What is Metropolis, and why should you care? Metropolis is a classic of the silent film days. It’s a story of the future, romance, horror, scifi, intrigue, music, war, erotica, and even the class struggle. It’s the golden age secret origin of cinematic science fiction. And on a personal note, it’s one of my top five favorite movies of all time. Why should you care? Because everything you know about genre film came from Metropolis, oh yeah, it’s that bad ass.
Metropolis is a tale of a dystopic future mega-city where the rich and powerful live in giant glass and steel skyscrapers while the worker class, almost zombie-like slaves live far below the ground. Freder, son of the city’s leader, falls in love with Maria, a teacher and follows her down below to the workers’ city. Freder is horrified by what he sees, and even goes so far as to trade places with a worker to experience their horror. Meanwhile, Rotwang, a mad scientist and rival of Freder’s father, plots the city’s destruction. Maria is more than she seems, a savior of sorts for the workers, she espouses a unification of the workers and the leaders, and therein lies the theme of the film – “There can be no understanding between the hand and the brain unless the heart acts as mediator.”
Rotwang unfortunately has built an automaton, an insidious robot designed to incite the workers to riot, and he has given it the appearance of Maria. This creature raises hell and creates chaos wherever she goes, performing evil in the visage of the city’s savior. Freder and the real Maria must stop the robot and save the city, and all of its inhabitants, worker and thinker alike, from certain destruction. A sweeping epic, a story for the ages, and it did it first.
Metropolis was based on the novel by Thea Von Harbou, who also wrote the screenplay, and whose husband at the time, legendary director Fritz Lang directed the film. Made in 1925 for approximately five million marks, or $200 million adjusting for today’s inflation rates, it took two years to make, and included over 37,000 extras, most in costume of some sort. The robot was built from plastic moldable wood, and miniatures, sets, and backgrounds were painstakingly painted and detailed. Even nearly ninety years later, the film is gorgeous, a masterpiece of cinema, and a shining symbol of German expressionist storytelling. It is truly Lang’s greatest film.
It’s noteworthy that the film destroyed Lang’s marriage to Von Harbou. Hitler and Third Reich were quite taken with Metropolis, and Thea was quite taken with them. This put the Jewish Lang in quite a difficult position. He was given a ‘pass’ by German authorities to remain in country and make more films for the glory of the Fatherland. His answer – he divorced Von Harbou and fled to America. While he garnered worldwide acclaim as a Hollywood director for decades, she died, still in Germany in the 1950s.
The cast is among the best Germany had to offer at the time. Rudolf Klein-Rogge, famous from The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, and Fritz Lang’s own Dr. Mabuse films, as well as being Von Harbou’s previous husband, was the devious Rotwang. Dramatic actor Gustav Frohlich played Freder. Fritz Rasp was the Thin Man, more on him later, but the true star of Metropolis was the beautiful and talented Brigitte Helm in several roles, but primarily as Maria and the automaton.
Metropolis made her a star, and she had a fairly long career afterward until her distaste for the Nazis made her flee to Switzerland, where she retired until her death in the 1990s. She was the original casting choices for both the title role in The Bride of Frankenstein and Marlene Dietrich’s Lola Lola in The Blue Angel. Her performance in Metropolis however was her magnum opus. In the silent days, all emotion and communication had to be conveyed with facial expressions, and she was a sorceress. She could be so innocent and sincere in one scene, and then as the robot inspiring revolution and destruction, she was literally The Devil, all with a look. I would put Brigitte Helm up against any American actress of her day, she was just that amazing.
Like many silent films of the era, much of the full version of Metropolis has been lost. It has only been in recent years and even in recent months that a near complete version has been released and seen. One of the oddities is the character of the Thin Man, once thought to be just a creepy servant; now in restored footage is an even more sinister villain who is downright frightening. When I first saw the film as a kid, I saw an hour-long version, now there is a 148-minute cut available, and this newest ‘complete’ version is stunning. Even more stunning is that the original release was 210 minutes long; the mind boggles at what is still lost.
I made a bold statement about Metropolis at the start of this article, and I stand by it. Watch this fabulous film, and you will see Star Wars as C-3PO’s design is taken directly from the robot Maria, you will see the “Flash Gordon” and “Buck Rogers” that came just a few years later, you will see astounding cityscapes and underworlds of Blade Runner – this film really is the beginning of cinematic science fiction, a blueprint for everything that came after it, and it was all done in the 1920s, yeah, Metropolis did it first.
The most complete version of Metropolis is available on DVD and Blu-Ray, as well as several shorter versions. Recently the 1984 reissue by Giorgio Moroder came out on DVD and Blu-Ray. This was a bold experiment to graft an edited version of the film to music by pop artists of the day. Even though I liked it, it met with little commercial success. It did however expose a new generation to this great film, inspiring both Queen and Madonna in making music videos, and that new interest also helped in finding some of the lost footage, and that is a good thing.
Now Metropolis continues to inspire new generations, as they look forward to what can be done, and backward at what brought us there. This is a must-see film, Metropolis is the future, then and now.
Copyright 2012 Glenn Walker