(1927) Directed by: Fritz Lang; Written by Thea von Harbou; Based on the novel by Thea von Harbou; Starring: Brigitte Helm, Alfred Abel, Gustav Fröhlich, Rudolf Klein-Rogge and Theodor Loos and Heinrich George; Available on Blu-ray, DVD and Netflix Streaming
“The mediator between head and hands must be the heart!” – Epigram
“What if one day those in the depths rise up against you?” – Freder (Gustav Fröhlich)
From a modern perspective, it’s difficult to fathom that one of the best known and well-esteemed films from the silent age wasn’t always regarded as anything special. Based on Thea von Harbou’s novel and directed by Fritz Lang, shooting for Metropolis began in May 1925, and ran until October 1926. With a production cost of 6 million marks (approximately $24 million in 1927 dollars), it was the most expensive German film to date. The lavish production didn’t translate to universal praise, however. The initial release received a lukewarm critical reception and tepid box office. Time wasn’t kind with subsequent releases, as the original running time of 153 minutes was whittled down to approximately 90 minutes. Over the past 15 years or so, film preservationists have labored to restore the film to its former glory. The most recent version, at 145 minutes, incorporates footage from a scratchy 16 mm print from Argentina, and is probably the most complete version we’re liable to see.
Everything about Metropolis, ranging from the set design to the soaring cityscape to the archetypal characters, is told in broad strokes. It’s a modern fable, rich in allegory, with many themes that still appear contemporary nearly 90 years later. Alfred Abel is exceptional as the cold, impassive Joh Fredersen, master of all he surveys. He supervised the construction of the city-state of Metropolis, and stands as its de facto ruler. He impassively observes society from atop his New Tower of Babel, and endeavors to preserve the status quo. The laborers who make the lifestyle for the upper class possible toil away in the subterranean city under the city, little more than a mean to Joh’s predetermined end. Lang contrasts the cold machine world beneath with the Club of the Sons and Eternal Gardens above, where the wealthy come to play.
Joh’s son Freder (Gustav Fröhlich) doesn’t share his father’s dispassionate views. He becomes determine to learn more about the subterranean city after he’s smitten by the virginal Maria (Brigitte Helm), who takes a group of children from the lower levels to catch a fleeting glimpse of the Eternal Gardens. Maria has steadily gained a loyal following with her peaceful protests. In a reversal of fortune plot similar to The Prince and the Pauper, Freder trades places with Worker 11811 (Erwin Biswanger), and takes up his mindless job. In one of the film’s many memorable sequences, Freder works a grueling 10-hour shift, moving the hands of a clock-like mechanism with indeterminate purpose. While Freder poses as Worker 11811, the emancipated laborer enjoys his brief flirtation with luxury, riding in a limousine and attending the Yoshiwara nightclub.
When Joh learns of his son’s sudden fascination with the plight of the working class, he works to discredit Maria. Joh employs the inventor Rotwang (Rudolf Klein-Rogge) to endow his robot with Maria’s likeness (also played by Helm) and set her up as a false prophet. Rotwang, however, has ulterior motives, which are made clear in the longer cut of the film. Her robot counterpart becomes the antithesis of Maria, a stark contrast between the sacred and profane. She performs an erotic dance at a club, and her volatile speech sparks a violent workers’ rebellion.
Many of the criticisms heaped against Metropolis were not dissimilar to those of modern blockbusters, alleging spectacle over story. One of its most notable detractors, H.G. Wells, excoriated the film* for what he deemed to be a simplistic tone and dated view of society. It’s ironic to note that Wells’ cinematic take on utopia, Things to Come, premiered almost a decade later, and appears to have aged less gracefully. On the other hand, Metropolis has endured, thanks to its more metaphorical rather than literal approach. While Wells’ film differed from Metropolis thematically, he failed to acknowledge how the earlier film shaped many of the visual elements, including scenes of machinery and industrial might, towering structures, elevated walkways, and communication via 2-way video screens. Unlike Things to Come, which was concerned with envisioning a sort of future history, Metropolis works on our subconscious, projecting human frailties, hopes, dreams and fears within a dehumanizing society. While Wells opined the rational side would prevail, von Harbou argued this was not enough. There had to be a mediator between the forces of rationality and brute strength. Although the future world of Metropolis is fantastical, it seems less sterile than the one Wells envisioned. The old co-exists with the new (witness how Rotwang’s machine man is brought to life through a combination of technological know-how and alchemy), and a gothic cathedral stands among futuristic architecture.
* According to Wells: “It gives in one eddying concentration almost every possible foolishness, cliché, platitude, and muddlement about mechanical progress and progress in general served up with a sauce of sentimentality that is all its own.” (New York Times, April 17, 1927)
One of the rewards of subsequent viewings is spotting the myriad influences of Metropolis on many other films. The comparisons are too numerous to mention in any one article. I could probably devote an entire essay comparing Star Wars to Lang’s film. The eccentric inventor Rotwang and his artificial hand could have easily been the inspiration for Darth Vader. Likewise, his mechanical man is often cited as the template for C-3PO. Rotwang’s appearance also bears a strong resemblance to Doc Brown in the Back to the Future Movies. The vast cityscape has been emulated many times, from Blade Runner to Dark City to Akira. It also likely influenced Terry Gilliam’s retro-future aesthetic for Brazil and 12 Monkeys. Gottfried Huppertz’s score, with its rousing multi-layered themes has doubtlessly influenced other composers of epic films.
It seems as if everyone and his/her dog has reviewed Metropolis by now, but I propose every fan (and detractor) should take a crack at re-evaluating the film. No, this isn’t a perfect movie – the acting is suitably over the top, particularly by Fröhlich, whose portrayal of Freder appears hopelessly naïve. Subtlety is not Lang’s strong point, but the subject matter requires a broader palette. The anachronisms are a stylistic flourish, not meant to be a realistic representation of future society. The iconic imagery, thanks to cinematographers Karl Freund, Günther Rittau and Walter Ruttmann is steeped in metaphor (One of the most iconic images involves workers marching up to the M-Machine, sacrificial offerings to feed the machinery’s insatiable appetite). A film isn’t classic because everything makes sense, or it’s uniformly liked by everyone. The sign of a great classic is that it transcends the time in which it was conceived, demanding repeated viewings. Metropolis’ influence has spanned decades, and will continue to spawn debate and imitation for many years to come.