I thought it was about time I watched some more silent cinema. I watched some when I was at university but it’s something in which I have never been that well versed. I’m well aware of the significance of Metropolis and how well it’s revered, but it was a film that had somehow passed me by until now.
Plot: Metropolis is a sprawling city with high-rise skyscrapers and futuristic transport systems. However, below the city live the lower class workers who endlessly toil to provide Metropolis with power. Freder Fredersen (Gustav Fröhlich), whose father Foh (Alfred Abel) is the Master of Metropolis, falls in love after a brief encounter with Maria (Brigitte Helm), a young woman idolised by the workers as a figure of hope. In order to find Maria, Freder becomes one of the workers, discovering how terrible their life is. Worried about a worker uprising, Joh orders Rotwang (Rudolf Klein-Rogge), a crazed inventor, to use his latest creation, a Maschinenmensch (or Machine-Human), to take the form of Maria in order to ruin her reputation amongst the workers.
First, a bit of a history lesson. When Metropolis was released in 1927, it was the most expensive film made to that point, costing 5 million Reichsmarks, and is considered the first ever science fiction. In 2001, it became the first film to be inscribed on UNESCO’s Memory of the World Register. Previously, the original premiere cut of the film had disappeared and over a quarter of the film was lost. However, in 2008 a print of writer/director Fritz Lang’s original cut was found in a museum in Argentina, and after a long restoration process, was screened in 2010. Some portions of the film are still missing, whilst others are unable to be fully restored and, as such, are of very poor quality and in the incorrect aspect ratio. End lesson d’histoire.
As should be fairly evident from the plot synopsis, which only covers the main points, Metropolis is pretty epic in scale. There is plenty more going on besides that gives the film an immensely deep plot that goes far and beyond a huge number of films made since. I can’t recall many films I’ve seen recently at the cinema that have been quite so layered. Obviously the visual side of cinema has improved thanks to advancements in technology, but many such films are depressingly shallow.
What also hit me about the story was how relevant it still is. The underprivileged working class toil and sweat whilst the bourgeoisie enjoy a life of luxury is a theme that rings incredibly true today; ask many about the UK’s Conservative government and you’ll likely hear stories to this effect. Of course, the class system has always been there; it’s nothing knew, but the fact that this film is just as poignant now as ever makes it timeless. For me, Metropolis is right up there with George Orwell’s 1984 in terms of social commentary that was way ahead of it’s time.
The film also excels in its visuals and, again, feels years ahead of its time. The sets are hugely impressive considering when the film was made; sure, some do look like sets rather than an actual city but their attention to detail soon makes you buy into them completely. It seems that there was a penchant for impressive sets during the first couple of decades of cinema; just look at the sets for DW Griffith’s Intolerance. The special effects are also spectacular, again considering the film was made nearly 90 years ago. When you think that they are all created using proper, old-fashioned camera and editing techniques, it’s even more impressive.
The film is a product of German expressionism, the artistic movement that came out of Germany in the early 20th century. Many of the recognisable hallmarks are present and correct, including themes of madness and betrayal as well as angular sets (although less so than some other films of the period), monumentalism and modernism.
Metropolis has clearly been a huge influence on directors and their work. You could argue that it has an some kind of influence on most science fiction films since 1927 and others besides. Blade Runner is a film that likely wouldn’t exist without Metropolis, whilst the effect on Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy is obvious. Nolan has even gone on record to cite Metropolis as one of his biggest influences. Just take a look at the design of Gotham City in Batman Begins for irrefutable proof. However, Metropolis clearly has influences of its own. The Maschinenmensch is straight out of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, whilst the forbidden love story of Freder and Maria harks back to Romeo & Juliet and probably various other works.
I also feel as if I have to mention the film’s score. The original score was composed by Gottfried Huppertz and was rerecorded for the 2010 re-release by the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra. It is quite simply magnificent. Not something I’d listen to in the car, but it works so perfectly for the film. It’s quite startling at first to hear a full orchestral score blasting out, but after a few minutes it just becomes an integral part of the film and, along with title cards, actually helps to tell the story in the absence of dialogue.
So there are my thoughts on Metropolis and I feel as if I’ve barely scratched the surface. It’s ripe for analysis thanks to its many layers of social commentary and religious messages, but I would have to watch it again a few times to properly decipher some of that. A real visionary piece of work, this is a film that everyone should take the time to watch and appreciate.