#10 in my ranking of Fritz Lang’s filmography.
This is one of the titans of the silent era. If anyone knows any silent film, it’s either this or a Charlie Chaplin movie. It’s a monumental achievement of production design that wears its heart on its sleeve and has a wonderful emotional impact, giving it the staying power that has allowed it to continually find new audiences over decades. I have a small issue with one character and his motivations, motivations that drive most of the action in the third act. Maybe if the final minutes that are lost get found, those questions I have will get answered, but until then, I still love this movie, just not quite as much as I feel like I could.
The titular city of Metropolis (which would inspire Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster when they created Superman) is a towering achievement of the human hand against nature, eliciting comparisons to the Tower of Babel within the film itself, introduced first in a montage sequence that is obviously inspired by the editing work of Soviet directors like Sergei Eisenstein (the first of several throughout the film that imply certain subjective states). At the top of the city is Joh Fredersen (Alfred Abel) who has one son, Freder (Gustav Frohlich), the prince of the city. Decked out in a white suit and playing in the elite gardens high up in the city, Freder is completely protected from the city’s underbelly, a vast, second city that uses men like cogs in machines to keep the lights on and the trains moving. From the underworld, bringing a host of disadvantaged children with her, is Maria (Brigitte Helm), a saintly figure of the lower classes that preaches peace and promises a mediator between the head (Fredersen) and the hands (the lower classes) of the city. Freder sees her when she comes to the gardens and becomes obsessed, traveling downward to discover the lives of his brothers, as Maris calls the men who work the machines.
Freder changes places with a worker with the number 11811 (Erwin Biswanger). Freder works the ten-hour shift on the machine while 11811 goes to the lavish parties of the upper crust. The shift breaks Freder’s body, but not his spirit. Exhausted, he returns to the surface with the intention of taking his knowledge of the harshness of life in the underworld to his father. However, his father has sent The Thin Man (Fritz Rasp) who has tracked down 11811. At the same time, Joh knows a crazed scientist named Rotwang (Rudolf Klein-Rogge), both of whom had relationships with Joh’s deceased wife Hel. Rotwang (who wears a black glove over one hand to mask the robot nature of it, a visual that most likely got reused in Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove) has developed a machine that can replicate the look of a human being, and after viewing the work of Maria, Joh orders Rotwang to use the Machine to replace Maria.
Joh doesn’t make sense to me. He’s ultimately a small part of the film, but he’s a bit of a lynchpin. His order to Rotwang sets the whole second half of the film in motion, and yet Maria is preaching peace. She’s not a rabblerouser. I can understand Joh being jealous of influence in the underworld that he can’t control, but he tells Rotwang to undo her work. It gets odder later when he gives an order to allow a crazed mob into the Heart Machine to destroy it. That might be to wipe out the resistance that has suddenly exploded, but it’s unclear. I really wouldn’t be surprised if some of the remaining five minutes of lost footage were centered here on Joh.
Anyway, Rotwang kidnaps Maria, turns the Machine Man into her likeness, and sets her on the upper crust as a showgirl to demonstrate her believability. In a film filled with wonderous sights and sounds due to amazing production design and incredible new special effects for the time, Brigitte Helm’s dual performance is a real centerpiece. There are times when both characters are near each other (never on screen at the same time, though), wearing the same clothes, and it’s obvious which one we’re looking at. The ways she manipulates her face as the Machine Man are great.
The final third of the film is Maria inciting a revolution of the underclass, destroying the machines, and the city falling apart around them. In particular, their residential section floods with their children in it, giving Freder and Maria the opportunity to show their goodness and save the children from the fate that their parents have wrought upon them. It’s some of the greatest use of special effects in the film, combining the huge sets with strong use of miniatures to manifest the chaos and destruction.
The completion of the film’s story is the fulfillment of the promise of the film’s opening text about the mediator between the head and the hands being the heart. It’s simplistic and nice in the way that huge entertainments tend to operate. It’s so easy to get swept up in the simple emotions and massive spectacle that took almost a year and a half to film. For all of my small issues, especially around Joh’s motivations, I still get completely involved in the affair. That’s a testament to the craft of the film, to its visuals, design, and editing.
And that’s where the film is really at its best. It’s a marvelous spectacle that appeals to the heart in the most open of ways. Buoyed by a set of very good performances, especially from Helm, it’s a grand entertainment. It is Lang and his wife Thea von Harbou at the height of their powers in Weimar Germany. Its influence is still felt today. It has remarkable staying power. I just wish Joh’s motivations were a bit clearer.