Film Review: Metropolis

‘Metropolis’ is the ripe old age of eighty-three and, therefore, hardly qualifies as a new release. Yet wait, for this is a version of the film which you are guaranteed never to have seen before, unless you happened to have caught the sci-fi classic on its initial German release in 1927. After that, both UFA, the studio which produced the film and Paramount who distributed it in America, decided to chop ‘Metropolis’ down from over two and a half hours to what they considered to be an audience friendly length. The missing footage, together with the complete vision of director Fritz Lang, was thought to have been lost forever.

In one of those minor miracles which we can still believe in, a 16 mm print of the film recently surfaced in Argentina containing twenty-five minutes of previously discarded material. Following lengthy restoration and reconstruction, ‘Metropolis’ has been brought closer to what Lang had intended the film to be all those years ago.

‘Metropolis’ is a portrayal of a fantastical future imagined by minds from our own past. The movie very much reflects the period in which it was created – the decadence of the Weimar Republic, the Fascist rule of neighbouring Italy- but it also has a storyline which is eternally relevant. The world depicted in the film is one of haves and have-nots, where the majority suffer under the weight of industry as they toil away on subterranean machines whilst the privileged few live it up on the surface with precious little thought for their brothers and sisters below. Rather like today’s climate where sweat shops feed rampant mass consumerism.

Freder (Gustav Fröhlich) is one of the lucky ones, a baggy trousered playboy whose days of womanising and larking about come to an end when he spots and immediately falls for Maria (Brigitte Helm.) She has momentarily emerged from the underground to show a group of children what their parents’ labours have helped to create. Freder follows his Persephone into the underworld – or in this case the machine rooms- where he witnesses the truth behind the apparently wonderful society of Metropolis.

Freder’s father happens to be Joh Frederson (Alfred Abel), the man who envisioned the city which he now rules from a modern day Tower of Babel. Frederson is none too happy about the sudden politicisation of his boy and sets out to thwart him with the help of a sinister henchman known only as ‘The Thin Man’ (Fritz Rasp) and the maddest of mad scientists named Rotwang (Rudolf Klein-Rogge.) This loopy boffin has dedicated his efforts to constructing quite the sexiest robot ever seen in the movies, following the death of his lover who also happens to have been Frederson’s wife.

Back below the surface trouble is brewing, spurred on by Maria’s impassioned speeches, the arrival of Freder ( who may well be the man to unite Metropolis) and the treacherous schemes of Rotwang who is working on his own agenda. The fate of this false utopia is in their hands.

It is hard to over-estimate the importance and lasting influence of ‘Metropolis.’ It is the seminal piece of dystopian science-fiction cinema and its impact has reverberated throughout the intervening years, dissipating into the works of a multitude of film-makers. Would Terry Gilliam’s ‘Brazil’ have been the same without it? How about Ridley Scott’s ‘Blade Runner,’ or the reality behind the dream portrayed in ‘The Matrix?’ Rotwang’s android is clearly C-3PO’s granny, whilst Rotwang himself is the role model for every bonkers scientist depicted since. Compare his physical appearance to that of Doc Brown in ‘The Back to the Future’ films and you will see what I mean.

The cultural impact of the film is immense and has spread outside the boundaries of cinema to influence art, music, literature and, no doubt, even architecture. But how does the film itself stand up today? There are aspects of ‘Metropolis’ ,common to all silent films, which may seem outmoded to the modern viewer. There is the exaggerated expressionistic acting and the action scenes conducted at a speed which would have left Benny Hill breathless.

Once you adjust your mind to these elements you soon realise that ‘Metropolis’ is still very much a masterpiece. The film contains imagery which, even to a modern audience who eyeballs have been force fed on CGI, remains astonishing, iconic and timeless. Take the scene where Freder steps in to replace one of the workers and finds himself wrestling with the hands of a clock-like machine. As he wails about how slowly his ten hour shift passes, anyone who has ever hated their job will understand his pain.

Considering the comparatively primitive special effects available at the time, ‘Metropolis’ is a remarkable achievement. The transformation scene, where Rotwang gives his robot a human face still dazzles all these years later. I have seen worse effects in films a good half century younger. The towering cityscapes and huge sets shown in the film are a marvel. What the film might have lacked in available technology it more than makes up for in imagination and wonder.

‘Metropolis’ should be seen by anyone who professes to love the moving image. Not only is it a historic piece of cinema but it is also part of history itself. Looking back at the film now, with the hindsight that just a few years later Germany would fall into the hands of the Nazis, one cannot but help gaze at the silent, expressive faces on the silver screen and wonder as to their fate. The major players we know about, Fritz Lang for instance escaped to America, but what of the others? What happened to them, the hundreds of souls that built ‘Metropolis?’

About Alan Diment

Is a freelance writer and film critic. A total film buff who lives and breathes movies.


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