Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Expressionism's Greatest Expression

Film: Metropolis
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.


  1. I have liked "Metopolis" since the first time I saw it 30years ago, and probably no less then 15 times over the years, not including the "rock Soundtrack" revival of the 80s which I was not really ready for. Even seeing it in it's butchered form was astounding for me. The visual package made up for the flaws and holes in story. About 15 years ago I got a hold of the Thea Von Harbou's book published with Michael Kaluta's (a favorite artist of mine from my comic reading days)artwork. Reading it helped in the understanding and finally, seeing the restored version was like seeing it brand new. Like you, I have great appreciation for seeing the inferior quality of the parts, it gives emphasis to the fact that it was incomplete for so long.

    And I was greatly impressed by the back story of the restoration. If you get the chance, you should rent the bonus disc for that.

  2. The backstory to finding the 25 mins lost footage in Argentina is a lot of fun. The previous deluxe "restored" KINO DVD (which has production stills in the place of the lost footage was so very intriguing). It was great to finally see what was actually missing (despite the poor quality of the found footage).

  3. I'll have to try this one again. I guess I wasn't in the mood the first time.

  4. Well, based on comments above, I'll look into the restoration story.

    Metropolis requires a less jaundiced eye to really appreciate. Modern movies have more impressive sets, visuals, and effects. With a film like this, it's critical to see it through the eyes of the time. That's the only way to really appreciate the grandeur of the machines and the interesting Art Deco backgrounds.

    I admit to being a sucker for this film. I saw it for the first time...about when you did, Ken. I was a teen, and I think I watched it simply for the idea of doing something that none of my peers would. Evidently, I chose well.

  5. I didn't think the story was hard to follow. Yes, it had some symbolism in it, but I was surprised by how complex and nuanced the story was and thought it was quite easy to track the narrative.

    I really like this film and think it's one of the all time great sci-fi films. I think the story, in retrospect, might not be as compelling, but I think it has a lot of cool ideas and twists that kept me engaged.

  6. I guess in retrospect it did sound like I said the story was difficult, but that's not specifically what I meant. Boo to me for doing a poor job of communicating the idea.

    For me, the symbolism dominated the film, but the symbolism was not difficult to interpret. I think that tends to be true of silents in general, though.

  7. Funny, I had the opposite experience watching Metropolis. I had huge expectations and really could not wait to see it. The sets did not let me down but the acting did. Jeez, who were these amateurs! That is usually the cool thing about German expressionist movies, but here... nope.
    From the set it is clear that this is where Bladerunner comes from. And doesn't the robot look just a little like C3PO?

    1. Overacting is sort of the watchword for silents, so I tend to sort of ignore it in many silents. It simply is what it is, and I try to pay more attention to everything else. I guess I sort of expect the acting to be on the ridiculous side.

      I never really thought about the Star Wars connection, but...damn. Good call.