Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis” is a landmark in film history, inspiring much in the genre of science-fiction cinema that followed. Based on a novel by Thea von Harbou. it tells the story of a familial struggle that comes to represent the warring classes of post-industrial societies. Early in the film we are introduced to the workers who slave away deep underground, maintaining the machines that power the city. High above in lush gardens we find the upper classes frolicking. A young woman named Maria brings a group of children from the lower levels to see their ‘brothers’ in this luxurious upper world. She is soon removed from their garden with the children and forced to return downstairs. Not before catching the attention of Freder. Freder is the son of Fredersen, the wealthy capitalist who controls Metropolis. Interested in this woman, Freder follows her down to the depths where he witnesses the harsh conditions of the workers. After a fire breaks out in one of the machines, Freder argues with his father about the conditions these people are labouring in. His father is unsympathetic and Freder returns underground to help the workers. Meanwhile, the inventor Rotwang, has created an automaton to replace his lost love Hel. Frederick decides they will use this machine to sow discord amongst the workers by making it up to look like Maria and poisoning their thoughts. However, Rotwang has other plans, intending to take revenge on Frederick for stealing Hel from him.
The film uses close-ins of pistons and machine parts and stills of the city to create a sense of place and atmosphere. Shot on impressive sets of factories, streets, workshops and office rooms, the film manages to paint a vivid picture of its world, creating several distinct locations. The central theme of the film is the disconnect between the boss and the workers, a perennial complaint in industrialised societies. Here it is summarized as a gap between ‘head’ and ‘hands’ that can only be bridged by the ‘heart’. The film is as relevant today as when it was first released. While technology has advanced, we are still burdened with the same issue of the necessity of hierarchy leading almost inevitably to inequality and dissent. The film distils this essential and insoluble problem of capitalist societies in a way that is powerful and will continue to resonate as long as we maintain the current economic model. The film is also prescient in its depiction of an artificial lifeform, in the form of the Machine Man, who later takes on the appearance of Maria. It never fully develops this idea, perhaps unsurprisingly given how far ahead of its time it was, using it more as a plot device to prompt the revolution in the underclass. The visuals of towering cities, with planes flying amongst high-rise buildings and train tracks can be seen replicated in Blade Runner, The Fifth Element and other science-fiction films that followed decades later. Likewise the central thesis of a workers revolt has been replicated many times over the years.
“Metropolis” is definitely worth watching. The visuals are impressive for the time and the story is engaging, with several plot strands woven together, from Maria and Freder’s relationship, to the revenge of Rotwang, and the underlying struggle of the capitalist Fredersen against the workers. There are also a number of religious references in the film, such as the machine transforming into Moloch, and a retelling of the story of the Tower of Babel. Lang is clearly aware that despite its futuristic setting, the story he is telling is one that is timeless and will continue to echo down the ages.