Fritz Lang’s archetypal sci-fi epic is steeped in politics, religion, and humanity, but above all, it is a true cinematic experience. It is visually arresting, and it still causes us to marvel with set-pieces that remain extraordinary. How did Fritz Lang piece together such a gargantuan accomplishment? Maybe even equally extraordinary, how was I able to see almost a complete cut of this film, which was at different times thought to be lost, incomplete, and ruined?
Metropolis really feels like one of the earliest blockbusters, although I would have to further substantiate that. Still, it’s basic story is generally captivating following a young man named Freder from the upper echelon of society with a father who runs things. This young man is really in the perfect position to succeed, the way society is set up. He even goes to the preeminent school where all the boys are dressed in white. Little does he know in the lower depths the beleaguered, grungy, weary masses in black are slowly killing themselves with work. The machine that drives this society is never satisfied, always desiring to be fed more and more and more.
When the boy finally sees the reality of the infrastructure his paradise is built upon, he cries out in horror. This is not the way things are supposed to be. He eventually switches places with one of these workers and attends a meeting deep in the catacombs (an allusion to the early Christians), where the pure goddess Maria lifts the spirits of her fellow man. But of course, the evil inventor Rotwang is enlisted by Freder’s father Joh Frederson. Their own relationship is marred by conflict over a woman they both loved. Freder’s dead mother. And so the scientist looks to resurrect his long lost love, and he needs Maria to develop his plan. He kidnaps her and from her likeness creates a double, who goes out to wreak havoc on all of Metropolis. The apocalyptic words of the Book of Revelation ring true as the whore of Babylon deceives the masses and leads them to destruction.
But Freder is the Mediator, he is the Savior of his people, and he is necessary to bring peace and tranquility to a world that has descended into such brokenness. So Metropolis is certainly a film full of symbolic touches, religious connotations, and political commentary, but all of this is developed by Fritz Lang through an archetypal hero’s narrative.
Hollywood has become an industry seemingly so obsessed with story, screenplays, plots. Certainly, a film like Metropolis is at least adequate in that area alone, but what really sets a film such as this apart is its cinematic scope. The sheer vast expanses it fills. The scope it creates through its plethora of extras and encompassing sets is hard to downplay. How to describe scenes where water is literally breaking down walls and covering masses of fleeing children? Or smokestacks spewing out refuse while trains, planes, and automobiles pass by in every direction. People scattering this way and that, following the false Maria in a chaotic frenzy. It reminds us what the motion picture, the moving picture, is all about. The images that are brought before us lead to a suspension of disbelief because more importantly they are incredibly affecting. At the atypical 20 frames per second, they are images full of tension, full of energy, and full of life.
In a sense, with Metropolis, we can easily see a precursor to Chaplin’s Modern Times a decade later. There is a general apprehension of the machine and the impact of a true industrial revolution. There is a fear that there are more positives than negatives. That machines will take over and man will become outdated. Perhaps someday our creation will destroy us. By today’s standards, such notions seem archaic, but are they? We still live in a society ever more obsessed with advancement, technology, and all the things that come with that. However outdated some of Metropolis might feel, and there are numerous such moments, at its core is the final resolution that between the body and the mind there must be a heart to regulate. We are not simply animals with bodies or rational machines with minds, but the beauty of humanity is that we have a heart, pulsing with life and vitality. That is something to be grateful for and never lose sight of.