If you go to the movies and groan at posters for films that promise to the biggest and baddest films of the year, you have Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis” to thank, which, in more than ninety years, still hasn’t been bested. Lang’s film, set in a futuristic paradise called Metropolis, opens with the mantra: “The mediator between head and hands must be the heart.” In “Metropolis,” the head is the upper class, led by Joh Fredersen (Alfred Abel), the creator of Metropolis. The hands are his workers, who operate entirely underneath the floors of the city, never to be seen by the financially inclined folks of above.
The heart is Fredersen’s son, Freder (Gustav Frohlich), who spends his days leisuring around with friends. One day, Freder is confronted by the beautiful Maria (Brigitte Helm), accompanied by hundreds of impoverished children from below, who tells him and his friends that they are the brothers and sisters of Metropolis’ citizens. A sudden change of heart causes Freder to become a part of Maria’s non-violent, underground revolution, and his induction into the group brings with it the fulfillment of a prophecy involving The Mediator, a rich man from Metropolis who will come below ground to free the workers from their debilitating labor. Meanwhile, a mad scientist named Rotwang (Rudolf Klein-Rogge) is commissioned by Fredersen to create a Machine Man with the likeness of Maria to try and overthrow the revolution’s growing power.
The list of films that have been influenced by Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis” is, in the most literal sense, endless. Boasting special effects and costume design that still manage to dazzle audiences in an era of CGI and green screen, “Metropolis” works almost purely as mindless spectacle, but Lang creates something even more compelling by drafting three compulsively watchable characters that carry the film effortlessly through its lofty thematic and visual scope. As the activist son of an industrial tycoon, Gustav Frohlich brilliantly portrays the conflict that arises when one is forced to choose between family and the greater good, a theme that has been replicated tirelessly, albeit with diminishing returns.
The film’s greatest performance, however, comes from the multi-faceted Brigitte Helm, who tackles a dual role with an excellent knack for character that rises above the somewhat hamfisted material, transcending it into something almost poetic. Through little more than a glance to the camera or the flicker of an eyelid, Helm does more with her two characters than most films do with ten. She is the face of “Metropolis” in almost every conceivable aspect, and credit must also be given to Lang for giving her the tools to portray two timeless characters in the same film.
As a narrative, the film ranks among the best blockbuster films ever produced. Like the best of its modern counterparts, “Metropolis” is passionate, loud, grand, messy, partially incoherent, and utterly insane. Every plot twist is more inane than the last, but Lang’s commitment to his themes, paired with his innovative visual techniques, gives “Metropolis” an endearing quality that’s noticeably absent from most of the films it has inspired.
Lang’s scathing indictment of capitalism, in particular, is one of “Metropolis’” driving forces that can be interpreted as both the film’s strongest and weakest aspects. On the one hand, Lang makes no attempt to address these themes subtly, and they are discussed almost directly in the dialogue and through the function of certain characters. On the other hand, many of Lang’s predictions about the future of capitalism, most noticeably the gradual dissolve of the middle class, have been proven correct. At its core, “Metropolis” is a technophobic film that utilized the industry’s most cutting-edge technology in order to convey that message, which has been a cause of controversy for DP Wally Pfister’s directorial debut, “Transcendence,” among others.
So what is it that separates “Metropolis” from those films? Why does a movie such as this continue to endure so many decades after its release, despite the fact that a large chunk of it was lost in a fire? The answer is simple, and it’s why people go to the movies in the first place: entertainment. More than being a political or social statement, “Metropolis” is extremely entertaining, and has the power to appeal to anybody, even those who proclaim to hate silent films. It’s far from perfect, that’s undebatable, but it is sweeping, grandiose, romantic, and amazing. It is, in essence, the ultimate movie.Continue Reading Issue #23
March 13, 1927
2 hr. 25 min.
Brigitte Helm, Gustav Frohlich, Alfred Abel, Rudolf Klein-Rogge, Henrich George, Theodor Loos