The German film Metropolis is legendary. In the annals of film, it is acknowledged as one of the first cinematic masterpieces. It is a celluloid lesson in the history and impact of the science fiction genre, offering a broad framework for all future movie makers, often imitated but, despite the evolution of technology and style, seldom bettered. Honest film-makers acknowledge this—George Lucas has always admitted that the design for C-3PO was based on Maria the robot. There are also obvious visual parallels between Metropolis and the cityscape featured in Ridley Scott's Blade Runner. The overbearing mood of the city is very much present in the latter film as well as other, more recent offerings, such as Batman and Dark City.
Recently I had occasion to see this most seminal science fiction film for the first time. One would think that any aficionado of the genre would long since have sought out these roots. Because it was filmed in black-and-white, however, and contained no dialogue, I had jumped to the conclusion that it would come across as unsophisticated, or worse, exceedingly dated. Although Lang's expressionist style gives the film a more dated feeling than it deserves, the overall concept succeeds on most other levels.
The themes underlying the world of Metropolis are visually demarcated by the soaring modern imagery of the "haves" in their skyscrapers and the Gothic medieval look of the subterranean world inhabited by slave "have-nots." Freder (Gustav Fröhlich), son of Joh Fredersen (Alfred Abel), the master of this dual-faced city, is the main protagonist, along with Maria (Brigitte Helm), who belongs to the slave class. After a chance meeting between the two protagonists, Freder discovers the truth of his father's dominion as he witnesses a subterranean industrial accident. At this point, we are introduced to Rothwang (Rudolf Klein-Rogge), an archetypal scientist and former rival of Fredersen's who has created a humanoid robot that can be made to take on the face and characteristics of anyone he chooses.
Rothwang, embodiment of the alchemical wizard/scientist archetype, à la Merlin, Rasputin, et al, is perhaps the most interesting character in the picture. This duality is also given a physical process in the form of Rothwang's hands—one is gloved and shrivelled, the product of an accident whilst creating the robot, the other is clean and flawless. (Stanley Kubrick has acknowledged Rothwang as the inspiration for his Dr Strangelove.) Rothwang lives in a distinctly medieval-looking cottage with a pentagram over its door, even though it is situated in the center of the otherwise sparkling modern city. From the house's cellar, there is access to the catacombs below the city, where the slaves ascend one level from their subterranean dwellings to attend revolutionary meetings overseen by the saintly Maria. Upon the discovery of these meetings and their purpose, Joh Fredersen orders Rothwang to fashion a robot in t he image of the revolutionary Maria, the real version of whom the scientist then kidnaps, replacing her with the mechanical doppelganger. The point of this is to supplant the hope and patience of the original Maria with a new doctrine of self-destruction as preached by the machine.
The ploy works and the workers rebel, moving to the surface en masse to confront those who live off their toil. In the process, their homes are almost destroyed and their children threatened by flood as the power plants they have vandalized shut down. As the workers come to their senses, they realize that they have been led astray and take their revenge, burning Maria witch-like at the stake, only to discover that she is a robot. At this point Rothwang decides to murder the real Maria, fearing that she will expose his complicity. Yet Freder comes to her rescue and dispatches the evil scientist.
The conclusion to the film is its weakest moment. This was apparently Thea von Harbou's idea (von Harbou was married to Lang at the time of this collaboration, although she had previously been married to Rudolf Klein-Rogge, the actor who played Rothwang). Lang himself is said to have favored an ending in which Freder and Maria depart Metropolis in a rocket destined for another planet. However, von Harbou's version is the one that made it to the screen: a peace is brokered between the haves and have-nots by Freder himself, which, in itself, seems strange given the times in which this film was made, but seems to be a cop-out to socialist sensibilities. Interestingly, von Harbou went on to become an active Nazi, while Lang left Germany in the early 1930s after being approached by Joseph Goebbels with an offer to join his propaganda organization.
Three-quarters of a century after its production, Metropolis remains a benchmark. There are about six different versions of it. The film suffered major edits within a few weeks of its premiere in Germany, as distributors, for varying reasons, chopped up to an hour from the original running time. No complete version of the film now exists.
The most definitive edition we do have, after several attempts at restoration, is still half an hour shorter than the original—including a number of inter-titles that summarize the still-missing portions. The 2002 version is probably the most complete to date, and benefits from the restoration of Gottfried Huppertz's original score.
