Metropolis (1927) Director: Fritz Lang
Drawing upon a myriad of imagined dystopian worlds, like those found in the novels of H.G. Wells and Jules Verne, Fritz Lang offers a classic of Expressionism with Metropolis. Its rich subtext is replete with Biblical allegory as well as allusions to the great science fiction writers of yesteryear. From its seed we can see the genesis of Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964), George Lucas’s Star Wars (1977), or Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982). Metropolis offers a tale of complacent oligarchs who enjoy the benefits of a stylized futuristic city, which is quietly operated below ground by a permanent underclass of exploited workers. With a range of cult-like religious customs, we are invited to consider something primal or elemental about this city, it looks more like ancient Babylon rather than a progressive utopia. Notably, the round the clock whirring machines of Metropolis have not benefitted all people, only the oligarchs. Metropolis was made during the Weimar era in Germany, an epoch which sat on the precipice, and it was made at a cost of about five million Reichsmarks, no doubt much of this funding was used to construct the absolutely towering architectural designs of this futuristic city (created by Antonio Sant’Elia). The inspiration for this city was quite obviously New York City. Watching planes and trains go whizzing by in this city is incredibly prescient for a film that was made nearly 100 years ago. In 2008, an original cut of Metropolis was discovered in a museum in Argentina and the restoration process restored about 95% of the lost film. Since then, it has been dubbed over numerous times by rock bands and composers, giving it a living score of sorts.
The film opens with a title that reads:
“The Mediator Between Head and Hands Must Be The Heart”
Day in and day out, workers live below the city and are busily running machines that power the massive electrical grid needed for the complacent aristocracy who dwell above ground. Every ten hours a new consortium of workers enters the Workers’ City underground to continue running the machines.
lay the workers’
city below the earth,
so high above it towered
the complex named the ‘Club
of the Sons,’ with its lecture halls
and libraries, its theaters and stadiums.”
After viewing the horrors of the Workers’ City, we are brought above ground to an Edenic forest called the Eternal Gardens where men and women of the aristocracy eat well, procreate, and generally carouse with one another. They are interrupted briefly by a woman who brings her class of children above ground so the adults can see what their children look like now. She reminds them that these are their brothers, but then she is quickly ushered away so the pleasantries may continue.
Freder, son of the President of the aristocratic city, falls in love with this woman, named Maria, and devises a plan to trade places with an underground worker so he can see what truly occurs in the Workers’ City. He travels below ground to discover that when there is a hiccup in the machine, dozens of workers must sacrifice themselves to a mechanical version of Moloch to keep the grid running –one of many Biblical allusions throughout the film. Horrified Freder trades places with one individual, and after a tireless day of work he meets the woman who preaches of Christian virtues to the workers in an underground cave.
Meanwhile, Freder’s father visits Rotwang, a mysterious German scientist who lives in an old house which has been apparently overlooked for centuries while the machines and skyscrapers arose around him. Here, he has been developing a humanoid robot to reincarnate Fredersen’s dead wife. Together, they witness Maria’s small religious gathering and decide the time is nigh, but as Freder’s powerful father leaves, Rotwang makes an ominous remark about the robot rising against Freder’s father.
End of Prelude
Rotwang captures Maria and brings her back to his house as he reincarnates her as the robot, so they may share the same face. The newly reincarnated Maria dances nearly nude in front of hundreds of men and then shares the stage with his father. Freder nearly faints and imagines the apocalypse, with the statue of the Grim Reaper reaching out to him.
End of Intermezzo
Freder partially recovers from his sickness and reads the book of Revelation. The robot who looks like Maria leads a band of workers in an uprising against the aristocratic city, contrary to the former Christian virtues espoused by the real Maria. Meanwhile, Joh Frederson breaks into Rotwang’s home and attacks him as the robot Maria wreaks havoc on the city. The new robot Maria destroys the heart of the machine and the Workers’ City begins is flooded as all the electricity in the city is all shut off.
The real Maria escapes and she rescues the children. Some of the workers gather and dance around the destruction of the machines, in a cult-like fashion. Others grab the robot Maria and build a pyre to burn her. Freder arrives, thinking it is the real Maria, and he begs them to stop -but as he does so her face burns off to reveal her robotic armor. The people stand around in shock.
Rotwang spots the real Maria, not knowing his robot has been destroyed. He chases her up to the tower where she rings a bell and Freder comes to her rescue by casting Rotwang off the building. Freder then is celebrated as he becomes the Mediator between the Hands (the workers) and the Head (the aristocrats) via the Heart. Thus concludes this revolutionary experiment in dystopian movie-making.
Metropolis is fused with a certain Marxist dialectical relationship between upper and lower classes, as well as contrasts between man and machine, city and country, faith and scientism. The redemption found at the end of the film suggests a certain degree of hope for the future of man and machine, as well as worker and aristocrat.
It was quite a treat to finally see Metropolis after seeing so many of the sci-fi blockbuster classics that followed in later decades. It has enriched my regards for how sci-fi could flourish in times long before what the cinema magic of today can easily spoil us with.
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