After its premiere, Metropolis’ original reel was damaged and changes were made under the third Reich. It is estimated that a quarter of the movie had disappeared. In 2008, an alternative version was found in Buenos Aires, enabling the almost complete restoration of the original version, although the quality was affected by the impaired reel.
Today Metropolis is regarded as a classic and features on lists of movies that cannot be overlooked when going through cinema’s history, notably IMDB’s famous top 250. Co-written with his wife, it is an ambitious project that Fritz Lang set out with Metropolis in 1927. Firstly bashed by the critics, it gained considerable attention later on and is regarded by filmmakers and critics alike as a classic.
I set out to explore Martin Scorsese’s list of 39 non-english films, and share with you what I thought about those that were relevant being mentioned in my eyes. First on the list to be reviewed, Metropolis:
The futuristic city of Metropolis and its skyscrapers is divided into two parts. First there is the city below, where dehumanised, lifeless humans gesticulate restlessly around machines more than 10 hours a day. Above, people live a leisurely life and all pleasures are at hand. Whereas life is gloomy and tasteless down there, it is enjoyable and colourful up here. The split is social and metaphysical : Workers doing hard labour in a darkened setting assimilated to hell and bourgeois living the easy life in a lightened place reminding of heaven. Everything is made to convey the impression: dark/light image, eerie/uplifting music, lively/lifeless humans.
One day, Maria, a girl from below, sneaks through the doors of the city above with children of the workers. They are dressed in ragged clothes, covered in soot : the contrast with Metropolis upper city inhabitants’ white silky trousers and groomed faces is striking. She declares before being ushered out:
Look at these faces, they are your brothers and sisters.”
Freder, Metropolis’ Master Joh Fredersen’s son, is shocked by something he was completely ignorant of as well as awed by the beauty of Maria. He decides to follow her in the depths of Metropolis. There he assists to an horrifying scene : an exhausted worker fails to keep up with his machine, causing an accident that ends up with dozens of deaths.
Baffled if not horrified by what just happened, Freder sets out to talk to his dad, pleading him to release workers from their overwhelming labour. There we meet Josaphat (hebraic name for a King of Judah), Freder’s father’s scapegoat that he eventually releases of his duties and sends below – in hell.
Putting things back in their context, Metropolis was made in 1927 under the Weimar Republic whilst anti-Semitism was starting to spread across Germany. The character of Josaphat, appears as a probable attempt from Fritz Lang, who fled his native country as soon as Hitler was named Chancellor in 1933 to denounce the growing anti-Semitism indirectly.
Whereas Jospahat is being thrown away by Fredersen, the latter’s son compassionately decides to offer him shelter. Freder then trades his position with a worker called Georgy who is identified by an ID number – that I cannot help but assimilate as the dramatic foreseeing of death camps . After work, he follows all workers to a gathering, where they listen to someone – who happens to be Maria – sermonising them about the beginnings of Metropolis from a stage displaying big crosses evoking christianity. Maria’s message is one of peace. She predicts the arrival of a mediator – the heart – who will link workers below – the hands – with creators above – the heads.
Meanwhile, Joh Frederson pays a visit to cruel Rotwung the inventor, who has ‘sacrificed a hand for a life’ in order to build the man of the future : the machine-man – firstly introduced below some sort of five-branched Star of David. Joh, who has been made aware of the workers’ gatherings asks Rotwung to give his ‘robot’ the likeness of Maria to sow discord amongst them. However, the inventor has got other ideas and plans to use the machine to personal aims.
The idea, present from the beginning, that humans are being replaced by machines in some sort of twisted evolutionary perspective is one of the main point the movie makes: is future replacing humans with artificial intelligence? In that regard, Metropolis is one of the first Sci-fi movies ever. It also denounces the conditions of works of the proles, who are often incapable of competing with the restless clockwork of the machines. They are made numb by physical labour, and in the scene they gather around Maria, they all look as though they are asleep, exhausted from slave-like work conditions.
Metropolis is a social fable, a metaphysical story and a call to tolerance. First of all, it is a social fable that denounces the conditions of work of oppressed class, that acts as hands to build the world in which oppressors will live a leisurely life. In a scene, the machine on which Freder works is assimilated to a clock that he cannot slow down. He screams “Father ! Father ! Will ten hours (of work) never come to an end ?” The fight he is intending is one that cannot be won : a fight against time itself.
In another scene, the machine is assimilated to the biblical figure of Moloch, a divinity that feeds with children.
Secondly, it is also a metaphysical story in that religious allegories are recurring. First the allegory of hell and heaven, respectively represented in the lifeless depths and soaring clouds of Metropolis. Alternatively, the city’s creators are assimilated to gods, that worker respect and honour as authority figures. Freder, who is eventually revealed to be the mediator, is also a Christian allegory of Jesus Christ: the one who preaches respect, trades his place with a worker (taking upon him to suffer) and denounces the oppressing of the people.
Metropolis is also a tale of tolerance. Speckled with a christian moral, jewish symbols are ever present directly or indirectly (Josaphat and the banner above the machine-man). Although Josaphat is a character that brings sympathy on him, the robot isn’t and that may be what led critics to see in the movie a tale of anti-Semitism. Nevertheless, the genuine idea that can be extracted from the movie is one of tolerance in that kind benevolence Freder displays for the character of Josaphat.
Although the idea of the heart being a mediator lacks relevance and led Fritz Lang to reckon it was a weak one, Metropolis is a film that has acquired a status of masterpiece. It is secondarily one of the first blockbusters ever made: the shooting lasted almost a year, more than 35 000 people participated in it and it cost five millions Reichsmark (£2,5m). Bashed by critics after its release, Metropolis is now one of the reference of Silent Cinema and considered as a must-see for any cinema lover.
An interesting social, metaphysical and tolerance fable foreseeing what Germany was set to face in the years following the great depression. The 150 minutes of the restored version are a bit too long but they are definitely worth it.