Class differences seem to be the theme for this week (It was totally inadvertent, I promise). This time, we’re off to Germany to see what lies beneath in the 1927 film, Metropolis, a harrowing and complicated story of veiled dystopia. On one hand, it is among the first feature-length science fiction movies and really raised the bar in terms of visual and special effects. On the other, it’s a subdued-like-a-searchlight treatise on the evils of the capitalist system. Overall, it’s a laughable drag.
Metropolis was directed by Fritz Lang with the novel and screenplay written by his wife, Thea von Harbou, and opens with a shift change. Packs of workers trudge to and from their jobs deep underground, their shoulders hunched, their eyes down, more like machines than men. Even deeper underground lies their city, as plain and featureless as it is possible to be.
Above the surface, rich and sheltered playboy Freder cavorts around the city of Metropolis. He spends his days with women and playing sports, without a care in the world. There are birds, flowers, and fun, and it all seems perfect, but when a beautiful woman emerges with a large group of ragged children, and gestures to both sides: “These are your brothers!” Freder is visibly moved. Like the playboy he is, he’s more impressed by the woman than the children, and when she takes the group away again, he runs after her.
Instead of finding her, Freder stumbles into the steamy underworld of the city. He discovers the poorest of the poor are made to work so that he can live in luxury and the city can have power. Freder sees a worker injured by an explosion, and while the situation is handled calmly and efficiently, Freder imagines the workers being sacrificed to the city as if it’s a fire-breathing Aztec god.
Freder rushes to his father, Joh, who is the number one tycoon of Metropolis, and who, naturally, works in the center of the super-modern downtown, which has elevated steam trains and bi-planes flying around. Hmmm. The year is supposed to be 2026, by the way.
Freder tells Joh about the explosion, and it just so happens that Josaphat, his assistant is there as well, looking at some maps the underground foreman has brought up. Joh gets on Josaphat’s case for not telling him about the explosion, and sends him packing, which means he’s doomed to be an underground worker. In poor Josaphat’s defense, how could he have found out about something that happened miles away while he’s in a meeting? Ten to one, Joh’s firing of Josaphat was only to drive home how unfailingly cruel Joh is.
Freder goes to Josaphat’s aid, and sends him to his apartment, telling him to wait there for him. Papa’s not too pleased, and engages a hired thug known only as the Thin Man to tail his son.
Thin Man doesn’t get very far, because Freder’s next stop is back in the underground, where he sees a poor, exhausted worker matching the hands on a clock to which light bulb has been lit. What the point of this job is, I have no idea, but Freder approaches the man just in time to catch him as he collapses. Long story short, Freder and the man switch places–and clothes. Freder sends the guy, whose number is 11811 and whose name is Geordy, to his apartment while Freder takes over his job. It doesn’t take long for Freder to become deliriously bored.
Meanwhile, apparently to show he has a softer side, Joh goes to visit a monument that’s for his late wife, Hel. It’s this gigantic white head that made me think of Oz the Great and Powerful, only minus the billowy smoke and thundering voice. While Joh is still standing there contemplating, Rotwang, an inventor, rushes up and tries to shoo Joh away. Turns out, Rotwang was in love with Joh’s wife until Joh stole her from him, and Rotwang’s feeling a wee bit bitter. So much so that when Hel died, Rotwang erected the monument to her, and lost his hand as a result. Except that he hasn’t. Apparently the production designers thought a dark glove was sufficient to make audiences believe Rotwang’s hand isn’t there. Problem is, that’s where the illusion stops, as Rotwang uses his hand freely throughout the film. Sigh.
Somehow or other, on the other side of Rotwang’s wall is the underworld city, and he manages to break through enough to see what the underlings are up to. It just so happens that what is going on is basically a church service, and the men, including Freder, are listening to Maria, enraptured, as she tells them about the Tower of Babel. Sorta. She pretty much gets the main idea across–“Great is the world and its creator, and great is man.”–but there are some factual errors in her telling. Basically, she turns a cautionary account of why mankind shouldn’t get too big for its britches into a cautionary tale about the importance of good labor relations:
“Head and hands need a mediator. The mediator between head and hands must be the heart!”
“But where is our mediator, Maria?”
The light hits Freder like he’s Jesus, and he beats his chest in shame. Even so, he declares his love to Maria, who is equally enraptured with him.
Back on the surface, Rotwang shows Joh his new invention. Well, let’s put it this way: It’s a robot–not just any robot, but one that will take the place of Hel. And looks like an early prototype of C-3PO.
Fredersen wants Rotwang to copy Maria’s face to the robot, so that it can wreak havoc in the underworld without people knowing it’s a robot. Heh. Wonder if Rotwang’s robot can dream of electric sheep.
The scene where Rotwang transforms his robot is really remarkable for the time. According to filmsite.org, the visible electrical currents seen in the film were accomplished via multiple exposures.
While all this is happening, Freder is recovering from his ordeal underground. He makes his way into a church, and a statue of the Grim Reaper, flanked by the Seven Deadly Sins taunts him for his rich-kid indulgent ways. At home, he reads a book that mentions the Whore of Babylon, drunk on man’s sin. His worn-out mind sees delirious visions of Maria as the Whore, with men ogling her. Josaphat is hard-put to hold him back when he decides to look for her after he recovers.
How Metropolis winds up is knotty, whirling, and exhausting. Even though it’s a spectacle and full of innovative effects, I kept wanting it to be over. It ends well, but it feels like vicarious torture, and something about the movie just didn’t sit right with me. I think it was the misapplication of the Tower of Babel account, plus the film had an obvious Communist bent. While it’s not unreasonable for workers to expect fair treatment, and it’s certainly good for employers to keep in touch with those on their payroll, the film all but deifies the system. Not only that, but there are scenes in it such as Maria’s Whore of Babylon sequence, that are just plain clumsy and disturbing. It’s of its time, though, and some elements just don’t age well.
Metropolis wasn’t universally accepted. In spite of its breaking new ground, H.G. Wells called the film silly. Critics such as Oliver Claxton faulted it for being too long, which I have to agree with. Lang himself said later that he disliked the film, and that building a movie around the idea of the heart mediating between head and hands was stupid. However, others were absolutely gaga over Metropolis. It was a favorite film of Adolf Hitler’s, as well as of Joseph Goebbels and other Nazis. Incidentally, Thea von Harbou became an enthusiastic member of the Nazi party after Hitler came to power, which led to she and Lang getting a divorce.
Uncomfortable associations aside, Metropolis was a great achievement in terms of special effects. It’s always interesting to see what very early filmmakers were able to accomplish and how stories were interpreted for the silent screen. In that sense, Metropolis is a film that can and should be studied.
Coming up next, we will be swashing our buckles in the…
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This movie is available on Amazon.