Over eighty years since it was released in 1927, Fritz Lang's Metropolis is still a visually stunning example of epic film making in the silent era. This is especially true now that the film is very close to its original running time of 150 minutes. Cut severely after its failure at the box office to just over ninety minutes, the original film cost several million German marks to make, and became the most expensive silent film ever made. With the unexpected discovery of a complete but damaged sixteen millimetre print in Argentina in 2008, and with other lost footage previously augmented from other thirty five millimetre prints from other parts of the world such as Australia just two years previously, the film has now been released again in yet another version.
Its setting is a futuristic city, where workers toil ceaselessly underground to serve the needs of the city's master, a businessmen John Frederson. Fredor, his son, falls in love with working class Maria, in charge of the workers' children, who is also a story teller/prophet who mesmerises her audiences with a prophecy that a saviour will arrive to mediate the differences between the master and the workers. Fredor becomes sympathetic to the workers, and comes into conflict with his father over this oppressive treatment of them. His father employs a spy to watch him.. Meanwhile, in another part of the city, deformed scientist Rotwang experiments in creating a new kind of worker, half machine and half human, and hopes to use it to exert his own influence over the workers. To complete his experiments he abducts Maria, and in his lab creates a robot duplicate of the real Maria. When he unleashes the robot Maria she now preaches violence not mediation and the workers rise up to smash the machines and destroy the master's power.
The newly restored film replaces the murky,scratched old ninety minute prints to fully reveal visually the film's strengths and weaknesses. The most memorable parts of the film are probably the visual representations of the metropolis streets lined with traffic with its monorails linking skyscrapers and air craft flying between them; the laboratory scenes with Rotwang creating the huge electrical sparks that bring the robot Maria to life, the luxurious pleasure gardens and night clubs of the rich at play in contrast with the floors of the vast underground factory with hundreds of workers literally becoming like moving cogs in the huge machines. However, in modern terms much of the stylised acting of the silent film era, with its reliance on mime and facial expressions, seems hopelessly melodramatic. The portrayals of Fredor's highly emotional nature, and Rotwang's almost demented state, in over emphatic close ups, are the most prominent examples of this. Also the film's protracted climax with the workers running riot, the demise of the robot Maria, and Fredor and Rotwang's fight to the death, are equally spectacular, but could have done with more cutting originally, in spite of restoration of more footage now. Like viewing other epic silent classics ,watching it can sometimes become an endurance test.
Part political fable, part love story, part crime film and part science fiction, it is debatable whether all the bizaare elements in the story really jell. Its concluding scene with master and workers standing united ,and its supposed moral underlined with written titles on the screen showing the heart (Fredor) uniting the Head (the master) and the hand (the workers) in mediation, may even be a bit simplistic and ridiculous, Director Fritz Lang himself commented back in the 1950s on the possibility of the truth of this. Based on a novel written by Lang's wife, it is possible to see elements of the story derived from Karel Capek,HG Wells and Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. It is probably these borrowed elements that irritated Wells himself who attacked the film on its original release.
In film terms even some of these borrowed elements have made Metropolis influential on a large number of films since. Visual references to Lang's film can be seen in a number of comtemporary films of that same era such as Chaplin's Modern Times,(1933) James Whales Frankenstein,(1932), not to mention its possible foreshadowing of lLeni Reifenstahl's films. In later films the characterisation of Kubrick's deformed Dr Srangelove (1963) is like that of Rotwang and the android C3PO in Star Wars (1977) looks very much like Rotwang's iconic creation before its transformation to Maria. In more recent films, the Alex Proyas film,Dark City reminds the audience strongly of its predecessor even if it is colour, while Ridley Scott's images of a futuristic Los Angeles in Blade Runner(1982) bear more than a passing resemblance to Lang's shots of his imaginery city. In particular the vast office building of his Tyrell Corporation is a direct reminder of Frederson's vast building called Babel 2 in Metropolis These are a mere handful of references from over eighty years of film making to Lang's original film.
After this film, Fritz Lang's talent,brought him to the attention of the Nazis when they came to power in 1933.When offered a job by Goebbels,it is said he took the opportunity to flee Germany immediately, entering the USA, where he re established himself as a director, working on mainly studio pictures for the next thirty years. While his Hollywood output is not undistinguished, few films he made there are as interesting or as influential as this one.