Format: Streaming video from NetFlix on laptop.
Metropolis is, like Nosferatu and some Chaplin films, the silent film that non-silent fans may have actually seen. While not the first science fiction film, it is perhaps the first great one, and one of the first (if not the first) to have a fully-fleshed plot and characters that are more than cardboard cutouts. Metropolis, despite its age, still has the ability to wow an audience with the size and scope of the sets if for no other reason.
It is, however, right in the heart of the German Expressionist movement, which means that you can expect that very little of this story will be specifically dropped into your lap for the understanding. No, it’s all going to be veiled by bizarre sets, heavy symbolism, unusual lighting, and all other sorts of weirdness. Much of what happens here will be melodramatic in the extreme, not the least of which are the facial expressions and movements of the actors. What you may not expect is how interestingly this film resonates with the current day.
In the city of Metropolis, the vast majority of people are workers, and they work far below the ground tending machines, keeping a brutal, inhuman pace to maintain the running of the mechanical works that keep the city going. Most of this is done for the benefit of the managers, especially Joh Fredersen (Alfred Abel), the original architect of the city. The children of the managers enjoy a life of pastoral bliss, sport, and intellectual pleasures far above the madding crowd. Of these, our interest will be the most taken with Fredersen’s son, the unimaginatively named Freder Fredersen (Gustav Frohlich).
Early in the film, Freder meets Maria (Brigitte Helm), who lives in the Worker’s City and has brought a small group of children up to see the top levels. Freder is immediately captivated by the girl’s beauty and wishes to follow her. He does, and discovers the hell that the workers below the city live in. He witnesses the explosion of a giant machine that causes the deaths of a number of workers, but finds that his pleas to his father for better treatment for the workers go unheeded. Around this time, we also discover that Freder’s mother died in childbirth, and that she was loved not only by his father, but by the mysterious inventor, Rotwang (Rudolf Klein-Rogge). Rotwang is a mad genius, and has created a mechanical man (also played by Brigitte Helm) that he wishes to use to recreate his lost love. But Fredersen convinces him to give the machine Maria’s face, since she is a leader of the workers. In this way, they will sow dissention among the workers and maintain their hold over the populace and their own comfortable lifestyle.
Of course, it’s all quite a bit more complicated than this, because this covers about the first half of the film. It also doesn’t cover Josaphat (Theodor Loos), fired by Fredersen and immediately rehired by Freder. It neglects The Thin Man (Fritz Rasp), sent to spy on Freder. The Thin Man is actually a pretty terrifying screen creation. He looks tailor-made for German Expressionism, because his head is made up of a number of strange angles.
Metropolis is most noteworthy not for the story it tells, but the style with which it tells the story. While not a case of style over substance (since there’s plenty of substance here), it’s the style that is in many ways the most interesting. The story itself is hardly anything new—privileged youth becomes enamored of poor girl and seeks to right social wrongs to win her love. But the strange look of the backgrounds, the huge and impressive sets, and the strange technologies that run through the film are what make it something fascinating to see on the screen. In today’s world, Metropolis lives and dies by its appearance, and if the message gets through, so much the better. Beyond the Machine Man, there are plenty of fascinating set pieces. The explosion of the giant machine, for instance, looks to Freder like people being marched endlessly into the mouth of Moloch. Later, when Freder takes a turn at a machine, he hallucinates himself strapped (almost crucified) on a relentlessly whirring clock.
Of course, the message is no secret here. We’re shown it in the first few moments of the film when a title card saying that between the hands and the brain, the heart must be the mediator appears. This is reinforced around the middle of the film when Maria tells the story of the Tower of Babel to the workers, claiming that while thousands worked on it, the work went awry because only the planners knew the ultimate purpose of the structure. The parallel here, of course, is to the workers and the managers. The managers neither know nor care about the difficult, painful lives of the workers, and the workers have no idea of the ultimate purpose of what they do.
Are there parallels to today? Of course there are. This will undoubtedly date this review in future months, but it’s impossible to watch this film today and not see a cognate in the recent Occupy Wall Street movement. So much goes to so few, and the hands no longer know the reason for their labors.
But is it good? Yes, it is. I watched the restored version, which adds a good half hour to the original film. It’s quickly evident where footage was added in, because this footage is of relatively poor quality, but it’s nice to see the film in a more complete state, regardless of how that footage looks. Metropolis may have lost most of its power to cause awe and shock, but it still works, the effects are still good, and the Machine Man is still impressive as a piece of costuming. Additionally, the first time it moves is one of the most iconic moments in film history, akin to Al Jolson singing.
Why to watch Metropolis: A formative film both for science fiction as a genre and film as a medium.
Why not to watch: It’s pretty weird, even for science fiction.