Above ground, a towering, glittering city filled with a pleasure-seeking elite. Below ground, the tenement colony of workers who operate the massive machines that drive the city above. Metropolis (1927) is the story of a young man and woman who try to break down the divide between the classes in the name of love and common humanity. But little of that matters, because the film is foremost a canvas on which director Fritz Lang creates some of cinema’s most enduring images and characters. The most expensive silent film ever made, Metropolis represents ground zero for cinematic science fiction — even more so than A Trip to the Moon. Every cinematic dystopia from Blade Runner to Akira to The Matrix owes a debt to Metropolis‘ title city. The novel Frankenstein may have created the mad scientist, but it is the performance of Lang regular Rudolf Klein-Rogge as the fiendish inventor Rotwang that serves as the model for every deranged scientist to come. And Metropolis‘ most famous creation, the Machine-Man, was effectively cinema’s first robot (and served as direct model for C-3PO in Star Wars). In all, Metropolis is a simplistic take on class conflict, but one told on a grand scale and with a visual inventiveness that has kept it relevant and eye-popping for over 85 years. (150 min.)
S. – What an amazing spectacle this film is! The scale of the sets and the size of the cast are just mind-blowing. The story itself is a rather dull parable but it is made wonderful by virtue of the stylised world Lang creates on screen and outstanding performances by Brigitte Helm and Rudolf Klein-Rogge. From the outset Metropolis is visually arresting; the privileged surface dwellers flit about in brilliant sunshine and enjoy happy, carefree days while the working masses are herded about with heads bowed to their labours deep in the bowels of the earth. The choreography of the scenes below ground is fantastic, the broken spirit of the workers plain to see in their exhausted, shambling march between shifts. The relentless brutality of the machines they are forced to work alongside as though they were robots exposes the frailty of these unfortunate people and adds to the inhumanity of their treatment. The imagery is so effective that dialogue is unnecessary.
J. – Lang does do wonderful things with the visuals, and that includes the performances of the extras portraying workers. I think one of the keys to Metropolis’ success is clearly demonstrated in the way the workers do their jobs and shuffle off between shifts. All of it is utterly unreal and bordering on ridiculous. Many of the machines boast designs that make no sense whatsoever, but whose purpose is really to make a point about the mechanization of the workers and to illuminate the style and structure of the society. A great example is the machine our hero Freder (Gustav Fröhlich) takes over, which has him pointing two bars like hands of a clock at flashing lights along the rim of the clockface. It’s ridiculous, repetitive, and clearly exhausting work; you know, the sort of thing that is supposed be automated by machines. But it works perfectly to show how awful and tedious the lives of the workers are and how callous or ignorant the upper classes are with regard to what the workers do.
But however remarkable the machines may be, it is the city above that provides much of the particularly famous imagery from Metropolis, and deservedly so. The city is a towering art deco riot of design, and a remarkable combination of models and matte paintings. I love how it feels very much of the time. There’s a strange aesthetic to Metropolis in which the film seems to hint that it is set in the future, but then again it has many design elements (particularly vehicles) that suggest it is fully of the present (i.e., the 1920s). I think the effect is ultimately to create something that appears timeless by emphasizing style over practicality — hell, even the pistons in the machines are wonders of art deco design!
S. – The visuals are a key component of the story-telling in Metropolis. The actors performances are also exaggerated and dramatic in keeping with their fantastical surroundings. Usually I dislike this pantomime-style of performance but for the most part it worked very well here. I remember seeing a short clip of Metropolis at the NGV in Melbourne last year and found the cheesy acting a bit of a turnoff, but watching the film as a whole my opinion has changed. Maybe among those vast sets a more subdued performance would have been lost. The exception though is the character of Freder, while playing the part of the fop Fröhlich was believable, however when the time came for heroics I felt he was utterly ridiculous. Sharing the screen with the equally awesome Klein-Rogge and Helm was a task Fröhlich was not up to. The tortured genius of Rotwang (Klein-Rogge) and the split personalities of Maria / Robot-Maria (Helm) made for compelling viewing.
J. – I agree with you about the performances, S. The characters in Metropolis overact wildly, but it fits within the exaggerated allegorical world they inhabit. I remember seeing this film years ago at the Film Forum in New York and having quite a lot of the audience laugh at the performances. I was rather annoyed by that reaction, in part because it is a silent film, so what were you expecting, but also because the style is very deliberate in Metropolis. That becomes particularly apparent when you see Lang’s other silent films, which don’t employ the same histrionics.
