Director: Fritz Lang. Starring: Brigitte Helm, Alfred Abel, Gustav Fröhlich, Rudolf Klein-Rogge. Germany, 1927. IMDB: 8.3. My rating: 4/4. “The mediator between head ad hands must be the heart”.
– Who is the living food for the machines? Who lubricates the machine joints with their own blood? Who feeds the machines with their own flesh? Let the machines starve, you fools! Let them die! Kill them – the machines!
(The Machine Man, disguised as Maria)
The grandaddy of all science fiction cinema. First ever blockbuster. The above quote is not from some 90-s cyberpunk movies, it is ”Metropolis”. But the dark and haunting creation of Fritz Lang is not only interesting due to its age, cult status or influence. It’s simply a breathtaking movie to watch, regardless of its heritage. Even 90 years since its first release.
”Metropolis” is one of the most remarkable movies of silent era, a culmination of German Expressionism (“The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” is another important movie of that time). This German 153-minute epic by Fritz Lang (born in Austria) could be put on pause literally every frame – yes, it’s that stunning. It’s probably difficult to realize the immense influence of this giant. Some obvious examples would be “Blade Runner”, Star Wars, Tim Burton, “Dark City”, “Deus Ex”, noir movies, Kubrick, fashion and pop culture in general.
The film swallows you with its immense feeling and dark images. Workers move in mechanical and repeating movements, becoming a part of a huge Heart Machine, which purpose is unknown… but probably is needed just to keep workers busy, strangling them in a deathly rhythm. A bohemian boy who goes underground to discover the world of working class that shocks him. Giant still frames of the obscure city with people like ants. A bizarre garden with strangest animals. Cold and pragmatic architecture in Le Corbusier style. 7 sins, first portrayed as stone statues, turn alive as real characters. Everything is distorted.
The plot effectively connects the visuals and the characters. Metropolis is an unknown futuristic city, where the society is divided between the higher class, who planned the city and the workers, who actually build it and keep it ”alive” though various machines. Freder, the son of the merciless governor of Metropolis, falls in love with a prophet, Maria, who is predicting the arrival of the savior. Soon Rotwang, the mad scientist, manages to replicate an android, the Machine Man, that looks exactly like Maria, but has completely different aims.
The dialogues are short – mostly the actors express their thoughts through movement and mimics. And they do it really well. For some of them, notably Brigitte Helm, who played a double role here (Maria/The Machine Man), it was a debut. Still, you will find some intertitles that help to understand better the story. A conversation between Freder and his father gives a good insight:
– Where they belong…
– Where they belong…? In the depths…?
The next scene shows an answer of what would be the right place – a giant lift, going deeper and deeper, full of workers that stand still with their heads down. As the lift opens, they start to move. Slowly, mechanically, all flowing in the same rhythm. Glued to giant machines.
”Metropolis” was the most expensive movie ever made at that time – $1.2 million roughly (or $12 millions, if adjusted to inflation). The first blockbuster ever, let’s put it like that. The 153-minute version was restored only in 2010. The original version that was shown during the first years, was believed to be lost during the World War 2. Different cuts and edits existed for decades with about 20-30% of material cut, however, they did not contain several crucial episodes explaining the plot. The missing print was discovered in the archives of the Museo del Cine in Buenos Aires, Argentina. You would ask then, how come all this influence if it was only fully shown in 2010? Well, missing episodes were explaining the character motivation, but even without them, “Metropolis” visually is more impressive than most science fiction you have ever seen.
Hence dubious reception, because most reviewers of that epoch criticized the film for bleak and simplistic characters without appreciating the visuals. “Metropolis” was ahead of its time, of course, it received critical review even from such science fiction mastermind as H. G. Wells, but was (strangely) adored by the Nazi Party in Germany – Fritz Lang was invited by Goebbels later on become the head on German cinematography department. Probably they didn’t realize that the movie was a satire of what was happening in Europe and Germany at that time. Few days later, Lang left Germany.
- Mad scientist Rotwang with an artificial hand, who is conducting his sinister experiments.
- Ruthless governor Joh Frederson, who is the ingenious architect, the heartless mastermind of the city, only interested in the city itself since he lost his wife, though still caring about his sensitive son.
- Sensitive and rebel young son of the governor – Freder, who is following high ideals and seeking justice.
- The Thin Man, the merciless, cold and yet stylish killer, who is sent by the governor to find his son. Could be easily transported directly from the film to any of James Bond movies as main antagonist.
- The Machine Man, an android who using her (!) human disguise is fooling people.
- A nervous secretary, who wants to commit suicide after being fired.
- The rational and mighty blacksmith Grot, the Guardian of the Heart Machine, who resists to follow the android.
There are others as well, but this will give you the flavour of it. The acting is superb. The characters are sharp – each has easily recognizable way of walking, the face expressions, the mimics. If you have never seen a silent movie before, it will be some kind of revelation.
What about the technical side of the movie? Oh, it is incredible. With little means Lang achieves a lot. Mirrors, miniatures of huge towers and buildings and micro reproductions – all was used to create the city. Dark, gloomy, geometrical city. Very impressive. You will see a reminiscence of “Blade Runner”, ”Dark City” and some other noir/cyberpunk movies, but… “Metropolis” is a thing in itself. It does not need future comparisons to fully express its dark beauty. There is plenty of symbolism too. Religious, political, cultural. Still, even with all its allegories ”Metropolis”, in first place, is a tale. You can find the depth here if you want. But even Lang himself saw the film in this way.
Fritz Lang, without doubt, was an interesting guy. A marginal artist. Many of those who worked with him said that the ruthless governor of ”Metropolis” Joh Frederson was a actually the incarnation of the director himself. Being a perfectionist, Lang would continuously demand numerous re-takes even for simple scenes. Here you can read a very good interview with him made in the 70-s, it gives a good idea about his ideas and stiff character:
– Did you allow your actors to improvise?
– No. No improvisation. I change something when an actor comes and says “I cannot speak this line,” but I don’t change the meaning of the line. I don’t like what many directors do—to play the part for an actor. You know, many directors say “Look, I have no time to explain it to you, for Christ’s sake.” I don’t want to have 25 little Fritz Langs running around on the screen.
Worth watching? ”Metropolis” is one of the greatest films ever made. 90 years after its release, it still looks more modern and genuine than most science fiction ever produced. A timeless masterpiece.