Fritz Lang’s towering Metropolis is a film that needs no introduction. Its influence on cinematic history is so powerful, so resonant to this day, that trying to write anything novel about it is probably an exercise in futility. However, seeing how futile is my middle name I’ve decided to give it the old college try, even if it’s likely that this review will fall flat on its face.
Metropolis’s notorious production and restoration history nearly eclipses the film itself. Shot in 1925 at a cost of five million Reichsmarks, it was the most expensive film ever made (up to that point). The shoot was marked by Lang’s controlling nature, which involved the filmmaker demanding reshoot after reshoot, and imperiling the cast on set with elements like real fire and freezing water. Following the film’s release, Lang’s original print of the film was lost until 2010, which resulted in the release of several restorative versions
The Kino International “Restored Authorized Edition” is the version of the film that I will be discussing for this review, and is the only version I have ever seen in its entirety. Featuring the original score by Gottfried Huppertz, this version of Metropolis is rousing and operatic. The picture quality is also strong, with the story’s iconic visuals leaping off the screen.
But what about the quality of the filmmaking itself? Well, Metropolis is unequivocally a visually compelling film, dominated by Lang’s directorial vision. The famous depiction of the titular cityscape – which proved visually influential on later classics like Blade Runner – is indeed unforgettable. Other elements are also deserving of their respective cinematic immortality, particularly the mad scientist Rotwang (played with wild-eyed lunacy by Rudolf Klien-Rogge) and his “Man-Machine,” which is the first robotic character ever to appear in cinema.
If only the film’s story was equally as genius. Despite being labeled as “authorized” and “restored” the film still feels incomplete and slapped together, like a deranged science experiment. The decision to employ new title cards to compensate for missing bits of footage – while necessary for some semblance of continuity – exacerbates this problem.
The film’s thematic depth is also unimpressive and unworthy of its grandiose subject matter. This is especially true when we learn about the scope of this world. It’s revealed that the city’s utopian veneer is predicated on the dystopian oppression of the lower classes, who are forced to live in a subterranean city when they are not manning Metropolis’s massive industrial infrastructure. This harsh social dichotomy is explored more fully when the central character of the story, Gustav Fröhlich’s Freder Fredersen, who is the son of the city’s wealthiest and most powerful citizen: the ruthless Joh Fredersen (Alfred Abel), descends into the workers’ city in pursuit of the scrappy Maria (Brigitte Helm), a working woman who he meets by chance. There, he finds not only love with Helm’s grisette character, but discovers that she may be planting seeds of rebellion throughout Metropolis’s disenfranchised masses.
The journey taken by Freder is an engaging one, although its potency is mostly derived from Lang’s staging of several startling set-pieces. One such example is when Freder witnesses a cataclysmic industrial accident, and then fantasizes that the machinery has literally come to life and is consuming workers.
There is also some inspiring acting on display, such as the ferocious pantomime employed by actor Klein-Rogge, which nearly overcomes the muddy nature of his storyline and motivations. Even more impressive than this, however, is the scientist’s robot, who at one point is given the human appearance of Maria (Helm plays both roles) and subsequently unleashed to further destabilize Metropolis.
Helm’s dual performances are the film’s best, with her turn as the malevolent machine being particularly enjoyable and expressive. She is able to draw a clear distinction between the real Maria and the machine that has appropriated the woman’s form. The scenes that show the machine Maria brewing chaos and eventually leading the working class into a disastrous rebellion are especially fun.
Despite these positives, Metropolis does a piss-poor job in truly exploring the horrors of the industrial age, which is its central thematic preoccupation. The film’s recurring mantra is that the mediator between the “hands” of the proletariat workers and the “brains” of ruling industrialists like Fredersen “is the heart.” This is an absolutely preposterous notion, one which does a profound disservice to issues as complex as labor, modern capitalism and ever-increasing mechanization. Lang himself would later dismiss this as a “fairytale” and semi-attempt to pawn such platitudes off on his ex-wife Thea von Harbou, who he co-wrote the script with (based off her novel).
Such sentiments are a betrayal of science fiction’s innate ability for erudite social critique and frankly are incongruent with Metropolis’s dystopian ethos. They reveal the film’s lack of intellectual ambition, proving that while Metropolis continues to loom large in cinematic history its true value is largely an aesthetic one.