Filmsite Movie Review
Metropolis (1927)
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Background

Metropolis (1927) is a stylized, visually-compelling, melodramatic silent film set in the dystopic, 21st century city of Metropolis - a dialectical treatise on man vs. machine and class struggle. Austrian director Fritz Lang's German Expressionistic masterpiece helped to develop the science-fiction genre, with innovative imagery from cinematographer Karl Freund, art design by Otto Hunte, Erich Kettelhut, and Karl Vollbrecht, and set design by Edgar Ulmer. It was the last of Lang's silent films. Among Lang's later US films were Fury (1936) with Spencer Tracy, an indictment of lynch mobs, You Only Live Once (1937), Scarlet Street (1945), Rancho Notorious (1952), the great film noir The Big Heat (1953), and Beyond a Reasonable Doubt (1956).

In the allegorical tale written by Lang's wife Thea Von Harbou (from her own novel), the luxurious, futuristic, Art Deco city of 2026 - an industrial world with skyscrapers and bridges, was divided or stratified into an upper, elite, privileged class of powerful industrialists and a subterranean, nameless, oppressed and exploited, ant-like worker/slave class. Thousands and thousands of extras were employed, and crude but effective cinematographic special effects achieved many of the film's unique hallucinatory imagery and dreamlike visions.

The film-with-a-message exhibits the influence of historical events occurring during its time frame of the burgeoning Industrial Revolution, including a time of economic misery and the rise of fascism in a pre-Hitler Weimar Republic Germany following the war, the rise of the American labor movement and unions during the 1920s due to oppressive working conditions, muckraking journalists (such as Jacob Riis), the contrast of poverty with the upper-crust classes of the Roaring 20s, the rise of immigration into the US and exploitation of workers (i.e., the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in 1911), labor strife (Capital or management vs. Labor), and the 1917 communist uprising in the Soviet Union. It also reflects the ongoing struggle between light and dark, good and evil, and the dark ages (magic) vs. modern science.

Sadly, the original 1927 version of the film at two hours and 33 minutes no longer exists - and about a fourth of the film has been lost forever, although recently a fuller version of the film was located in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Its fate followed the same legacy as many other classics that were butchered, recut, corrupted and lost, such as Greed (1924), The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), and The Lady From Shanghai (1948). After its premiere, the movie was trimmed by 40 minutes and then shortened again. Initially unsuccessful at the box-office, American playwright Channing Pollock re-edited the film to "normal feature length" for its American release by Paramount and UFA (the German distributor that was nearly bankrupted), and reworded the English subtitles. Until recently, it was only available for viewing in blurry, ruined, truncated prints. This famous silent film has been restored most notably twice:

The scenes that were heavily edited out of the original film included the backstory on the conflict between the industrialist and the mad scientist/inventor over a woman named Hel, another subplot involving the industrialist's spy named the Thin Man or Slim, scenes taking place in the Yoshiwara "red-light" district of the metropolis, some of the symbolism in the dialogue, and much of the climactic chase scene.

Lang's ambitious, big-budget Metropolis was in production for almost two years (at ten times the expense of the average Hollywood production of the time). It mixed many sources in its eclectic delivery: Biblical Old Testament references (e.g., The Tower of Babel, Moloch), the skyline of Manhattan (inspired by Lang's 1924 visit), H.G. Wells' 1895 novel The Time Machine, Art Deco designs of the 1920s, the angular sets, labyrinthine passages, and bold lighting of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920, Germ.), Norse mythology, the Lon Chaney version of The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923) (in its final scene), and more. It has had a lasting influence on numerous films and other derivative works:

The Story

After the credits of the cast roll, an Epigram is presented:

THE MEDIATOR BETWEEN HEAD AND HANDS MUST BE THE HEART!

The city of Metropolis appears with an opening montage - superimpositions of a gigantic machine of pumping machine pistons, flywheels, a rotating crankshaft, and an off-center disk - all parts thrusting, moving, pounding and turning. The 24 hour clocks in Metropolis have been redesigned, with only 10 hours on their dial.

The work shift (divided into day and night of 10 hours each, in the 20-hour day) changes at the end of ten hours, signaled by steam whistles blowing. In one of the film's most celebrated images, two parallel corridors contain two groups or battalions of uniformed workers (in dark worksuits) who are lined up in rows of six. The sullen workers leaving the subterranean machine area after their shift are exhausted, marching in unison only half as fast as the new shift of entering employees. A cage-elevator takes the day-shift slave-workers down to their underground living quarters in the Workers' City - the cage sinks and the camera remains on the same level, but the inter-title credits that follow sink into the depths, dropping from top to bottom:

Deep below

the earth's surface lay

the workers' city.

Three elevator loads of workers march toward the camera - a reverse angle shows them entering the main square of the Workers' City - a transit area where a giant gong is positioned. The next downward scrolling titles display a perfect triangle, pointing upwards:

As
deep as
lay the workers'
city below the earth,
so high above it towered
the complex named the "Club
of the Sons," with its lecture halls
and libraries, its theaters and stadiums.

The next scene is located at the airy, light, above-ground Sports stadium. In sharp contrast to the workers' area, athletic, virile youths, dressed in white, exhibit their liberation by engaging in a footrace around a track in a horizontal movement. The next scene occurs in the Eden-like Eternal Gardens, a pleasing, erotic place for the privileged youth to play and pleasure themselves:

Fathers for whom every revolution of a machine wheel meant gold had created for their sons the miracle of the Eternal Gardens.