As a visual template for the genre that this film had a great hand in inventing, it still holds its own. Many of the set pieces stand up as some of the best created in cinema—Freder's vision of Moloch and the workers, the Tower of Babel rendition, the creation of the robot, the robot's scintillating dance. The creation of the grand elitist skyscrapers owes much to Lang's background in architecture. However, the hero Freder comes across as pasty and ineffectual, no match for the artful Rothwang. Brigitte Helm carries her dual roles professionally, especially considering she was seventeen at the time and that the shoot itself became a marathon. Lang is said to have insisted that Helm herself wear the robot costume, even though her face would not be seen, and to have brought many indignities to bear upon other members of the cast. Gustav Fröhlich, initially an extra before being promoted to the lead, was made to repeat a scene where he fell to his knees twenty or more times, by the end of which said knees were bruised and bleeding. The thousands of extras employed were made to act in water during the flood scene, in winter, on unheated sets. As the German economy was almost in ruins in the years following World War I, Lang knew very well that his draconian style would not cause undue problems.
In the words of Lang himself, he used cinema to explore "cruelty, fear, horror and death." There is a recurring fascination with the occult in many of his works, as well as allusions to paranoia, sexual conflict, and the battle between science and religion. Metropolis is redolent with this imagery, from the fissuring of Maria's character into good/bad madonna/whore to the analogy of the Tower of Babel; the siting of Rothwang's cottage near the city cathedral and the dream/nightmare vision of Moloch, an ancient sun-god to whom child sacrifices were made, as a hugely monstrous machine devouring the slave workers.
Unfortunately, Metropolis was not a financial success, as it went so far over budget that earning back the investment was practically impossible. The first re-edit was probably ordered as a measure by which there could be more viewings of the film in one day, thereby increasing revenue.
Seen from the first quarter of the 21st century, considering Metropolis as an exercise in crystal ball-gazing, one finds that it actually gets quite a few things right: the look and schizophrenic nature of many of our cities, the extreme divisiveness of society, the ambiguities of our continuing battles of emotion versus intelligence. The fact that it is a German film and preceded the greatest moral and physical conflict of the last century by a mere few years seems to be largely coincidental. In Fritz Lang, the Prophet of Our Paranoia, Andrew Sarris comments: "If Adolf Hitler had never existed, Fritz Lang would have had to invent him on the screen."
Lang went on to form his own production company and make more German films—Spies (1928), Woman in the Moon (1929) and M (1931). M, about a compulsive child killer, was the first German film with sound and remained Lang's personal favorite. After fleeing Germany by way of France, leaving behind considerable wealth, Lang eventually settled in the United States and continued his film-making career, evolving a more mature style as he was forced to adapt to constructing shorter, tighter films for a mass audience. His American debut, Fury (1936), starring Spencer Tracy and Sylvia Sidney, was a critical and commercial success.
Several of his later films show a penchant for the American West. Lang actually lived for weeks at a time on Indian reservations and employed the knowledge he gained there in his films. In 1963, he played himself in Jean-Luc Godard's Contempt. He died in 1976, in California, aged 85. His ex-wife, Thea von Harbou, who was predominantly responsible for the screenplay of Metropolis and later novelized it, remained tainted by her association with the Nazis for the remainder of her life (she died in 1959). She divorced Lang in 1933 and continued writing, yet conceived nothing worth mentioning during the Nazi era. After the war, she wrote a handful of literary works—Das Dieb von Bagdad (1949) and Gartenstrasse (1952) among them.
There is a prevailing darkness about Lang, von Harbou and their incestuous personal lives that seeps into the plot of Metropolis. Von Harbou's marriage to Rudolf Klein-Rogge disintegrated when she met Lang, who was married to a young woman named Lisa Rosenthal. According to an actor friend of Lang's, Rosenthal discovered her husband and von Harbou in a compromising position. She immediately went to another floor of their house and committed suicide with a pistol that Lang had retained from his First World War military service. This dark story manifests in an Oedipal angst within the character of Freder as he witnesses the robot Maria in a clinch with his own father. This revelation causes the lad to suffer a nervous breakdown, deftly visualised on film by an array of nightmarish subliminal images and obscure symbolic flashes created by scratching the film emulsion, an experimental approach by Lang that echoes his earlier work i n The Nibelungen (1924).
However convoluted the lives and loves of those charged with the genesis of Metropolis, the sheer extravagance of the concept has ensured its longevity. The film is now cemented in its position as progenitor of a serious visual science fiction genre. Only George Méliès rates a mention before Fritz Lang, primarily because his two films, Le Voyage dans la Lune (A Trip to the Moon, 1902) and Voyage à travers l'Impossible (The Impossible Voyage, 1904) were such early examples. Some commentators have read a great deal into Metropolis's interpretation of technology and gender construction. The film does work on many levels, and can be constantly re-analyzed to make sense of what may or may not be hidden messages. Yet it is exactly this ambiguity that has made it such a resonant masterpiece.