Director: Fritz Lang
Cast: Alfred Abel, Gustav Froehlich, Rudolf Klein Rogge, Brigitte Helm
Watching Metropolis is like seeing a ghost that brings us a message from the past, a message which surprisingly enough is still relevant in our modern age. This is the mother of all films dealing with classism issues, meaning films that deal with the issue of discrimination based on social class. In society you’re either high class, middle class, working class, or just plain old poor. Films like Metropolis deal with the differences between these diametrically opposed worlds. The question Metropolis asks is: can those in power and those in the working class learn to live together in peace? In the world of Metropolis, the high class lives in the magnificent, brightly lit, buoyant city of Metropolis, an impressive city to behold. They live in bliss, oblivious to the horrors experienced by the underpaid working class who live in the underground ghettos, in darkness and poverty. What keeps the working class going in spite of their sad and tiresome lives? Simply put? The hope offered by religion. They all gather around and listen to Maria, a religious community leader who preaches about hope and love. They soothing words that come from Maria makes them think that somehow, things will get better. Will the work force that built Metropolis ever be treated with respect? Or will the powerful keep turning a blind eye to the horrors of working ten hours shifts? Can a happy medium be reached?
The message sent out by Metropolis is a strong one, which is probably why it was banned and edited in so many countries. You see politicians don’t like films that touch upon politics and religion the way Metropolis does. This is a film that’s telling rich people to take the working class in consideration, it’s telling the powerful that they need to warm their hearts and feel some empathy for the hard workers who leave their blood and tears on the factory floor. But how can the rich and powerful know of the woes of the working class if they never interact with it, if they don’t know how they suffer? Enter Freder, the son of the rich and powerful leader of Metropolis. He empathizes with the children from the ghettos when he sees them come up to Metropolis to see the sights, to see how the other half lives. His eyes swell up, he feels for them. He also falls for Maria, the woman who brings the children up to see the city. Freder becomes curious and decides to go down to the Ghetto’s to see how the worker bees live. The experience ends up being a real eye opener for Freder, this is after all, a side of life he had never seen before.
One of the questions Metropolis addresses is, how can you feel sympathy for something you ignore or don’t understand? When Freder goes and sees the working class, laboring away, nonstop, exhausted, even to the point of putting their lives in danger, he has a change of heart. Now he understands, when he sees things with his own eyes, when he experiences their pain. Freder literally switches places with the working man. There’s a spectacular scene in which Freder visits a factory and sees this gigantic machine, puffing and pumping away at great speeds. The workers try to keep up with the frenetic pace of the machine, but cant! When the gargantuan machine breaks down some of the workers are hurt in the process showing us that over worked employees is the perfect ingredient for catastrophe. Mistakes are bound to happen. And we have to remember, the ten hour work day was a very real thing back in those days, so we can see why this film addresses this important subject manner. In one sublimely surreal point in the film, they depict the machine that the workers run as an ancient Egyptian god to whom human sacrifices are being made to. Suddenly the machine is this giant God swallowing up human lives! It’s moments like these that help us realize the vision and artistry involved in this masterpiece. As a side note, it's also important to mention that this was one of the most expensive German films made up to that point, evidenced in the art direction which is something to behold.
Fritz Lang wasn't just telling a story, he was making art; he was making visuals that would stay with us long after the film was over. I mean, this movie has so many visually dazzling moments. The Moloch Machine, the creation of Evil Maria a.k.a. The Machine Man, the Night Clubs scenes in the Yoshiwara District. The surreal moments, like the scenes in which Feder encounters Death and the seven deadly sins, the construction of the city…I mean, the film goes on and on with these indelible visuals. Images you’ll want to re-watch over and over again through the years. This movie was so ahead of its time, it’s no wonder it’s been such an influential film.
