Set around the year 2000, Metropolis is a depiction of the future, yet it is viewed more intensely in the twenties style. In this view we can truly appreciate the work, without the cynicism of todays standards, for the marvel that it is.
The “costliest and most ambitious picture ever screened in Europe”(Jensen) the film was premiered on January 10, 1927 at the UFA Palace, in Berlin, before an enormous audience which included many members of the political and artistic hierarchy. Initially Metropolis did not meet critical expectations. Like many science fiction films of the present it was praised visually, yet, its sappy predictable view of society was heavily bombarded by negative reviews. Still it attracted huge audiences “ten thousand people were reported waiting outside the Rialto Theatre at its American opening”(idem) where it had been re-edited and about seven reels were cut from the original seventeen. This condensed version, lacking almost half the intended footage, is still the only one available.
In this silent film, sound has been visualized with such intensity that we seem to hear the pistons’ throb in the films grand prelude. In all directions there is movement. The pistons are placed in three-dimensional space, and are substantial in spite of the misty flood of light, in spite of the superimposition to indicate them as monumental symbols of labor. The wheels turning within wheels and the thudding of the pistons create an awe inspiring vision.
Equally stunning is the workers conditions, as the slave in ominous underground factories ” and live in apartment blocks all done in Expressionist style”(Thomson) Their homes, are stylized into mere forms with black rectangles for windows. A number of these were “models, which were combined with live actors through the Schufftan process”(Jensen). “The working class is portrayed powerfully — slaves dressed in black, heads bent, anonymous creatures of labor walking through vaulted corridors, rhythmically keeping time like the Expressionistic revolutionary choirs, sharply outlined ranks in which the individual no longer counts as a human being.”(Eisner) As they begin to execute their duties they become like hands of a clock, frantically working with every ounce of strength. They become one union, working for one cause that eludes us.
“The machine center is transformed into the image of the god Moloch”(idem) as workers march in a rhythmic pattern into the gaping jaw of the beast. The scene is of great visual impact, with dark figures glimpsed merely as silhouettes in the dusty air and hazy light of the machine room. Through a screen of smoke an accident is viewed by Freder, who is fittingly dressed in white garb. He is absolutely shocked as he witnesses the dark figures bearing the casualties file past, shot against the light.
As Freder makes his transition into the underworld, we come to the scene in the catacombs where a crowd of dark figures with pale faces is contrasted with the white crosses in the background, and the touching figure of the good Maria. The construction of the great tower is shown to us as we witness thousands slaving to complete it. The workers, without choice, lug the great stones through the streets.
The view of the towering luminous city is amazingly visualized. Obviously a New York inspired vision, the buildings reach high into the heavens in a complete fantastic manner. The presence of the mammoth structures is “is the encounter of Expressionism and Surrealism”(Eisner). The dreams that Freder experiences “are similarly expressionistic-surreal”(idem). As everything is spinning around him Freder is seemingly falling into a deep nothingness. “Here real pandemonium should have begun… Lang had originally planned much more powerful versions of the evil forces loosed by the creation of the robot… but in the surviving versions of the film only Freder, in his fevered dreams, can see the woman who sits on the beast of the apocalypse during the party”(idem). Only the destruction of the machine center remains where as originally we were to see the workers destroy the entire city.