But having made this choice, you must have actors who can boldly command the screen without looking ridiculous, and Fröhlich definitely does not have the right stuff. He’s nigh impossible to connect with (unfortunate given his role as the “mediator” in the film), and he is utterly unconvincing as a man of action. Even worse, in scenes chock full of broad acting, he comes across as positively ludicrous. And I think it’s worth noting that Rotwang is just as crazed and prone to wild swings of the arms as Freder, but Klein-Rogge has such tremendous presence that you buy every bit of it. The marvelous way he manipulates his eyebrows is often enough to get the job done. I’ve seen three silent Lang films now, all of which feature Klein-Rogge, who has quickly become my favorite actor of the era. And Brigitte Helm does a great job as Maria, the charismatic and pacifistic leader of the workers’ movement, and an even better job as her robot duplicate, a licentious demagogue created by Rotwang to destroy the city. Helm is great fun to watch as the robot, her body language and facial expressions are fabulous — I particularly love her wonky left eye. In many ways, it’s all a little silly, but Helm does it with such verve that it works wonderfully.
S. – That wonky left eye was genius, the hint of a malfunction within the magnificent humanoid Maria. While the central storyline itself was a little hackneyed I really enjoyed the sub-plot surrounding the inventor, a thread that becomes crucially important as the consequences of utilising Rotwang’s machine man are revealed. Part of this is surely because Klein-Rogge is a fantastic on-screen presence, as you mentioned, but also because Rotwang is directly responsible for much of the disaster that unfolds. In the version we watched a number of scenes devoted to this sub-plot were from film stock of lesser quality than bulk of the movie. My understanding is that this lower quality film was only recently discovered and spliced back into the movie. I know you have seen a version of Metropolis that pre-dates these additions, J., and I can only imagine that the story was weaker, if not downright confusing, without the explanation and evidence of Rotwang’s personal vendetta.
J. – Yeah, I saw a restoration of Metropolis at the Film Forum back in 2001. Metropolis is meant to be about 2 and half hours long, but the 2001 restoration — which most assumed would be the best we’d ever get — was missing a half hour, including the crucial scenes that explain Rotwang’s motivation (although title cards were used to explain missing portions). Then, remarkably, a nearly complete version of the movie was found in Argentina in 2008 and this newly found footage, which was in pretty bad shape, was incorporated back into the movie. I went back to see this new restoration in the same theater in 2010 and it was amazing. The restored scenes added perhaps 25 minutes to the length of the film, but it felt like it was an hour shorter now that it was more cohesive and coherent. It’s a pity that the Argentina footage is in such bad shape, but its also rather cool to know exactly what had been missing. Some of the cuts made to the movie are just shocking!! Sadly 5 min are still missing, including one key scene.
But back to the movie itself: We’ve hinted at the scale of this film but I think it’s worth getting into it a bit more. This is a movie that features a literal cast of thousands and that operates on a massive level. This is particularly true of the revolt by the workers and the subsequent flooding of the workers’ city. There must have been hundreds of children dressed in rags plowing through the flood waters as this gigantic set gets flooded. I have a feeling that scene would contravene a few dozen labor laws these days, but moral qualms aside, it’s an excellent sequence. And the same can be said of the machine sets, which are massive and elaborate, particularly in the remarkable scene in which a machine overloads and Freder hallucinates that the exploding machinery has turned into an elaborate ancient temple in which humans are sacrificed to Moloch (an ancient Canaanite god with some very bad press in The Bible). It’s a simplistic metaphor being made — the workers’ blood oiling the gears of industry — but nonetheless effective in its bombast and visual inventiveness.
S. – The scale of the production is just astounding, definitely worthy of the odd biblical reference. However, the message of the movie is rather disturbing if you ask me. While the imagery you have just described, along with Freder confronting his father (in his mega-sized office!), acknowledges that the workers are being treated in an unacceptable manner to benefit a privileged class I’m not convinced the outcome goes very far toward addressing the imbalance. I feel as though the best the underclass can hope for is someone to smile and nod at their complaints while they are still expected to be the “hands” that work to benefit the “head”. Given the time-period this film was made in Germany the idea that a group of people are inherently superior to another is an uncomfortable one.
J. – I don’t think the message is disturbing, just half-baked. I think it’s important to remember that Metropolis was made in the immediate aftermath of cataclysmic events in Europe that saw the destruction of a number of long-standing monarchies and also the apparent triumph of the working classes in Russia. In that regard, it is a powerful statement to be making a film in which the workers revolt and the powerful are seen as exploiting the workers. But it is way too simple a characterization of the conflict, and the workers seem more like volatile twits than real people. But I don’t think the elite come off as particularly superior given that they are depicted as either callous plutocrats or effete partygoers. I suppose the movie gets around the crude characterizations somewhat by creating its own world, so it can play by its own rules, but it definitely doesn’t give enough thought to what is a serious social issue. And that is probably what keeps Metropolis out of the top, top reaches of the Sight & Sound list despite its vast influence.
S. – Ultimately the story is just a framework for Lang to populate with his extravagant vision and he does so with gusto. Metropolis is a blast to watch and in the current age of CGI it boggles the mind to see such enormous sets and extras numbering in the hundreds. It is a landmark film that has made a lasting contribution to the sci-fi genre and still holds up as great entertainment.