“There can be no understanding between the hands and the brain unless the heart acts as mediator.”
Director: Fritz Lang
Cast: Brigitte Helm, Alfred Abel, Gustav FrÃ¶hlich
Synopsis: In a futuristic city sharply divided between the working class and the city planners, the son of the city’s mastermind falls in love with a working class prophet who predicts the coming of a savior to mediate their differences.
Metropolis is one of those rarities – a film that is more than 80 years old and yet continues to influence filmmakers today. With a near-obsessive zeal, director Fritz Lang created a nightmarish vision of a utopian city of the future whose inhabitants enjoy privileged lifestyles as it feeds like a voracious, unthinking animal upon the down-trodden underclass that slaves unseen in subterranean factories to keep it powered. But it’s not so much Lang’s version of the social injustices faced by those unfortunate enough to occupy the lower reaches of the social scale in the future that continues to inspire as his vision of the bricks and mortar result of their labours engineered by the autocratic Joh Frederson. Metropolis is a spectacular, breathtaking city of the future, a character in its own right: brash, bold, coldly beautiful and pulsing with the life that bustles and parties within it. Lang contrasts this vital city with the stark, bare underground city inhabited by the downtrodden workers who, unlike the lithe and graceful youths above ground, trudge slowly to and from their place of work like run-down robots. Indeed, Metropolis is a film of contrasts which Lang employs to emphasise the previously mentioned social injustices of a class system (admittedly taken to its extreme) and the power of religion, when wielded by unscrupulous opportunists, to manipulate an oppressed society.
Gustav Frohlich plays Freder, the son of Joh Frederson (Alfred Abel), who only becomes aware of the oppressed people forced to operate the gargantuan machines that power the city when he chances upon Maria (Brigitte Helm), who has visited the surface with the children of some of the workers. Enchanted by Maria’s beauty, Freder ventures into the underworld where he sees for himself the conditions under which the workers must toil, and determines to change things for the better. However, when his father learns that Maria is preaching to the workers for change by peaceful means he employs the mad scientist Rotwang (Rudolf Klein-Rogge) to create a robotic double of Maria to preach violent uprising so that he can use equally violent means to keep them down. However, Joh Frederson didn’t really think things through though, because years before he stole Rotwang’s woman – Freder’s dead mother – and the scientist has never forgiven him.
The bold, striking visuals of Metropolis linger in the mind of the viewer long after the eccentric plot, the histrionic performances, and the concluding damsel-in-distress serial heroics have faded from the memory. At one point, the city is compared to Babel, in which an insane and ultimately doomed plan to build a tower to reach the heavens was conceived. It’s one of many religious references in the film, which strives to establish comparisons between the goal of material wealth and the abuse of religion. However, having established the link, Lang seems to lose interest in investigating the consequences much further, other than to make the obvious point that a society built on an indefensible level of social imbalance and a religion built on false ideologies are both unsustainable.
But then, perhaps we reap more reward from a film like Metropolis by not thinking too deeply about it. The film has a kind of dreamlike quality, as though we’re intruding on the sleeping mind of a troubled soul whose dream is always on the verge of tipping over into nightmare. At times it’s almost surreal, and its iconic images – the workers toiling at giant dials, their every move dictated by the machine that controls them instead of the other way around; the machine itself, transforming into a hungry monster that devours the slaves fed into its gaping mouth; the rings of electricity circling Rotwang’s weirdly futuristic robot – once witnessed will, like a particularly vivid dream, remain with you forever.
(Reviewed 8th June 2012)