Our hero, Freder, combats everything in his struggle. His father, a flood and a mob everything is a threat even the most simple of things such as doors swinging open and shut. Maria also has the same challenges as she flees through the tunnels desperately trying to escape the light that pushes her forward in one of the films major tracking shots. This moving camera scene creates much anxiety using light and darkness to create a world in which there is no hope for escape: “This is the atmosphere of Lang’s world, with an intangible threat existing nowhere but felt everywhere”(Jensen)
Metropolis’s visuals are instantaneously appreciated but, many times it is considered a ingenious view of sociological behavior, yet, there are many problems with the plot. Freders father has the robot replace Maria so that the workers will lose faith in her, yet, she seems to preach in his favor. Maria speaks to the disgruntled workers, who are at any moment about to revolt, of peace and a calm resolution. Once his robot invokes them to destructive acts they do revolt and Freders father has the doors opened allowing the workers to destroy the machines and cause a great flood. A title says that Fredersen is “looking for an excuse to use violence against the workers,” but since his method cripples the city’s ability to function, he is also “working against his own interests and those of the upper classes he represents”(Jensen)
As Maria anticipates her robot doppleganger she has strange reactions, when the beams of Rotwang’s lantern reveal to her the horror of her surroundings, with skeletons and skulls. When Maria is imprisoned she all of a sudden is free with no explanation of her escape. The scientist who imprisons her is obviously a villan but he at one point is speaking kindly to her. Even once she is free he tells her “If the mob sees you they will kill me for having tricked them” An unselfish comment it seems, yet, Maria runs from him and he then begins to chase her ending with the battle with Freder on the Church roof. These such problems will always occur when re-editing ensues “but the novel reveals how the re-editing eliminated Rotwang’s motivation and destroyed the picture’s continuity”(Jensen).
The major tracking shot occurs when we follow Maria through the catacombs, as Rotwang forces her on with his flashlight.
The religious aspect of Metropolis is a very apparent one. For instance: “Freder, the only son of Joh (Jehovah), is destined to redeem the common people and unite the divided world. Maria (Mary) combines the function of prophet, predicting the arrival of the messiah-mediator, with elements of both the Virgin Mary (who “creates” him) and the prostitute one”(Jensen) Freder also refers to everyone else as his brother, and wishes to suffer with them. Which he does and while working calls to his father Laboring with extended arms at the clock-machine, he prays to his Father for salvation “he has taken upon himself the weight of suffering imposed on the workers, as well as the guilt of the rulers who impose it”(Jensen).
For all of its extraordinary visuals and harsh depictions of capitalism the conclusion of Metropolis is somewhat lacking of any standout originality The defeat of an Unconquerable Menace is a conventional technique in storytelling that gives the audience a sense of upliftedness. The ending of Metropolis has the viewer taken completely unprepared and in such leaves them confused. “There is a superficial reconciliation between capital and labor”(Eisner) which brings together a soft hearted conclusion that is not constant with the rest of the films feeling or character. Freder takes his father’s hand and puts it into the foreman’s showing the dawn of a new age. Yet, as with the majority of the film Lang had intended a quite different ending where “Freder and Maria were to leave the world by space-ship to another world”(idem) as if to show their reluctance that any change would take place and that the tyrannical city would continue to thrive on the basis of their slaves. “It is one thing to destroy a threat, and quite another for that threat to see the light and to reform”(Jensen) the father’s transformation from his earlier position completely disregards the suggestions of infallibility already established. The actions of the workers are far more resultful than the fathers corrupt actions, which includes an absolutely pointless, seductive dance by the female robot. Yet, we still seem sympathize more with the rational father than with the simple-minded overly-emotional son..
Such meaningful messages are not why people still praise Metropolis today, “mob violence, seduction, insanity, duality of good and evil, the innocent hero, the threatening environment, the master-mind, opposing social forces, the virtues of love, and even an attempt at science-mysticism-religion” are all strewn together so forcefully that the ability to successfully portray any is lost. The main draw of Metropolis is its visual style. A balance is placed in most shots creating an equal procemium style of framing. Shapes are observed through out the film and are abundant at almost every turn. Camera movement is used in many of the shots, such as when the edge of the flood approaches the fleeing children; in another case, only a few workers at the Tower are standing in the foreground until a shift in position reveals thousands in the distance
“A painter’s eye for composition and staging is again revealed in Lang’s direction”(Jensen), without prompting the spectacles of the injured silhouette workers marching past Freder. Also the children running down the street with the water moments behind them and the creation of that robotic icon of science fiction. The city and the themes are intellectual, and so conflict with the childish sentimentality of the plotting, motivations, and feelings. The content of Metropolis fails to live up to its visual treatment, but the film is still a treat to the eye.
Firtz Lang. DaCapo Press. 1976
The Cinema of Fritz Lang. A.S. Barnes and Co. 1988
Thomson, Kristin-Bordwell, David.