There are films with such a history that it’s impossible to ignore it. Metropolis is a film that has been lost and found over time so often that even today we still are not able to find the complete 153 minute version that was first shown in 1927. Three years ago a more inclusive version of the film was released, amounting to 148 minutes, with frame reconstruction and a few interesting editing techniques, including having a section of the incomplete film’s story explained via title cards, where it is obvious was once visual storytelling.
When the film opens we are greeted with the image of the workers of this massive production facility changing shifts. One group leaving work and the other arriving. We follow the group leaving work to see them heading onto a series of elevators to take them to their home, which is beneath the grand city that they’ve built, in the vision of Jon Fredersen (Alfred Abel). The film spends the next two and a half hours showing the distance between the visionaries and the men of action that create and conceive.
Like many times in societal history there has, and will always be, a class separation in existence. We see it in film every week at the theatre. There’s always someone who believes another is below him, because of one ridiculous reason or another. Metropolis begins with an easy narration wherein it’s explained to us that while this separation can exist there should always be an inbetween. A ways of communication between ‘The head and the hands’ and this mediator should be the heart. Without it the two ends become disconnected and embroiled in their own problems so much so that the entire body fails to thrive.
The mediator is set out to be Freder (Gustav Frohlich), the son of the industrialist, Jon Fredersen. One day, while he’s in the garden of wonderfully half naked women enjoying himself, he’s interrupted by a striking young woman, Maria (Brigitte Helm), bringing in a group of boys and girls, all sons and daughters of the workers down below. Upon entering the pleasure garden she proclaims to Freder, and the children with her, that “these are your brothers and sisters” before being shunned away. This inspires Freder to find out more of these supposed brothers and sisters he has which entangles him with a few of the workers below and leads him to his destined role of attempting to mediate dealings between the workers and his father to keep the body alive and well.
Before Freder can begin to mediate between these two parties however he is given a few hurdles to overcome. While he grew up in a life of privilege and has somewhat an understanding of that viewpoint he must now ascertain the viewpoint of those “below” himself. With that he assimilates himself into the worker environment to discover that Maria is somewhat of a prophet to the workers proclaiming that this mythic mediator will come to solve all of their problems and make life all better for them.
Then we meet Rotwang (Rudolf Klein-Rogge) who has invented the first android, which he calls a “Man Machine”. He and Fredersen colludes together to kidnap Maria, give Rotwang’s Man Machine Maria’s physical likeness and have it sabotage all the plannings of the workers to help Fredersen keep control over the lower class.
If there’s one thing this film doesn’t lack it’s plotting. I’ve even left out subplots of Josaphat (Theodor Loos) and The Thin Man (Fritz Rasp) in my above description. Like many I have seen only a microcosm of what exists in the world of silent cinema and remain always ready to consume more, however this may be the most detailed plotted film I can remember seeing from this era of filmmaking. With so much told visually it’s difficult to pick out a wasted moment on screen or even through dialogue.
The film’s imagery is anything but subtle. There are times when Fritz Lang actually looks to remind us of the themes he wants to portray numerous times through imagery. The same narration that opens the film, of the mediator, is repeated numerous times through Maria’s preaching to the workers and when the finale comes around. The same thing happens with the Babel imagery. Early on when Freder first is inspired to speak to his father about his suffering brothers in the machine room he screams, “to the new Tower of Babel,” and later on the film explains – in almost a scripture like manner — the imagery and meaning of the Woman of Babel who inspires all of these sins that eventually leads to the death of a people only to have the Machine Man version of Marie be placed into that exact same imagery so much so that the film would overlay the presented image of the Woman of Babel when evil Marie appears to remind us. This, in most films are things that I argue of lazy filmmaking and boring storytelling. However, somehow I was able to forgive it and play along mainly because everything else about the movie worked so well. I was so invested in Freder’s journey to do good for his brothers and sisters and Rotwang’s own seeking of revenge against Fredersen for what he did to Hel and such that I was able to overlook these niggling narrative moments.
Where this film shines is in it’s special effects. Between Rotwang’s experiment to bring the Machine Man to life and give it the likeness of Marie, to the look of the city which always had this gaudy look and feel to it that it gave me a sense of wonder that I was unsure a film this dated could give me. While effects have come a long way since 1927 it’s no less surprising to see something as simple as those rings appearing over Rotwang’s invention as he goes through the procedure so much so that the simple dissolve from the machine to Maria becomes a brilliant cumulative moment that I loved.
There’s also the great sequence of the flooding city below with Freder, Josaphat and Marie saving the children. While it’s obvious the use of miniatures to depict the crumbling city under flooding waters it doesn’t make it any less visually amazing.