Metropolis (1927)
Metropolis (1927)

Genre: Sci-Fi Drama Running Time: 2 hrs. 33 min.

Release Date: March 13th, 1927 MPAA Rating: Not Rated

Director: Fritz Lang Actors: Gustav Frohlich, Alfred Abel, Rudolf Klein-Rogge, Fritz Rasp, Brigitte Helm, Heinrich George

 


 

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hough originally running 2 hours and 33 minutes for its Ufa-Palast am Zoo premiere in Berlin on January 10th, 1927, all that exists now are composites of incomplete Paramount prints and similarly shortened German alterations, conceding that a good portion of the original “Metropolis” is forever lost. However, any version longer than two hours should give audiences an adequate taste for director Fritz Lang’s seminal science-fiction masterpiece, gorged with visionary conceptualizations of the future fused with mythological, biblical, and political undertones. The epic production, even in its reassembled, truncated form, is highly influential, inspiring, and iconic, boasting technical and creative merits of staggering proportions.

Like a non-comedic variant of Chaplin’s “Modern Times,” the film begins with slave laborers trudging/marching off to the workers’ city, deep below the earth’s surface, where they’ll toil endlessly on steaming, rigid machinery in monotonous, syncopated rhythms. Up above, where the wealthy recline in the Club of the Sons – full of theaters and stadiums and lecture halls for education and entertainment – pampered but compassionate Master Freder (Gustav Frohlich) spends his days exercising and relaxing in the Eternal Garden. Though he’s swarmed by beautiful women clamoring to amuse him, he spies a new, unknown girl whose image won’t leave him.

When Freder descends into the machine halls to search for the mysterious girl amongst the commoners he charitably views as his brethren, a massive explosion and the image of Moloch, a Phoenician god that consumes child sacrifices, confront him. Hoping for some answers from the man who designed the metropolis – his own father Joh Fredersen (Alfred Abel) in the Tower of Babel – Freder journeys up to the sterile monolith, but is greeted only with indifference and an example of his father’s callousness (with the firing of assistant Josaphat, played by Theodor Loos). Harboring distrust, Joh assigns his ominous henchman the “Thin Man” (Fritz Rasp) to keep tabs on his son.

Exploring a premise along the lines of a reverse “The Prince and the Pauper,” in which Freder wishes to trade places with a factory worker to experience the plight of the common man, “Metropolis” tackles the obvious themes of class divides and rebellion against the rich. But the story also includes the rivalrous love of a woman, religious salvation (as part of numerous biblical references), and a black-gloved mad scientist (something of a visual precursor to Dr. Strangelove) – leading to the invention of the Machine-Man, a feminine android crafted in the image of Freder’s mother Hel (Brigitte Helm). This single component possesses a wealth of influence, undoubtedly guiding most subsequent ideas about humanoid automatons, while also generating an exhilarating notion of catastrophic vengeance in the form of a Frankenstein’s monster of mesmerizing beauty (comparatively destroyed by fire in an archaic fashion to contrast its extreme technological advancement). By the end, the metropolis’ macrocosmic symbolism for the functioning of a human body (and the need for accord between head and hands through mediation by the heart) shifts into the rousing, tumultuous, heroic saving of the downtrodden masses (and their children) by a messiah – in the form of ruthless dictator Joh’s own son.

Outside of the sensationalistic storyline, the film is a clear archetype for just about every science-fiction effort to follow it, particularly with the set designs (both gothic and geometrically Escherian) and the iconic vision of a bustling, futuristic city full of roadways in the sky (from monorails passing between skyscrapers to floating cars). Special effects (namely in Freder’s hallucinatory nightmares involving Death and the seven deadly sins) and the use of light and shadows (in line with Lang’s German Expressionism techniques) are similarly colossal, from a harrowing chase through rocky catacombs to the devilish laboratory of maniacal inventor Rotwang (Rudolf Klein-Rogge), who steals the likeness of Freder’s lover for use as an ironic death-dealing doppelganger of the Apocalypse. Unlike other examples of early cinema, which tend to retain significance more for their historical achievements than for their entertainment value, “Metropolis” is at once academically important, imaginative, adventurous, chaotic, and thrilling, pushing cinematic escapism and large-scale artistry to their limits.

– Mike Massie

  • 9/10