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July 2, 2014

Metropolis

by Franz Patrick


Metropolis (1927)
★★★★ / ★★★★

A metropolitan of the future is arranged so that the working class lived beneath the city and the upper class lived up above. Underground citizens must manipulate various machineries in order to provide the ruling class several means of luxuries like electricity and safety. But when Freder (Gustav Fröhlich), the master of Metropolis’ son, sets eyes on a beautiful woman named Maria (Brigitte Helm), he is inspired to search for her below, witnessing the kind of work the lower-class must do and sacrifice for the sake of the upper-class. Expressing his concerns to his father, Joh Fredersen (Alfred Abel), is of no use. Fredersen Sr. has made it his goal to strengthen the status quo after his colleagues found plans, presumably of revolt, in the workers’ clothes.

Based on the novel and screenplay by Thea von Harbou, “Metropolis” is a science fiction picture driven by a simple idea of equality but the journey to reach that hopeful goal is complex and, in its own way, quite poignant. The many expressionistic images it offers, especially for its time, surprised me.

From the very first scene, it has something to say about the state of those who live below. Overworked mentally and physically, the workers, while changing shifts, lumber like automatons as if constant contact with the machinery has turned their brains to mush. They sway back and forth in such perfect undulations, it gives the impression that disrupting them will inspire chaos—similar to the idea of cutting one harmless-looking wire in a machine and rendering it completely useless.

For the entire film, not once do we see the workers eat, drink, or interact meaningfully with their families. Since what is considered normal human behavior is stripped away, the screenplay manages to highlight that this version of the future is grim because humanity has been lost. A chance to change the way things are is an excellent reason to root for Freder and those who help him along the way, like Josaphat (Theodor Loos), his father’s recently fired right-hand man.

There is a subplot involving Joh Fredersen and Rotwang (Rudolf Klein-Rogge), an inventor with a grudge against Joh. The latter makes a robot which reflects a likeness of Joh’s deceased wife. Though the two clearly have issues, they manage to work together, at least initially, to put those who live in the depths in their proper place.

Rotwang kidnaps Maria, a trusted voice in the community of workers, and transforms his creation into Maria’s likeness in order to incite chaos. The disorder that takes over the latter half of the picture is quite a sight. While the buildings being extirpated by water look like minuscule models on a set, it cannot be denied that the horde of people who run around—some in panic, others on a mission to destroy—are real. It is noticeable, in a good way, because the faces and body languages of those who stand in the background are equally eye-catching as those on the foreground. Naturally, some extras stand out for not being completely in the moment during certain dramatic takes. However, in its own offbeat way, it becomes a part of the fun.

Directed by Fritz Lang, “Metropolis” is an accomplishment because it takes on risks so wild, like showing people being sacrificed in a machine because their blood lubricates the metal, it is at times genre-hopping. It uses science fiction as a template of its vision and consistently strives to do more with it. About a century later, it makes other movies under the same genre look like underachievers.

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