Thursday, January 31, 2013

Metropolis (1927) Review

Director: Fritz Lang

Company: UFA

Year: 1927 (the most recently restored version from Kino International was released in 2010)

Country: Germany

One of the most influential films of all time with a message that is still relevant today.

Metropolis is one of the most recognizable movies in movie history. It was a product of the German Expressionist Era and one of the most elaborately detailed and expensive films of its time. Even if someone has not seen the film, it is likely that they will recognize its imagery and virtually impossible  for them to not to have seen another movie influenced by it (i.e. Star Wars or any other Sci-Fi film ever made). Metropolis is set in a futuristic dystopian society. The ruling elite live above ground in a vast city akin to paradise at the expense of the working underclass who live below them. Freder, son of the city's leader Joh Federsen, falls head over heels for woman named Maria. He attempts to follow Maria, but ends up getting lost in the worker complexes below. Freder is horrified by what he sees and later finds Maria. He agrees to help her work towards peace between the two classes by acting as mediator between them. However, Joh and the scientist, Rotwang, discover the plan. Rotwang kidnaps Maria and makes a robotic doppelgänger in her guise in order to manipulate the masses, and turns it against Joh.

How do you solve a problem like Maria? Apparently, Rotwang knows.

Metropolis, is at heart, an allegory about how society must learn to function in order to survive. It is a warning about the dangers of classism, worker exploitation, mob mentality, and corruption. Yet the film  also offers hope for a better future, stating that,"the mediator between the hands and the head must be the heart." Thus, in order for people to live together peacefully, they must be willing to put aside their differences and come to a compromise.

 Metropolis also uses lots of religious imagery to get across its message. In one scene, Freder sees a machine that some of the workers are operating explode, killing several people. Freder panics then hallucinates that the machine transforms into the terrible demon, Moloch. Moloch was a pagan deity that was provided human sacrifices. In another part of the film, Maria is preaching to the workers about her vision of peace. She mentions the Tower of Babel, which fell due to people working on it becoming to prideful and failing to understand each other. The tall building which Joh rules from is referenced as 'The New Tower of Babel' throughout the film, making the parallels clear. At one point, Freder trades places with one of the workers in order to experience what has been going on unseen his entire life. He works a grueling ten hour shift, managing the hands of a clock. As Freder strains to keep the hands in place, it resembles a crucification. This shows how the workers must sacrifice time each day, to the seemingly unappreciative elite.

Freder's terrifying vision of the M Machine transforming into Moloch.

"Father! Father! Will ten hours never end?"

Each character in Metropolis have widely varying motives and well developed personalties. Joh Federsen seems like a heartless man who rules with an iron fist, at first. However, we later learn that Joh cares deeply for his son. He is so stern partly because his wife died in childbirth and he fears losing Freder. Rotwang set the archetype of the 'mad scientist' character and represents the consequences of playing God. Freder acts as the audience's guide into the world of Metropolis. He starts of very naive, and somewhat spoiled, but quickly learns about the inequality around him after he meets Maria. He then acts as the 'link' to build understanding between the social classes. 

It is very interesting to compare Maria to her robotic counterpart. Maria is is kind towards all people, despite their social status, and cares a lot for the needy and their childern. The 'False' Maria exactly the opposite. She has been programed to deceive all men and urges the working class to act out violently, to rise up in rebellion against the upperclass (not caring that the worker's city is being flooded at the exact same moment!) The robot's behavior is reflected by actress Bridgett Helm's heavy makeup and jerky / eccentric movements. When Helm portrays Maria, she dresses more nicely and is far more composed. The scene where False Maria is depicted as the Whore of Babylon, represents the sins and lust of man. It also suggests that if the actions of Rotwang's invention were to go out of hand, there could be apocalyptic consequences. 

Maria vs False Maria

False Maria as The Whore of Babylon.

The cinematography of this movie is stunning, especially when you consider when it was made. The expertly made miniatures and large-scale sets prove that a film does not need to rely heavily on CGI in order to be breathtakingly beautiful. Each scene conveys a mood, in typical Expressionist style. It is very easy to be impressed by the glorious city of Metropolis, but also to pity the underclass who toil below in dismal conditions. The original score of the film, by Gottfired Huppertz, truly adds to the atmosphere of Metropolis and is, perhaps, one of the most haunting scores ever created for a motion picture. (And a good score is absolutely essential to keep an audience's attention for a silent film!)

The world of the elite.

The 'underworld' of the workers.

This movie is a definite must-see for anyone who is interested in film. Metropolis is a work of art. Not only is it beautiful to look at, but it also has a heart. Don't ignore it just because it is a silent film. If any film from our era is as good as Metropolis in 85 years, then we will be fortunate indeed. 

Rating: 5/5