#148 Metropolis

(1927, Fritz Lang)

“The mediator between the head and hands must be the heart”

What’s the most influential sci-fi movie ever made? Most modern audiences would suggest the likes of Star Wars or Blade Runner, or even go as far as suggesting The Matrix. 2001: A Space Odyssey would be likely to crop up in the discussion too. But what about the movie that started it all? The first major sci-fi epic, made during the silent era: Metropolis.

Set in a dystopian future, the city of Metropolis is presided over by its master, Joh Fredersen (Alfred Abel), who lives in the lap of luxury while the workers toil underground to keep the city’s many machines running. His son, Freder (Gustav Frolich), lives in blissful ignorance of the politics until one day a mysterious woman named Maria (Brigitte Helm) appears in the upper city and shows Freder several dishevelled children from the underground and claims they are his “brothers”. He discovers the class divide and is horrified, causing him to befriend Maria and attempt to bring the two worlds together. Meanwhile, the inventor Rotwang (Rudolf Klein-Rogge) is working on a machine that resembles a human being and has his own dark plans.

The immediate thing that I noticed about Metropolis is just how impressive the movie looks. Released in 1927, the effects are still genuinely effective. The movie opens on shots of the machinery and the impressive vistas of the titular city, and it’s baffling to realise that this is a movie from the early days of cinema. There are modern sci-fi movies that struggle to get the same sense of scale Metropolis achieved with much more limited resources, and it’s easy to see why the movie is so highly praised as a landmark sci-fi movie.

What’s even more impressive is that the plot also holds up today. If anything, with a real growing gap between rich and poor happening worldwide, Metropolis is more relevant than ever. The depiction of manual workers as underappreciated slaves by an upper class who actively choose to stay ignorant of what happens below is starkly effective, with workers shuffling mindlessly in sync, a bleak sense of boredom and frustration surrounding them at all times. Depictions of workers being literally worked to death is incredibly harrowing to watch, too.

What’s more, this doesn’t feel like a simple revolution movie either. There are a lot of deciding factors in all of this, and Rotwang’s machine throws a spanner in the works, as do Freder’s attempts to peacefully bridge the wealth gap using his sympathy for the workers and his status as a member of the upper classes. There are a number of sub-plots here, and they all weave in and out of each other with ease. It’s difficult to know where the movie’s going to take you next, so you’re constantly on edge about who’ll win this “war”.

There are issues with Metropolis though. At times, the religious imagery can get a little over-the-top, with Freder being presented as almost Christ-like at times. The talk of apocalypse as seen in the Book of Revelation and seven deadly sins are thrown at the audience with reckless abandon, and at times it can feel almost like religious propaganda. The workers also worship at an underground church where they pray for the arrival of the “mediator”, the great individual who’ll save them from the horrors of working in the harsh environments that they do, and it can get a little too much.

It’s also difficult to get past some of the exaggerated acting that comes with the territory of silent movies. While overall the acting is good, there are moments where things get a little silly. There are several instances where Freder is in shock but almost looks like he’s about to kiss another man in his distress, though this can be an amusing distraction. Similarly, the frightening bendiness of “evil” Maria later in the movie is kind of laughable.

But ultimately, Metropolis is a true silent classic, and the sci-fi genre owes a lot to this stunning piece of work that still holds up well today.

Starring Alfred Abel, Brigitte Helm, Gustav Frolich & Rudolf Klein-Rogge
Written by Thea von Harbou
Produced by Erich Pommer
Music by Gottfried Huppertz
Cinematography by Karl Freund, Gunther Rittau & Walter Ruttmann

Favourite Scene: The early scenes of the movie are an impressive opener and a good indicator of what’s coming
Scene That Bugged Me: The scene in the church depicting the seven deadly sins is a major factor in the sledgehammer religious overtones, and a little distracting

Watch it if: You’re a fan of sci-fi and want to see where its cinema history began
Avoid it if: You’re afraid of crazily bendy lady robots

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Posted on January 10, 2013, in 1920s, Germany, Sci Fi, Silent and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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