Yes, Lang and von Harbou got industrialization and worker alienation but, they missed automation. Remember, they were writing this a decade before Alan Turing came up with the concept of a thinking machine and two decades before anyone managed to build the first analogue computer. The city is rife with machines, control of which requires exhausting physical labor.
Our hero finds cryptic documents in his borrowed clothes and, after surviving a shift underground, resurfaces to show his father what he’s found.
His father reminds us of a competent and much more successful Donald Trump, complete with half acre private office. When speaking to his father, our hero even calls Metropolis “your city”, as though the man isn’t just successful, he’s responsible for building the city, for what the city has become. We can only hope Trump never gains quite that much influence.
Lang portrays the older man as at best, removed from reality and at worst, heartless. He uses every cinematic means to align our sympathies with the have-nots. Suspecting a workers’ uprising, the older man goes to the city’s one handed mad scientist for help.
Here, the plot thickens. Rotwang, the mad scientist, is actually mad at the industrialist, who long ago stole his true love. Rotwang’s spent years building a machine human meant to replace her but, can’t resist this opportunity to get even with his former adversary.
Rotwang takes him underground and shows him the one who’s stirring up his workers. She’s Maria, the woman with whom Freder, his son is smitten. Rotwang proposes to transfer Maria’s image to the machine, then use the machine to control the workers.
In a sequence that convinces us early twentieth century humans spent far too much time swooning, Rotwang captures Maria and prepares both her and the maschinen for the transfer, cables and electrodes and static electricity, which were so cinematically successful they have become SOP for all mad scientists.
And we know it worked because when we next see her, it, them, they look alike except for a telltale lazy eye. Something must not have ticked—
— which, if you watch the movie, will become one of your favorites. Brigitte Helm, as Maria is almost as boring as Gustav Frohlich, as Freder but, as the maschinen vixen, she doesn’t just come to life but, what a life! She is the seductive, evil bell of every ball and proves to be one of Lang’s most accurate predictions, attractive, scantily clad women/maschinen with no apparent ability to dance —
— can and will reduce every male in the room to ogreish, caveman behavior. Apparently some things have never and likely will never change.
Of course, Rotwang’s plan can’t work, otherwise we couldn’t have a happy ending, and after all, early twentieth century films had to have happy endings. In a counterintuitive move, the industrialist and Rotwang tell the maschinen to have the workers destroy the machines, which they do, setting off an orgy of handholding and dancing, with unexpected consequences —
— which Maria and Feder, who can recognize her as the real Maria, the one without the lazy eye, manage to overcome and save not just the day but hundreds of children inexplicably forgotten underground.
The mob, of course, can’t tell them apart. Fortunately, they catch the evil Maria instead of the saintly one. Although, to be completely honest, I was rooting for the maschinen, one hot monster. Monster out of the way, all that’s left is to do away with the villain, Rotwang, accomplished, after a lengthy physical duel at a great height, by the usual means, a slip and fall, allowing our hero to remain chaste; though the villain is dead, our hero didn’t kill him.
Years later, in a long interview, Lang discussed the film and its message. Was the maschinen, the most erotic image appearing in any film up to that time, a comment on the nature of women? Was Maria’s transformation into the Maschinen a comment on men’s sexualization of women, or was the Maschinen’s sexuality a comment on the nature of life, of the drive for life?
Were Rotwang’s fixation with his long lost love, and his symbolic deification of her comments on man’s relationship with a God who, in the industrial age, seemed to have either died or lost interest in him?
What were we to make of the obvious religious symbolism, old and new, what of the seven deadly sins and the grim reaper? What did it all mean?
What could we possibly make of the destruction of the underworld, the paralysis of the overworld, and that final scene, management joining hands with labor?
Nothing, said Lang, it was just a story.
And what are we to make of Lang’s complete miss on automation and the changing nature of work? How could he imagine a functioning android but not imagine robotic controls?
Did he and von Harbou just straight line the trends of their time and project ahead a hundred years? Is that something we all do?
Will our current predictions turn out as wrong as were Lang’s?
Our climate models all incorporate increasing discharges of CO2 caused by increasing populations and increasing inefficient industrialization, straight lines of past trends, when experience shows nature abhors straight lines.
Birth rates are everywhere on the decline. The earth’s population will likely peak sometime this century and go into rapid decline, e.g. Japan. It’s likely science and technology will improve industrial processes and products at an increasing, Kurzweilian rate, reducing resource consumption and pollution, as they have over the past century.
It’s likely we’ll be completely wrong, even laughably so but, it’s possible, even using our current primitive film technologies, we will still be able to tell stories that will amuse and enthrall audiences yet to be born.
Be prepared, if you watch Metropolis, for lots of emoting to music (it is a silent film, after all) and with plenty of popcorn because, even minus several lost scenes, the 2010 rerelease of Metropolis runs 148 fun and fascinating minutes you won’t want to miss.