Release Date: March 13th, 1927 (US)
Genre: Drama; Science fiction
Starring: Gustav Fröhlich, Brigitte Helm, Rudolf Klein-Rogge, Alfred Abel
Lost for 80 years until its miraculous 2008 rediscovery in an Argentinian museum, Fritz Lang’s original version of Metropolis astonishes in both its visionary aesthetic and also its societal relevance almost a century after release. The film’s opening montage depicts brassy, metallic equipment chinking away as steam spurts out without prejudice, and it is clear from the off — the machines have taken over. Workers solemnly shuffle in and out of tunnels for their latest totalitarian inspired shift, shoulders hunched, heads drooped. “Deep below the surface lay the workers’ city,” a cue card informs us.
The ‘Club of the Sons’ lies above, hosting libraries and lecture halls and lush gardens. Inhabitants all wear bright, expensive garments that haven’t been dirtied by the plumes of ash below. They scurry around dazzling water fountains seemingly oblivious to burden, their nonchalance heightened by the fact that those doing all the hard graft underneath probably don’t see much in the way of H2O replenishment. Lang is introducing us to a clear class order, where those on the lower end of the scale are compelled to fund their loftier counterparts’ serene lifestyle.
The first literal clash of class occurs shortly thereafter: worn, muddled children seemingly escape into the land of luxury, leaving the socialites frozen in anger. Or perhaps it is fear. All except Freder (Gustav Fröhlich), offspring of the Master of Metropolis Joh Fredersen (Alfred Abel) — the latter resides in the even grander Tower of Babel, one of many religious references laced throughout. The film primarily follows Freder as he goes in search of Maria (Brigitte Helm), a young Mother Teresa-esque figure from the workers’ city.
He ventures into a world of capitalist mechanisation where everything is procedural and methodological, and where a single deviation from structure entails disaster; we see men fall, likely tragically, after a large machine providing power to the city above malfunctions. It is here that Freder realises these labourers are essentially slaves to the system, and that his father is complicit in promoting their hardships. “What if one day those in the depths rise up against you?” says son despondently to father as the film not-so-subtly anticipates events to come.
From the beginning, it is made apparent that our protagonist considers all humans to be his brothers and sisters. It could come across as forced characterisation, but Gustav Fröhlich subsequently spends two hours justifying his persona’s caring mentality through empathetic expression. Freder’s not the only aristocrat with a conscience; we also have Joh’s trusty-cum-not-so-trusty assistant Josaphat (Theodor Loos), whose job security anxieties capture in a nutshell the power his boss has over the city.
Joh’s other sidekick — you could say he is the devil to Josaphat’s angel — is known only as The Thin Man (Fritz Rasp): a slender-faced and baggy-eyed detective who is tasked with stalking Freder. He is pre-transformation Nosferatu. There is also Rotwang (Rudolf Klein-Rogge), an Einstein-like inventor who dwells in a Gothic house that looks distinctly out of place amongst the grandeur of Metropolis. At one point Rotwang ambles maniacally towards the camera, his outstretched arms poised to grapple. Werner Herzog would employ a similarly eerie shot in his interpretation of Nosferatu the Vampyre years later in 1979.
Towing frazzled hair and a forlorn gaze, the scientist reckons he can bring back his deceased ex-wife (Joh’s eventual partner and Freder’s mother) in machine form. The film plunders this intersection between life, currency and machinery for all it is worth, decrying the amalgamation of prosperity and power as something that’ll almost certainly lead to immorality. Rotwang claims nobody will be able to tell the difference between man and his Machine-Man creation. But the workers, the people, are already powerless machines.
By design silent films have a far-reaching interpretative wingspan and this can confuse viewers, or at the very least distract us from events actively playing out on screen. That is not the case here — you can translate the film as you please, and the more thematic mining you do the more fascinating it is. Thea von Harbou’s screenplay evolves into a game of pseudo-AI deception, where life’s more positive aspects (such as love) are warped and used against our central protagonist.
Even revolts, which are often stimulated by underdog collectives seeking to rise up against injustice, are inverted through artifice in Metropolis — the workers’ revolt is manufactured without their knowledge by Joh, another instance of the overseer using his influence to puppeteer society. Said uprising unveils some Titanic-esque disaster imagery involving, again, water, and you being to wonder if James Cameron was influenced by the class crisis on display here when writing his record-breaking flick.
The piece’s appearance is something to behold, particularly given it is almost a century old. It is plain to see how other filmmakers were visually galvanised: Ridley Scott and Blade Runner’s neo-noir cityscape; Luc Besson and The Fifth Element’s futuristic allure; George Lucas and Star Wars’ hovercraft network. Utilising miniatures, effects master Eugen Schüfftan created an urban locale resembling New York (director Lang was inspired by the concrete jungle during a visit).
But the smaller details stand out as much as the larger ones — glowing science fiction spirals sit atop desks and hang beneath ceilings, their ascending-descending design mirroring Metropolis’ upper and lower class system. A wonderfully shot elevator scene sees Freder sink with hope gleaming from his eyes as the menacing Thin Man rises, the pair just missing each other. Silent movie performances are about body movements and facial expressions, and this sequence captures that imperative notion perhaps more than any other.
Time has afforded Metropolis even greater substance. Terrifyingly so, given its underlying message — that centralised sovereignty shouldn’t prevail — is still a widely problematic phenomenon at large in various parts of the world today. The movie is a bit long and some might find its war on capitalism too one-sided (Netflix is great after all), but this is pioneering filmmaking.