Metropolis (1927)


(director/writer: Fritz Lang; screenwriter: from the novel of Thea von Harbou/Thea von Harbou; cinematographers: Karl Freund/Gunther Rittau; music: Gottfried Huppertz; cast: Alfred Abel (Joh Fredersen), Gustav Frohlich (Freder), Rudolf Klein-Rogge (Rotwang), Brigitte Helm (Maria/Robot), Fritz Rasp (Slim), Theodor Loos (Josephat), Helene Weigel (Female Worker), Curt Siodmak (Working Man); Runtime: 95; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Erich Pommer; United American Video; 1927-Silent-Germany-with English subtitles)
“Science fiction at its silliest and at its best.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Science fiction at its silliest and at its best. Though incoherent because it was cut unmercifully by the studio after its release. It originally ran for 153 minutes but lost 40 minutes on the cutting room floor to be re-released so it can have more shows to bring in a profit, only to be re-edited for American distribution and thereby was reduced further to 95 minutes. Some consider it the most famous silent film ever made; it certainly was the most daring and ambitious. Director Fritz Lang (“Fury”/You and Me”/”M”) adapted it from his wife Thea von Harbou’s novel and cowrote the screenplay with her. The film’s weakness is von Harbou’s trite dialogue, which is so awful it’s laughable.

It was the biggest budgeted film at the time in Germany, costing Ufa over a million dollars and taking over a year to complete (unable to bring home a profit despite being well-attended busted Ufa, who had to be bailed out by communications magnate Alfred Hugengberg, a soon to be Nazi government official, and Paramount and MGM). Lang was set on making a lavish Hollywood style production that would top theirs and to outdo his previous Wagnerian epics. It’s an epic futuristic tale set in the 21st century, some 100 years in the future, in the mighty city of Metropolis (a fictionalized exaggeration of New York). It tells about a crippling conflict between labor and management, as the workers have become oppressed and rebel.

Metropolis is a huge city of sixty million people. The down-trodden proletariats work underground and slave at the machines, while the ruling class administrators live in palatial comfort high above in the city’s towers. Joh Fredersen (Alfred Abel) is the brainy Lord of Metropolis, a thinker who has the vision to run the city. His sensitive son Freder (Gustav Frohlich) has become smitten by the beautiful and saintly factory worker Maria (Brigitte Helm, a 17-year-old newcomer), whom he spots leading a delegation of children into the upper towers to ask for justice. Anxious to meet her, Freder follows her when she goes down to the lower depths of the city. The sheltered lad becomes horrified to see for the first time the horrible state of conditions that exist for the workers, and returns to plea with his father to make reforms. Instead his father orders the mad genius scientist Rotwang (Rudolf Klein-Rogge), the father’s embittered romantic rival, to build a robot double of Maria that is evil in order to invoke the workers with her rants to riot. In their rage at destroying the machines and the system that exploits them, the workers do not recognize until it’s almost too late that the Maria they are following is a robot and that their destructive actions open up the water pipes that will destroy their underground living quarters and kill them.

The crude visionary parable somehow works to strike up many discordant political images despite its absurd sentimental happy ending of labor and management shaking hands on a truce when both are influenced by a love for humanity (a most dubious political comment from von Harbou that renders the tale silly; von Harbou would later desert hubby as he flies the coop to America and gleefully stays behind to join the Nazi party).

Metropolis, despite its faults, stands on its own as a powerful allegory on totalitarianism. That is mainly because of Lang’s incredible genius like set designs (using “the Schufftan process” — which involved placing mirrors to seamlessly combine actors, full-sized sets and miniatures; this allowed Lang to create spectacular shots of actors moving against seemingly massive sets) and Lang’s stunning unforgettable visuals (an impressive presentation on a large scale of the dehumanized workers buried underneath the city they built).

It was a pic that Hitler loved and the left felt disgusted in how the workers were presented as brainless tools who could be led around by demagogues and fooled into having meaningless truces with the ruthless technocratic ruling class. But if you ever wanted to see a film with majestic visuals that depict the age of industrialization in an urban setting better than any other film has ever done, then Lang’s overly ambitious and deeply flawed pulp film hits the mark.

In 1984, composer Giorgio Morodor created his own controversial version. It ran for 87 minutes and was one of the shortest versions ever released. It featured new color tinting, a new score by Morodor and rock numbers by such performers as Adam Ant, Freddie Mercury and Pat Benatar.