Rating -

Sci-Fi (Germany); 1926; Not Rated; Running time varies with released versions—this review published for the East Germany release of 115 minutes

Brigitte Helm:
Alfred Abel: Joh Fredersen
Gustav Froehlich: Freder
Rudolf Klein-Rogge: Rotwang
Heinrich George: Grot

Produced and directed by Fritz Lang; Screenwritten by Fritz Lang and Thea Von Harbou

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Written by DAVID KEYES

"This film is not of today or of the future.
It tells of no place.
It serves no tendency, party, or class.
It has a moral that grows on the pillar of understanding:
'The mediator between brain and muscle must be the heart.'"

-Thea Von Harbou's opening comments of "Metropolis"

The writer Thea Von Harbou's sentences grace the screen like obligatory words of wisdom, emphasizing the fine line between two forces that hold the movie together. And what is said of the film's message also applies to the people who made it. Director Fritz Lang's mind imagined a place filled with sharp vistas and evocative skylines, using the hands of his crew, most notably effects artist Eugene Schuefftan and cinematographer Karl Freund, to conceive his vision. At the center of these complexities was Harbou, Lang's wife, whose script offered the heart, and the source, of the importance of the story. Together, they built a movie that took over a year to make, was released in 1927, was met with critical disappointment, and became hailed a masterpiece over half a century later.

Trying to imagine the trouble Fritz Lang and his crew had with filming this landmark is not that difficult. Lang, who is often described as "more of a tyrant than a director," got the idea for the movie when he first saw the skylines of New York. Like all first good ideas, however, he had to make some revisions. As said by online "Metropolis" veteran Douglas Quinn, "Lang had originally planned much more powerful visions of evil forces being loosed by the creation of the robot (such as demons breaking free of the Catholic Church, which in the final version of the film is relegated to Freder's fever-induced dream), but was fearful that the film's audience wouldn't be able to understand his vision." This, he later admits, is probably why Von Harbou's sentimental message "has come to predominate the modern understanding of the movie."

But even with his vision shifted from original intentions, the difficulty Lang faced in conceiving a movie out of his idea was high; color, opticals, sound and visual effects had not yet been integrated in movies (this was the 1920s, after all). Ergo, like filmmakers before and after him, he cut corners, worked night and day, and put his crew through one year of chaos to ultimately achieve his goal. Supposedly (although unconfirmed), the film was almost scrapped by his studio, UFA, because of the tremendous budget, even though it is still uncertain on how much the movie really cost. After the film was finished, Lang's final version was a little over 200 minutes--much longer than any film of that time--and the studio re-cut the movie at his objection. Alas, the cuts on the film were evident in 1927, because the story had been fragmented and detached. Years later, lost footage that was restored was incorporated into countless 'updated' versions, including one that was released to theaters in the early 1980s that features a score of rock music, rather than traditional classical. Although this particular version is longer (about 150 minutes) and more favorable, the music distracts from the images, and the attempt to bring a colorish tint to the picture miserably fails.

The movie stars a cast of (at the time) recognizable German stars. At the center of these characters is Freder, son of the Metropolis ruler. When the movie opens, we see him frolicking in a "garden of pleasure," enjoying his life and appearing normal. It isn't until Maria, a beautiful woman from underneath the city, comes onto the surface with the children of the workers that Freder becomes curious about what goes on underground. Being asked why he made the decision to go underneath, he announces, "I wanted to know what my brothers look like." As a result of curiosity and concern, Freder enters this subterranean city.

His inquisition takes him through various situations, at first with a machine explosion (in which workers are killed, taken off the shift, and replaced without any response), later in a cave (where he meets Maria and learns that she is telling the workers that their "mediator" will come someday), and finally at the lab of the mad scientist Rotwang (who plans to replace Maria with a robot, influencing the workers to destroy all the machines.) Freder sees all of these events through the eyes of a confused child, so to speak. He does not understand why these workers are "tortured" with 10-hour shifts, nor does he understand why his father can be so cold and cruel to these people, especially when he doesn't even know them. It isn't until the workers destroy the machines and flood their city (almost killing their children) that Maria and Freder are able to bridge the gap between the hand and the mind. As said in one of the last dialogue panels, "There can be no understanding between the hands and the brain unless the heart acts as mediator."

The most exhilarating qualities in "Metropolis" are the fascinating perceptions. The film, as with other silent classics like "Nosferatu" and "The Cabinet Of Dr. Caligari," is a haunting vision, with images that seem more like disturbing hallucinations. There is, for instance, the shots of statues underneath pillars depicting the seven deadly sins, the clock with 10 numbers on it instead of 12, the close-ups of the mad scientist, and the experiment in which Maria's body is cloned to fit the visage of a robot. All of them defy explanation, and yet they were the inspiration for countless films to come. Why filmmakers have seen "Metropolis" as a benchmark for all the visionary richness of their own movies is hard to explain, but easy to understand. They underscore a theme greater than the movie itself, in which the world is an awkward and disconnected place, bound by the strength of workers and the intelligence of masterminds. The ignorance, and the fear, keeps them separated from unity. Only the hands of the mediator can liberate their differences.

But believe it or not, there was a time when people felt that this was simply a "silly" movie. The famous H.G. Wells, for instance, wrote in his 1927 review, "This vertical social stratification is stale old stuff." He later referred back to the 1800s, in which he believed the film might have worked when people were still separated by social, ethnic and religious differences. At the time, his attacks appeared to be truthful. Today, they take on different meaning.

Such results have proved repetitive in the cinema, especially for pictures that have followed "Metropolis"s way of thinking (most recently with Alex Proyas' "Dark City"). To justify these events, we must examine the idea itself. Maybe some people have difficulty appreciating these films because they, like the story of "Metropolis" deciphers, are separated by an independent belief or conviction. As the characters in the Lang movie do not think with their heart, viewers of these movies are at first unsure of how to respond to a movie that is differently told and structured. Thus the studios yank them from theaters, because they appear to be failing. But through time, and patience, they find a way back, serving as motivation to growing filmmakers, and as a visual wonder to viewers.

Don't believe it? Then consider the following observation: last year on its release, "Dark City" was considered annoying, nonsensical and disorganized. If that is true, then why do we have "The Matrix?"

© 1999, David Keyes, Please e-mail the author here if the above review contains any spelling or grammar mistakes.
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