directed by Fritz Lang
starring Brigitte Helm, Alfred Abel and Gustav Fröhlich
Set in 2026, and riddled with apparent marxist ideology and biblical references, it can be hard to grasp the exact message behind the social commentary of Metropolis (1927). Unless, we take it as an oversimplification of the very complex issue of class inequality (which is still very present in modern society). To which the film gives an idealistic, populist and, sadly, naïve solution: the mediator between head and hands must be the heart.
It’s a silly and void sentence, but one that appeals to many, nonetheless. In fact the film’s connections with the Nazi regime (be they true or not), though not endorsed by Lang himself, but actually supported by his wife (who wrote the screenplay), will be fascinating for history buffs. Also the making itself of Metropolis, an infamously tumultuous production due to the Austrian director’s ruthlessness, is very worth reading up on, too.
Fredder, in Metropolis (1927)
But back to the movie itself – and you’ll see why, despite a seemingly absurd climax, this is such a great film. One day, in this – dystopian for some, utopian for others – city of Metropolis, young Fredder (Gustav Fröhlich), son of the city’s mastermind Joh Frederson (Alfred Abel), meets and falls in love with Maria (Brigitte Helm), a worker from underground. Enthralled, he looks for her and discovers the ugly reality his father has been keeping from the citizens above: the machines and the slaves who run them.
This blissful ignorance and refusal to look for the truth from the people above is another interesting bit of commentary. But faced with this knowledge, our hero does not turn away, and instead joins the workers in their plight. Eventually he also believes he can be the heart, the mediator between classes that Maria predicts will come and can free the exploited and oppressed. Upon finding out these plans of a (so far, peaceful) rebellion, Joh joins forces with mad scientist Rotwang (Rudolf Klein-Rogge), who has created a Machine Man capable of taking on the form of any person. And so the robot is made to look like Maria, so that it can infiltrate the workforce, and disrupt the revolt.
— Spoilers Ahead! —
This is where things get a bit confusing, and whole lot more fantastic. The robot is actually supposed to be Hel, resurrected. Hel was Joh’s wife, and a woman Rotwang was madly in love with, until she died giving birth to Fredder. The moment we learn this is when Joh’s overall sad expression (what a face that man had) starts making sense to me – he’s grief stricken. From the start I sensed an underlining pain about him. Maybe it’s just my sentimental side, but because of that I could never see him as a simple, two-dimensional tyrant (not that grief justifies, or is even related to, what he does to the workers). This ends up being just another odd subplot in the “complete” and restored 2010 version of the film, but still, it’s a detail that adds an interesting dimension to these two characters.
— Machine Man, inciting the workers in Metropolis (1927)
Anyway, the Machine Man does succeed in posing as Maria, but instead of doing Joh’s biding, it incites an uprising to destroy the machines – and with it, the established order. All under Rotwang’s command. This fake-Maria becomes a sort of embodiment of evil in the biblical figure of the Whore of Babylon, eliciting wild, blind devotion. She’s a figure of chaos, debauchery, and violence – as one of the title cards reads, “For her – all seven deadly sins!”. Men of the upperclass go crazy with desire when she dances, and the workers below loose all sense when they follow her in a path of destruction – forgetting even their own children, who are left behind to die. The entire flooding sequence is outstanding.
— It’s Safe Again —
It’s insane, but it’s this absurdity and theatrical extravagance that allows for the some of the most stunning, provocative visuals you will ever see in a movie. I was expecting a pure sci-fi movie – which would’ve been fine – but instead found some true horror undertones – which are my favourite. These gave birth to a spectacular array of truly nightmarish, gorgeous imagery. It’s beautiful throughout (right in the beginning with the workers “marching” it’s impactful), but the turning point for me was the sequence where Rotwang is trying to catch Maria. The setting and play with light and shadow could’ve been taken straight from 1931’s Dracula, or countless other horror movies.
— Monk in the Pulpit, Metropolis (1927)
The iconic dance sequence is also so eerie – not just for her freakish movements, but also because of the men’s lunatic faces. On that note, Brigitte Helm is a vision, her work here is going down as an all-time favourite of mine. And as I’ve mentioned in the spoiler section, Abel has a magnificent face, and Fröhlich is great, too.
The makeup and hairstyling, costume design, the city itself (check out Erich Kettelhut’s amazing sketches) – are all so iconic, they have inspired numerous filmmakers that we all love today. Movies like Blade Runner take inspiration from Metropolis (also yes, it inspired a Superman comic) in its own futuristic city, and the ability of a robot to look human for its Replicants. Also Star Wars‘s C-3PO is visually similar to the Machine Man, inspiring Ralph McQuarrie’s designs – just one of Lang’s many influences you can find in the space saga. Spotting and learning these influences is really one of the pleasures of watching classic films, and in Metropolis there’s no shortage of those.
All in all, this is another one for a Film Aesthetics post (I keep promising you these, I swear they’ll come back soon), and one of the most exciting Blind Spots I’ve seen this year.
Rating: 4.5 Stars
Directed by Frizt Lang
Writen by Thea von Harbou (screenplay), Thea von Harbou (novel)
Starring Brigitte Helm, Alfred Abel, Gustav Fröhlich
Running Time: 2h33min Genre: Sci-Fi, Drama, Classic
Synopsis In a futuristic city, sharply divided between the working class and
the city planners, the son of the city’s mastermind falls in love with a working class
prophet, who predicts the coming of a savior to mediate their differences.