Moralistic science fiction at its maddest, Fritz Lang's ambitious silent classic METROPOLIS still has the power to impress us with its inspired art direction and its expressionistic vision.
In a great city of the future, downtrodden industrial workers slave at vile, dehumanizing underground jobs while the upper classes enjoy life above sea level. One day, a raucous party attended by the privileged youth of Metropolis is interrupted by a scruffy group of workers' children led by Maria
(Brigitte Helm), an advocate of better working conditions. This visit impels Freder Frederson (Gustav Frohlich) to go down and investigate his father's giant factory. When Freder reports the appalling conditions he has found underground to his father, Joh Frederson (Alfred Abel), the older man is
unmoved. Freder returns to the factory, where he impulsively spells a worker who has collapsed while performing his brutalizing duties.
Frederson visits the home of Rotwang (Rudolf Klein-Rogge), an eccentric and sinister scientist, who shows him a robot he has created to replace human workers. Then the two men go underground to spy on a mass meeting being addressed by Maria, who is preaching her philosophy of peace, patience, and
mediation to the workers. In the process, she tells them the Biblical story of the Tower of Babel. Sensing her great influence, Frederson instructs Rotwang to convert his robot into an exact replica of Maria, an android he intends to use for subversive purposes. If Frederson's plan is to work, the
real Maria must disappear, so Rotwang kidnaps and hides her in his laboratory.
The robot-Maria is ready the next day. After her seductive powers are tested at a reception given for Metropolis's most prominent men, the evil robot is sent underground to preach hatred and violent revolution. "Destroy the machines," she exhorts the workers, and leads them to the city's central
power station. There, a foreman (Heinrich George) warns the frenzied mob that if they destroy the powerhouse their own homes will be destroyed; but his words are in vain.
The powerhouse explodes and the workers' quarters are flooded, but Freder and Maria, who has escaped from Rotwang's lab, manage to save the lives of the children. Unaware of this, the foreman tells the rioting workers that their sabotage has killed their own children. Berserk with grief and anger,
they seize the robot-Maria and tie her to a stake, which they set on fire. As she is burning, they are shocked to see her revert to the form of a metallic robot.
Rotwang, fearing that the bloodthirsty mob will see the real Maria and turn on him for deceiving them, abducts her again and carries her onto the roof of a tall cathedral, pursued by Freder. The two men struggle and Rotwang falls to his death.
In the cathedral square, Maria attempts to reconcile the industrialist Frederson and his foreman. "There can be no understanding between the hands and the brain," she says, "unless the heart acts as a mediator." After some hesitation, the two men shake hands as Maria and Freder come together in a
METROPOLIS was originally more than two-and-a-half hours long. When it was released in the US, it was shortened by about 40 percent. The deleted material--some of which showed up in a restored version that appeared in the 1980s (replete with a synthesized score by Giorgio Moroder)--contained
information that Rotwang had been in love with the deceased wife of Frederson and mother of Freder.
Fritz Lang visited America in 1924. While waiting to disembark in New York City, he spotted a street ablaze with neon--an image that became the inspiration for METROPOLIS. Over two years in the making, the film employed 3,700 extras, 1,000 of whom were unemployed men who agreed to have their heads
shaved for the Tower of Babel sequence.
Although METROPOLIS caused quite a stir upon its release, the picture was so expensive that UFA, the great German studio that had bankrolled it, was nudged toward bankruptcy and was ultimately sold to a member of Hitler's National Socialist party. Later, Hitler's propaganda chief, Joseph Goebbels,
invited Lang to head up the Nazi film industry. Lang said he'd like to sleep on it, and fled to Paris within hours of the offer.
One of the most operatic of films, METROPOLIS is highly stylized, even by silent movie standards. Its actors literally beat their breasts to express passion, bug their eyes to indicate fear, hunch their shoulders to signal grief. The outrageous overacting that the uninitiated attribute to all
silent films but which is in fact rather rare is, sad to say, dominant in METROPOLIS--the worst offender being Frohlich, who portrays Freder in a near constant state of neurasthenic hysteria. Apparently, Lang was still under the Wagnerian spell of DIE NIBELUNGEN (1924), his immediately preceding
METROPOLIS is a prototype of the totally, unashamedly artificial, man-made, studio-bound movie. Not a breath of fresh air nor naturalistic detail is allowed to compromise its hermetic integrity. Equally unwelcome is even a hint of comic relief--although one famous shot in which the robot-Maria
slowly winks conspiratorially at Frederson is funny in a chilling way.
The political sensibility behind the film is a somewhat muddled amalgam of anti-Marxist liberalism and Christian forbearance: reform (based on love) and revolution (based on righteousness) is the appropriate response to the problems of the Industrial Age. In light of the fact that Hitler's Germany
was a nominally Christian and decidedly anti-Marxist nation, it's not all that surprising that Thea von Harbou, Lang's wife and METROPOLIS collaborator, went on to become an ardent Nazi. But whatever is great about METROPOLIS is not to be found in its text. Writing about the movie in 1927, critic
Iris Barry said, "The cinema, even here at its best, and full as it is of invention and thrill, is still only at the mental age of 17."
What ultimately saves the film from both silliness and ponderousness is not its simplistic social message, not its now-stale theme, nor its disappointing characterizations, but rather the dazzling cinematic (and theatrical) bag of tricks which Lang and company employed to keep things moving:
dizzying industrial montages, lively editing, interesting camera setups by the car-full, exciting special effects which anticipate the FRANKENSTEIN films, and eccentrically beautiful art direction informed by Futurism and other contemporary art movements. All this (plus the robot-Maria's
semi-nude, semi-lewd hotcha dance) keeps METROPOLIS high on the list of cinema's most eye-opening entertainments. (Violence, nudity.)
Cast & Details See all »
- Rating: NR
- Review: Moralistic science fiction at its maddest, Fritz Lang's ambitious silent classic METROPOLIS still has the power to impress us with its inspired art direction and its expressionistic vision. In a great city of the future, downtrodden industrial workers sla… (more)