Metropolis is a silent movie from 1927 conceived and filmed by German writer/director Fritz Lang. There was a time in college when I saw some version of the classic film. But it had been edited many times after its initial showing in Germany. The version I first saw was chopped up, missing nearly 40 minutes of footage and the quality was not very flattering. I don’t believe I made it through the first time. But I recently watched a fully restored version that included 148 minutes of its original 153-minute runtime. I can now say that it’s a brilliant work of art that should be admired if only for Lang’s vision or the film’s groundbreaking design and effects. But don’t go out and add it to your queue just yet, because I’ll be the first to admit it isn’t for everyone. But if you’re a film fanatic, it’s certainly a film worth watching. It is a film that gives us clues as to how we arrived today’s film industry.
In order to understand Lang’s vision, it probably helps to understand the era in which the vision was born. It was the 1920’s, World War I had ended and there were not yet any threats of World War II. As the world powers were transitioning from an industrial era to service-oriented societies, our cities were going vertical. Architecture, design, and art were all getting modern. Many visionaries were looking toward the future and the Art Deco era was born. Fritz Lang literally fleshed out the concept for Metropolis when he first visited New York City. The lights, the architecture and the bustle of the city that never sleeps must have been a bit of a horror story realized to Lang. To watch Metropolis, I can only expect that his vision for the future was a dark one as it doesn’t appear he had an optimistic view of the future. His views of the future resulted in a clear separation of the social classes in a world where it didn’t seem like any but the wealthy had much to live for.
Initially, the movie was not so well received due to its perceived communist undertones. Ironically, one of the most negative criticisms of the film came from a somewhat ironic source: H.G. Wells. He commented that the film was “quite the silliest film,” and criticized how machinery created the class separation “rather than relieving it”. In all, Wells felt the film had a pessimistic view of society, which is interesting coming from the writer of The Invisible Man and War of the Worlds.
A Plot Summary
In the movie, there is a clear distinction between the working class and white collar workers. The workers even lived in their own dedicated part of the city which, in this case, happened to be underground (or so it seemed as it later flooded). Unlike the real world, there seemed to be very little interaction between the upper class and working class. It’s not even really clear what is the motivation for the working class other than a possible dependency on the machines for their own power and resources. Likewise, it’s not really clear what the motivation is for Joh Fredersen, the master of the city. But again, we must consider the era in which the film is made: Character development hadn’t yet been drawn out for anyone other than the main characters. So we must accept that the workers, in general, were leading a miserable life keeping the machines running under the dictator-like arm of Joh Fredersen. The real point is that there is a developing relationship between Joh’s son, Freder, and Maria of the working class. Maria is a prophet of sorts, preaching about the coming of a mediator that will unite the working and ruling classes. Freder only happens to meet her as she brought the children of the workers to the private gardens to witness the lifestyle of the rich. Freder was mesmerized by her beauty and followed her into the depth of the city. In doing so, he meets and trades lives with one of the workers and begins to understand their plight.
In the meantime, a scientist by the name of Rotwang has developed a robot that can take on the traits of another human. The robot was originally developed to take on the traits of the woman he loved, Hel, who married Fredersen and died giving birth to Freder. Frederson manages to convince Rotwang to give the robot the traits of Maria to ruin her image among the workers. But Rotwang has his own ideas: To harm Fredersen and take down Metropolis. The result are two Marias, a dark Maria who preaches hate and death and the real one. False Maria manages to convince the workers to take down the Heart Machine which will inevitably cause a flood in the lower (workers’) city. At first, it is only Freder that is able to tell the difference between the two. Once united, Maria and Freder manage to save all of the children from the flooding city and get them to safety into the upper city. At about the same time, the workers realize that they’ve been had and go on a hunt to find Maria for revenge. The False Maria, meanwhile, is celebrating with the upper-class who are now mesmerized by her. Due to mistaken identity, the real Maria is found and chased by the workers resulting in a final clash between the upper class and the workers. While the workers capture and ultimately destroy the robot False Maria, Rotwang and Freder get into a fight that ultimately results in Rotwang’s death. It is only then that everyone, workers and upper class alike, realize their own part in this mess. It is Freder’s moment to shine as he is able to link the hands of Fredersen (master of the city) and the head of the Workers, thus fulfilling Maria’s prophecy.
I suppose the piece I admire most about the film is the artistic vision. I’ll admit some biased towards dystopian films; the true artistic vision of a writer/director shines when there aren’t restrictions set by a real world. Even so, the Art Deco influences on the film, and the clear homage to New York City carried well into the film. The sets are fairly simple and primitive compared to today’s standards. But at the time, they were pretty well advanced. The scenes with the machinery with its workers spread all over them, especially the Heart Machine, are both haunting and beautiful. The upper city with all of its luxuries and beauty is a stark contrast to the plain and cavernous workers’ city. Lang’s message is clear throughout even as indicated by the set design.
The special effects pushed the limits of the era. The use of miniature models of the city was prominent throughout the film. Using a special process created by the effects expert Eugen Shufftan – appropriately named the Shufftan Process – there were even scenes where actors were projected onto the miniature models. This was, essentially, a predecessor to the blue/green screen methods seen today. This process was also used to add lighting effects throughout the film, like when Maria’s mind is transferred into the robot. And finally, the film featured advances in costume design, specifically with the creation of the whole-body plaster cast of Brigette Helm in order to create the robot costume (which she actually wore in the film). Again, by today’s standards, this may not seem earth-shattering, but these effects were groundbreaking and set the tone for many years to come.
I can certainly appreciate the critics who believed the film had Communist connotations, and I can certainly understand why that was a concern at the time. But after reading more about Lang and the film, I honestly don’t think the film was intended to speak to any one political system. There was a clear message, but I think it was far more broad and far more personal. The closing line tells all: “The Mediator Between Head and Hands Must Be the Heart!” The Heart is a constant theme throughout the film: The Heart Machine, the darkened heart of the robot (and the False Maria), Freder’s heart (not his brain) leading him after the real Maria and into the plight of the working class. It was only through his travels and his open heart that Freder could possibly be the mediator, and the mediator must be the heart. The heart gives us unity…I think that’s a pretty good message.