Classic Review – Metropolis
Shaun’s Quadrant – October 2005


Fritz Lang's Metropolis, 1927 German classic science fiction movie, order SKU B00007L4MJ2 Metropolis
A film by Fritz Lang
Freder Fredersen . . . GUSTAV FROHLICH
Johhan ‘Joh’ Fredersen . . . ALFRED ABEL

In the year 2026, the society of the great city Metropolis is divided between the rich, who live on the surface, and the workers, who live underground and maintain the vast machinations that keep Metropolis alive and thriving. One day, Freder Fredersen is playing in the Gardens of Pleasure when he sees Maria, a young woman who champions the freedoms of the workers, emerging from underground with a large group of children. When Freder sees Maria, he instantly falls in love. Maria is quickly expelled from the garden, but Freder follows her into the workers’ city. Young Freder witnesses the harsh life of the workers first hand, and soon becomes their mediator in an attempt to both alleviate their suffering and to gain Maria’s love. Freder’s father, Joh Frederson, the visionary mind behind the foundation of Metropolis, will not allow his son to destroy the world he has created. He launches a plot that places Freder and the workers in great danger.

Widely considered the most influential of all silent films, Metropolis has stood the test of time and may be more popular now than ever, and this after both a dismal showing in the 1927 premiere and a series of butchering edits over the years that have destroyed large sections of film’s original cut. While the original version of Metropolis is lost forever, The Murnua Foundation oversaw a restoration of Metropolis that was released on DVD in 2002, restoring the original version as much as possible. This includes the original orchestral score by Gottfried Huppertz. Summaries are interjected throughout the film to provide the missing story elements for scenes which have decayed or been lost. This is the version of the film I watched for the purpose of this review.

Metropolis is stunningly ahead of its time. A documentary included on the DVD reveals that Metropolis was the last of the German Expressionist films and the first German New Objectivity film, showing that it launched a new sensibility in filmmaking. The movie bursts with metaphor and Biblical allusions, such as the new tower of Babel erected in Metropolis’s backdrop, but the settings are concrete, textured, and realistic. The city itself, for example, is not fantastic and sleek, but awkward and bulky, with buildings connected by crossways and airplanes filling the skies. A sense of time and architecture is built into the sets and paintings, making it feel that the city morphed over the course of decades. Actually, it looks like the city in the opening sequences of The Fifth Element, but without the advertising.

A number of modern films have their roots in Metropolis. I do not know if these filmmakers did so intentionally, but the influence seems to be there. I noticed flashes of 2001: A Space Odyssey, Blade Runner, and Star Wars. The similarities to Star Wars show most clearly in the android built by the grief stricken inventor Rotwang – an android that looks quite a bit like a feminine C-3PO – and an orchestral score that just screams John Williams. There were moments when I closed my eyes and could see X-Wings filling the blackness of space or Darth Vader ambling down a hallway. Heavy brass and sweeping strings abound in this powerful score, and the film reaches emotional heights that could not be achieved without the musical background. Over the last 77 years, several versions of Metropolis have been released without this music, with new scores being substituted. I don’t know why anyone would want to change the music, outside of editing issues, but I can’t image the film without it.

I would be remiss if I didn’t discuss the two major themes of the film, the first being a warning against the pitfalls of capitalism and the strengths of good willed social conscience. The opening shots of Metropolis depict large machines churning endlessly as they produce a life of pleasure for those living on the surface. These images, thanks to industrialization and the assembly line, scream capitalism. But machines can’t operate without human labor, especially in the early 20th Century. The next sequences show the workers reporting for their shifts. They wear black and gray clothing (versus Freder’s all white) and walk in perfect rows, their heads hung, their shoulders slouched. The image is quite clear: their spirits have been broken. They are no longer human, just living cogs in the greater machines of Metropolis. But they are consoled by Maria, who tells them that, “The mediator between brain and hands must be the heart.” She says that the Mediator shall arrive soon, and with him shall come a better way of life.

Analyzing this metaphor, we can see that the hands are the workers, and the brain is Joh Frederson. Like the Biblical account of the Tower of Babel, where mankind lost the ability to understand one another, the workers and Frederson speak different languages. Their lives are too different, their sensibilities too extreme. But with Freder as an intermediate, a translator and a man of pure heart, both parties can communicate and exist to the betterment of society. No one gets left behind. There are no poor, no homeless, and all fill a vital role in the creation of a powerful city. A good conscious, with the balance of socialism, leads to mutual prosperity.

However you feel about the political implications of Metropolis, you can’t disagree that it makes its point with heart and vision. Note, also, that Director Lang fled Germany in 1933 when Hitler proposed that Lang become a head in the Nazi regime. He eventually moved to Hollywood, where he continued his filmmaking career and produced over twenty films.

Metropolis’ second major theme comes from Biblical references as metaphors for the sins of capitalism. In addition to the Tower of Babel motif, Maria reads scripture to the workers in a shrine built in an old catacomb. There are several references to the Apocalypse and the seven headed beast mentioned in Revelation, which we see in the film when a group of men are entertained by a woman engaged in an erotic dance. She is the figure of the woman bearing the seven headed beast: the seven deadly sins. And then there is the flood reference. Once the workers revolt against the machines, against their enslavement, the workers’ city is flooded and completely covered in water. Only when the sins committed against them are washed away can their society, with Freder as a Mediator, be born anew.

It looks as if Metropolis will remain popular for another eighty years, and with good reason. As Hollywood continues to degrade the quality of their features with focus on action and special effects instead of character development and story, movies from the past only improve. Let this be a lesson to filmmakers everywhere, especially filmmakers of SF: audiences are not stupid! Give us some credit, ask us to go on a journey of the mind, submerge us in character and good writing, and movies like Metropolis, movies that change the world, can still be made.

Copyright © 2005 by Shaun Farrell. All Rights Reserved.