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Metropolis (1927)

A review by Damian Cannon.
Copyright © Movie Reviews UK 1997

In the year 2000, Metropolis reveals a city-state where machines have come to rule over Man and inequality is entrenched within society. Bisected into two distinct levels, the sprawling city consists of a powerful elite, living on the surface, who control and subjugate the subterranean masses. The sole purpose of these zombie-slaves is to tend enormous power stations and endless conveyor belts, providing a life of luxury for men such as Freder (Gustav Frohlich). As the son of Joh Fredersen (Alfred Abel), the single-minded ruler of Metropolis, he is free to frolic in the sculpted and beautiful gardens. The sanctuary of these parks is invaded one fateful day though, when a young woman, Maria (Brigitte Helm), brings a group of waifs into the open air. Blinking and gasping in awe at the magnificence, they are soon hurried away. Freder is intrigued though, such that he attempts to follow her into the darkness below.

Unfortunately he loses sight of her and, instead, stumbles into a section of the factory. As Freder watches, fascinated by the metronomic movements of the workers, one of the tiny figures collapses from exhaustion, leading to a industrial accident. Such a senseless waste of life appals sensitive Freder, forcing him to rush upstairs and confront his busy father. Unfortunately, not only is Joh engrossed in running the city, he's grown far too callous to worry about the death of a few workers. Freder should simply ignore the suffering of the teeming hordes, especially as they seem to be plotting against their masters. Scrawled plans, taken from fallen workers, concern Joh deeply, leading him to consult with mad scientist Rotwang (Rudolf Klein-Rogge).

Freder is greatly disappointed by this attitude, leaving him with no option but to join with his downtrodden brothers on their backbreaking shifts. Venturing into the steam and smoke, he takes over on some demonic electricity routing device, forced to work for the first time in his life. Meanwhile, far above, Rotwang ponders over the maps and decides that something is afoot in the ancient caverns. However, before they leave to investigate, he wants to show off his ultimate creation, a fully functional robot (well worth the loss of a hand!). Joh sees that this is the way forward, a tireless replacement for the unsettled masses. If only he realised that, by now, his son is one of the despised (and feared) hordes.

From its opening montage of meshing gears and pounding machinery, Metropolis is a visual masterpiece. A riot of Expressionistic imagery, the geometric patterns formed by buildings and workers alike vividly shows how the two are meshed symbiotically in this future hell. To the enslaved labourers, nothing is more important than looking after the machines; feverishly staring at gauges and twisting dials until they drop. The problem is that without their masters, the underground serfs would achieve nothing. Each is vital to the other yet, at the outset of Metropolis, they are estranged. It is only through the union of head, heart and hands that the fabric of society can be made whole.

To make this point, Fritz Lang co-ordinated a huge project, involving thousands of extras, a mighty budget and astounding, futuristic sets. Technically groundbreaking at the time, with its mixing of models with live-action, it is still impressive today. This is a world of arching expressways, fantastical skyscrapers and myriad aeroplanes, predating Blade Runner by decades. However, because the architecture is designed on such a towering scale and this is a silent film, the acting is often melodramatic and extreme (since this was the only way to project sufficient emotion at that time). This doesn't mean that the performances are bad though (Klein-Rogge is notably excellent), just that the film is a heady mixture of vision, lewdness and unintended humour.

Even though the versions of Metropolis currently available are tragically cut down from the original release, there are several stand-out moments left intact. One of these involves Freder, when he starts hallucinating after the shocking explosion. Before his very eyes, the machine dissolves into a divine, malignant shrine, eagerly gobbling up human sacrifices and demanding more (which is, in effect, the reality). On another level, the workers are initially seen to march in unison while, after their revolt, they still teem like ants but now in a haphazard, chaotic fashion. Apart from providing memorable visuals, this aspect achieves closure by the end, when the masses are again moving in step, but this time with greater awareness. The result of this is that while Metropolis provides plenty to think about, you don't have to be a film student to enjoy the experience.


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