In an artificial grotto, with sculpted columns that rise like stalactites, young women in carnival costumes with head adornments frolic, while peacocks roam. A ring-master asks: "Which of you ladies shall today have the honor of entertaining Master Freder, Joh Fredersen's son?" He has one of the ladies twirl counter-clockwise, and then clockwise to display herself - she is topless except for a light gauzy covering. The main character, Freder (Gustav Frohlich), the young, pampered, (motherless) son of a ruling, aristocratic capitalist - the autocratic master of Metropolis, is introduced as he plays hide-and-seek with the ladies. Around a circular water fountain partially hiding a water siren within its streams of water, the white shorts-wearing, ignorant and pampered Freder flirtatiously chases a young lady with a backless tight black top. When he catches her, bends her backwards, and presses towards her for a kiss, the frivolous scene is interrupted by the opening of doors from the medieval underground, to the gates of the futuristic garden above ground.

Emerging into the open air is a vision and apparition - a beautiful young woman Maria (Brigitte Helm) who leads and cares for a group of waif-like, hungry worker children. Freder is distracted by the virginal, motherly figure, who tells the children:

Look! These are your brothers!...Look- - ! These are your brothers!

The ringmaster from the Gardens orders the intruders to be dismissed, although Freder has obviously been entranced and profoundly impacted by her - and clasps his hands over his heart. The foreign group are shuffled away and the door closes, but Freder remains intrigued while ignoring his other lady friend. He asks: "Who - was that?," but is told nothing. The next caption reads:

But this is what happened to Freder - son of Joh Fredersen, master of Metropolis, when he went in search of the girl.

With his conscience stirred, Freder voluntarily enters the depths of the workers' realm. He runs through the doors in search of the girl - but comes upon the underground Machine Hall where the proletariat toils and suffers a miserable life. He has entered a part of the factory where a giant machine (termed the M-Machine or Moloch Machine) with a monstrous crankshaft rotating at its center is manned by twelve workers attending to dials, blinking lights and other controls. One of the straining workers collapses from exhaustion, and the machine's temperature gauge (resembling a thermometer) rises dangerously high. It overheats and explodes, propelling men through the air and sending plumes of steam skyward.

When thrown to the ground, Freder hallucinates that the machine's center has become the Moloch creature with eyes, nose, Sphinx-like front paws, and a gaping maw into which the masses of workers, now stripped and bald, are fed. Symbolically, the Moloch machine's inexhaustible appetite consumes the human lives of its operators, who are whipped into submission and led up the stairs to their death. [In the Old Testament, Moloch was the God of the Ammonites, to whom the Israelites offered sacrifices, including children.] Groups of dark-uniformed workers, in rows of six as in the shift-change sequence, march up the stairs in unison toward the mouth, as the Moloch monster is transformed back into the machine in Freder's eyes. Struggling and wounded workers (some carried on litters) move from right to left, in silhouette, in front of Freder, after the industrial accident.

Appalled by the horrors of the working world and the waste of life, Freder runs to a waiting limousine, and orders: "To the new Tower of Babel - to my father -!" He is driven on an elevated highway through Metropolis, full of fantastical towering skyscrapers, airplanes, traffic on the city's crowded streets, skycars, bridges and arching or suspended expressways.

In ruling Master Joh Fredersen's (Alfred Abel) executive office, busy male secretarial assistants feverishly work at their desks, taking dictation notes and watching a board of changing numbers. Freder first speaks to his father's assistant Josaphat (Theodor Loos) about his witnessing of the machine explosion, intent on telling his engrossed father about it. Fredersen sternly reprimands Josaphat for not keeping on top of the situation: "Why is it, Josaphat, that I learn of the explosion from my son, and not from you --! The details --!", and he sends him off to investigate. The Master then sends away his secretaries, and reassures his son, but Freder is deeply affected by the tragedy - he grabs the sides of his head with his hands and sinks into an armchair. His father asks: "What were you doing in the machine halls, Freder?" Freder answers:

I wanted to look into the faces of the people whose little children are my brothers, my sisters... Your magnificent city, Father - and you the brain of this city - and all of us in the city's light... - - And where are the people, father, whose hands built your city ---?

He points outside to the magnificent structures and zig-zagged buildings of Metropolis. His unmoved and callous father coldly replies - disregarding the pleas of his son and ignoring the suffering of the hordes of workers:

Fredersen: Where they belong...
Freder: In the depths...? What if one day, those in the depths rise up against you?

A blinking light on a switchboard distracts the Master, and he closes the curtains on the main office view window.

Josaphat returns with more news regarding the accident, and announces the presence of Grot (Heinrich George) - the bearded chief foreman and guardian of the Heart Machine, who has an important message. Grot enters and reports: "Two more of those damned plans, Mr. Fredersen...in the pockets of two men involved in today's accident at the M-Machine..." and presents the boss with two crumpled sheets of paper containing scrawled, mysterious hand-drawn diagrams or maps of the underground, circulated among workers. Fredersen again reprimands Josaphat for not receiving the news from him first, and then abruptly dismisses him: "Apply to the G-Bank for your remaining wages..." Freder is appalled by what the firing means for his friend Josaphat, and complains to his father: "It means: Go below! - Father! - go below! Into the depths -- !" He races after the stunned Josaphat to console him, and prevents him from committing suicide with a gun-blast to his head. Freder proposes a work offer: "Do you want to work for me, Josaphat?" and then tells him to return home and wait for him: "I still have a long way to go tonight. Into the depths to be with my brothers." Meanwhile in the Master's office, the suspicious Fredersen has summoned the Thin Man or Slim (Fritz Rasp), a hired thug and henchman, to follow and spy upon his son: "Beginning today, I wish to be kept informed of every step taken by my son."


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