The Machine Man
If you have never seen Metropolis then you should know that it is a silent film, so don’t expect any dialog, the story is told through visuals, facial gestures and pantomimes, the occasional title card appears with dialog or information absolutely necessary to move the story along. This might take a little bit of getting used to, so you’ll have to adjust your movie watching speeds for the silent era, a time in which feelings where expressed through exaggerated facial gestures and hand movements, sometimes performances come off as caricatures because the actors have to amplify the feelings in order for the ideas and the feelings to be transmitted. I’m sure you’ll agree once you start seeing the film that it’s all worth it. Speaking of performances, Brigitte Helm as Maria/Machine Man is an outstanding performance, she makes the movie for me in terms of the acting. She does polar opposites in her performances, on the one hand she plays the socially conscious Maria, who minds the children and is a leader to the working class. She spreads only hope and love and on the other hand she plays The Machine Man, a robotic version of Maria that manipulates the workers into turning violent and hateful. Brigitte Helm does such an amazing job portraying both characters; her performance is without a doubt one of the finest points of the film. Her facial expressions are fantastic!
Brigitte Helm as 'Evil Maria'
Another aspect of this film that has to be mentioned is that Metropolis forms a very important part of the cinematic era known as the era of ‘German Expressionism’, this was an era in German cinema in which filmmaking was very experimental, it was trying new things, new looks, new camera movements, these films had a stylish distinction about them that influenced the rest of the world, including Hollywood films, especially the crime dramas of the 40’s. In other words a lot of Hollywood’s film noir was directly influenced by German expressionism. These films experimented a lot with set design, something very obvious in films like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920). If you notice the sets and art direction in that particular film, it’s all very angular, purposely unrealistic. The art direction in these films creates their own twisted sense of reality, in fact these films were a direct contrast to realism. For this reasons, these films are a beauty to behold, these films have a very unique, distinctive look. The same can be said of F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu (1926), yet another groundbreaking film from the same era.
A scene from The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), showcasing the singularity of German Expressionism
How many films can we mention that have been influenced by Metropolis and its German Expressionism techniques? Well among them are most of Tim Burton’s films like Batman (1989), Batman Returns (1992), where Gotham City is a complete homage to Metropolis, but then, a lot of Burton’s films owe a lot to German Experssionism. The Fifth Element (1997) owes as much to Jodorwsky’s and Moebius’s The Incal as it does to Lang’s film, right down to those scenes involving the creation of Leloo Dallas, which are similar in look to those scenes in Metropolis involving the creation of Evil Maria. The look of Dark City (1998) comes straight out of Metropolis, same goes for Blade Runner (1982). I guess the most obvious of all influences is C3-PO from Star Wars, a direct descendent of The Machine Man seen in Metropolis. We can clearly see Metropolis has been and continues to be a huge influence on today’s modern filmmakers and it’s not without reason, Metropolis has such unique visuals, they will no doubt make an impression on you.
Above, Blade Runner (1982) below Metropolis (1927)
It certainly made an impression on Hitler and the growing Nazi party and here’s where I give you a bit of historical background behind this amazing film. You see, the Nazi’s were so impressed by Metropolis that they wanted Lang to work for them making propaganda films, in fact, they wanted to name Lang head of the German film studio, UFA. They were willing to “forgive” the fact that Lang was of Jewish decent. Lang knew better and fled to Paris on the very same day they made this offer to him. He was not the first or last German filmmaker to migrate to another country fearing the Nazi party, reportedly, about 1,500 German filmmakers did this. Lang’s wife, Thea Von Harbou who had written many of Lang’s films including Metropolis (which by the way was based on her book) stayed behind and became a Nazi, Lang divorced her. It was a good thing Lang departed for Paris because if he hadn’t, in a few short months, he would have been banned from filmmaking by the Nazi’s who prohibited anyone not of Aryan descent to work in the film industry! Hell, the Nazi party even banned film criticism! Many non German actors and filmmakers ended up in concentration camps. Thankfully Lang emigrated on time and his cinematic career continued. After Paris, he moved to America, were Hollywood received him with open arms, like many German filmmakers who fled to Hollywood. He went on to form a huge part of the film noir movement, though with less of an emphasis on his expressionistic style, this of course due to the restraints of Hollywood film making; I guess Hollywood has always played by the rules. Still, he continued making influential films until he could make them no more. Looking back at Metropolis, it can be seen as his crowning achievement, a high watermark in his career and the one he’ll be remembered by. Any true film lover should see this film before they die.
Above Metropolis (1927), below The Fifth Element (1997)