Great Films: Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis”

Posted on 11th July 2004 by Ryan Somma in Mediaphilism

I recommend Fritz Lang’s Science Fiction adventure because it is such a spectacle for the eyes, with incredible costume designs, massive sets, cast of hundreds, incredible feats of choreography, brilliantly defined characters, all of which continue to rival the greatest films of the modern day. All this from a 1929 silent film with a full quarter of its action lost to the marches of time.

Now that many of you have clicked to elsewhere on the Internet, I’ll continue. : )

At first glance, Metropolis seems like Karl Marx’s vision of Capitalism’s ultimate end. The city is divided into two societies. The wealthy elite dwell in the futuristic skyscrapers above the city, like Joh Frederson, Master of Metropolis, who lives in the “New Tower of Babel,” while the workers slave away in the dark catacombs below in the Machine.

But this film is great Science Fiction, and therefore has higher aspirations than mere socioeconomics. This is a film with a message both deeply spiritual and pragmatic. It expresses a timeless moral that speaks to modern audiences just as much, if not more, than those in the early 20th century.

Massive sets, trick photography, models, and an endless parade of different settings emphasize the vastness of this world. The city is a living thing, complete with a Machine Heart pumped by the workers, and the minds in the towers, managing everything.

There is a complex system of interdependence at work here, but no one sees past their own small part of it. Neither side is wrong, merely flawed. The elite rulers in the sky are too detached from their humanity. They are cold logical problem solvers. The impoverished workers in the city’s underground are too short-sighted to govern themselves. They are physical problem solvers, driven by more basic needs.

At first sight of them, we immediately know everything about each character we meet along the way. The Master of Metropolis is not an evil man, but a sterile one. Freder is innocent and naive with his blonde hair and pantaloons. Rotwang the Inventor is a brilliant, but twisted soul. The Thin Man, tall and scowering, we know his motivations.

Of all the performances, Brigitte Helm’s stands out in her dual role as both Maria, spiritual leader for the workers, and the Machine, a robot programmed by Rotwang to bring destruction to all of Metropolis. As Maria, she is innocent, virtuous, wide-eyed and beautiful in a non-glamorous way. As the Machine, she is grotesque, lustful, twisted in posture and countenance. They are two characters channeled through the same person, but creating drastically different results.

At one point, Maria tells a reimagining of the Tower of Babel fable. One scriptural change made seems deeply profound, “People spoke the same language, but could not understand one another.” There are villains in this story, but they serve merely as catalysts for bringing the two classes into their epic confrontation. Much violence and destruction occurs in the film because of communication failures. The fable’s moral, like bookends to the film: “The mediator between the head and hands must be the heart.” are simply pretty words at the film’s opening, but carry a much more profound significance at the conclusion.

See Also: Blade Runner, Dark City, The Matrix

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