According to Fritz Lang, the future is very bleak indeed. There will be massive buildings, flying cars, and everything will be made of steel. The economy will be split into the mega rich, who party all day in their pleasure gardens, and the oppressed poor, who operate all the city-machines underground. The funny thing about watching Metropolis today is that it is set in 2026 (a hundred years after its original release date), which is a mere fourteen years from today, 2012. The sad thing is that the dystopia the film portrays is only slightly worse than present conditions. Just like in real life, the city of Metropolis uses the masses of the poor to help sustain the wealthy, who prefer to keep their all-but-in-name slaves out of sight and out of mind while they occupy wasted space.
Enter the son of the head of Metropolis, Freder (Gustav Fröhlich), who becomes curious as to how the other half lives. Once he witnesses that half’s abject poverty and literally monstrous working conditions, he falls in love with a prophetess, Maria (Brigitte Helm), who tells him that he is the “mediator,” who will unite the “head” and the “hands” of Metropolis—meaning the rich and the poor. In order to discredit Maria and sabotage her plans, Joh Fredersen (Alfred Abel)—Freder’s father—commissions mad scientist Rotwang (Rudolf Klein-Rogge) to replicate Maria using his newfangled robot-man.
Although the plot’s kinda hard to explain here, it’s not difficult to see its relevance to today, what with Occupy Wall Street, etc. Lang was not known for his subtlety, but for his visually audacious style. The story moves relentlessly throughout its 153-minute runtime, with Lang assaulting you with dystopic imagery that has become ingrained in our popular culture, influencing countless films and comic books. For example, when Freder first sees the “heart machine” that powers Metropolis, it appears to him as a giant, fanged monster, and the word “MOLOCH!!” flashes across the screen, as hapless workers run into its maw. If that description reminds you of Allen Ginsberg’s Howl, then I’ve done my job.
Despite Metropolis’ age, it is still very entertaining that ought to be taken very seriously. Between its combination of shocking German expressionist filmmaking and pessimistic themes, it’s sure to keep your attention in a vice grip. The acting is so-so, with only Helm’s performance as the alternate Maria being particularly memorable. As was the case with Intolerance and The Birth of a Nation—both of which I recently watched—the scale of the picture is enormous: Lang employed over 25,000 extras, for starters. It’s arguably Lang’s best film, and it established him as an auteur alongside other German greats, such as Erich von Stroheim and F. W. Murnau. The movie’s power was so great that the Joseph Goebbels approached Lang to be the Nazi party’s resident filmmaker, which provoked Lang to flee to America to make his other masterpiece: M.