Directed by Fritz Lang
Germany, 1927, Silent, 148 min
“No! I must always stay at the Machine!” – Georgey 11811 to Freder Fredersen
Metropolis is one of the most important films ever made, but in many ways it is an outlier. Fritz Lang (1890-1976) was far more interested in making dark, seedy, modern crime dramas than he was in dabbling in dystopian science fiction. Lang himself never cared for what many consider to be his masterpiece, and the film itself has been subject to all manner of neglect, censorship, and re-editing. It was once thought that about a third of the film had been lost forever, but in 2008 a nearly complete negative was discovered in Argentina, and thanks to the F.W. Murnau Foundation (http://www.murnau-stiftung.de/en/01-00-00-stiftung.html), a version of the film that comprises around 95% of Lang’s original can be viewed today (the original film was 153 minutes, the restoration, including inserted credits, is 148 minutes).
That was the version that I watched this morning. The plot itself is predictable by modern standards (but only because it has been copied so many times) and the central message of the film is a bit simplistic and borderline naive. That being said, those are the only weaknesses that I can think of, and the film continues to mesmerize 85 years after it was filmed.
Lang’s dark vision of the future takes place in a city where a vast system of machines sustain the prosperity of those who inhabit it, or more specifically, its above ground portions. There are stadiums and nightclubs, pleasure gardens and terraces, and the people who inhabit these locales are well dressed, well fed, and happy.
This is not the case for the workers who operate the machines. These men and women toil ten hours a day in exhausting and repetitive jobs. They work non-stop and in hellish conditions, risking certain death if they make any mistakes. When they are not working, they are forced to live underground in squalid poverty. The life in “The Depths” is a constant nightmare – a darkness of exhaustion, starvation, and isolation.
The hero of the story, Freder (Gustav Frohlich) is the son of the city’s ruler, Joh Fredersen (Alfred Abel). One day while he is enjoying his, ahem, female companions (no, that’s not a type-o, there are more than one), Freder’s pleasure garden is crashed by the beautiful Maria (Brigitte Helm) and a group poor children from The Depths whom she has brought to the surface on an apparent visit. After she and the children are thrown out by security, Freder, who is enchanted by Maria, darts from his pleasure garden to follow her.
While searching for Maria, he witnesses a terrible industrial accident. An exhausted worker makes a mistake, and causes the massive machine he is operating to partially explode, killing several workers. To demonstrate Freder’s horror, Lang provides us with a hallucination of the workers being thrown into a monstrous oven. Although the film is silent, Lang’s imagery allowed me to imagine the screams of the workers so clearly that their sound could have scarcely added to the horror.
It is the emotions of the workers themselves, not Freder, that drive the course of the rest of the film. Maria brings hope to the workers by speaking of a coming “Mediator” who will bring harmony and understanding between the rulers and the workers. She hopes that she has found that Mediator in Freder. In contrast, Fredersen and his ally, the mad scientist Rotwang (Rudolf Klein-Logge), have created a “machine man” to manipulate the workers. Fredersen hopes to use the automaton to incite the workers’ anger in a plot to maintain control over them, while Rotwang has his own, more devious objectives.
Many silent films have a hard time holding the attention of modern audiences. Metropolis does not suffer from this problem, and I don’t think the film would be greatly improved by adding dialogue. The film moves along with such fluidity that the audience doesn’t have time to consider its weaknesses or hunt for clues as to what would inspire films such as Blade Runner, Ghost in the Shell, Gattaca, Dark City, the Matrix, and hundreds of others. Despite the opinions of its author, it remains a landmark work that every fan of film should view at least once.
You may like Metropolis if: You enjoy dystopian science fiction films or adventure films, you are interested in where the techniques used in many of your favorite science fiction films come from, or you are in the mood for a high quality, emotionally charged film with high artistic merit.
You may not like Metropolis if: You absolutely hate all science fiction or silent films, or you get really annoyed with films that use somewhat predictable plot devices, even if the movie is the first time those plot devices were used.
(c) 2012 D.G. McCabe