Surreal, sprawling, and operatic, drawing on biblical and medieval Christian imagery as well as H. G. Wells’ The Time Machine, Fritz Lang’s deeply influential pulp allegory Metropolis colonized a new realm of the imagination that has shaped subsequent science fiction from Flash Gordon to Star Wars, from "The Jetsons" to Blade Runner.
The futuristic cityscapes that are a staple of science fiction, with their impossibly massive skyscrapers and flying vehicles threading concrete canyons, all owe a debt to Lang’s film, one of the high points of German expressionism.
As social allegory, Metropolis depicts a world in which the privileged sons of society live in ease and luxury on the surface while deep in the bowels of the city a chattel underclass labors out of sight on the machinery that supports Metropolis. In time, this oppressive situation must eventually lead to class conflict.
As Internet writer Michael E. Grost perceptively observes in a helpful essay to which I am indebted for the next two paragraphs, Lang’s scenario bears a striking resemblance to the back story of the future world visited by Wells’ Time Traveller, where the subterranean Morlocks once labored on underground machines to serve the bourgeois Eloi.
Yet in The Time Machine this class conflict eventually leads to what is in effect Marxist revolution, with the proletarian Morlocks rising up and subjugating the bourgeois Eloi. Metropolis, in a strikingly contrasting vision, takes its class conflict to a diametrically opposite resolution, drawing on religious imagery and inspiration in advocating non-violent reconciliation between classes.
In fact, Metropolis advances the provocative thesis that revolutionary violence actually serves the self-interest of the ruling class, since it allows them to respond by crushing dissident elements. Small wonder that Metropolis has long been criticized by Marxist commentators as naive!
The dreamlike plot, which relies on emotional and poetic rather than logical connections, involves a childlike young hero named Freder (Gustav Fröhlich) whose dictatorial father (Alfred Abel) is the master of Metropolis, an idealistic young woman named Maria (Brigitte Helm) who tries to offer hope to the oppressed workers, and a sinister scientist named Rotwang (Rudolf Klein-Rogge) whom Freder’s father enlists to subvert Maria’s efforts by building a robotic doppelgänger of Maria.
More important than the story are the unforgettable images: the endless columns of workers marching in nightmarish synch to and from their terrible labor; the monstrous "M" Machine, revealed in a visionary moment to embody the spirit of Moloch, the bloodthirsty deity of Old-Testament Canaan; Freder agonizingly laboring at the clock machine looking like Christ crucified; the mecha-Maria’s lascivious striptease seducing the privileged fathers of Metropolis into the Seven Deadly Sins; the immense gothic cathedral in which the final showdown occurs.
Religious allusions are everywhere. Maria and her evil doppelgänger suggest the Virgin Mary and the Whore of Babylon. Freder, the son, is a Christ-like agent of reconciliation, while the father Joh is a self-styled Jehovah taking the place of God in his own world, even unleashing a flood to destroy his people when they have displeased him. Joh’s offices are in a skyscraper called the New Tower of Babel, and the climactic conflict is replete with references to the Apocalypse.
Some of these religious references were among the elements cut by censors in the sad and complicated history of the film, which remains even today fragmented and incomplete, despite the best efforts of restorationists.
For many years Metropolis was available only in a very problematic 1984 restoration with an inappropriate score. A 2002 restoration, with plot points from missing footage reconstructed from the novelization of the film by Lang’s wife, was a major advance over previous editions. However, a 2008 discovery of an additional source promises to yield a still more complete restoration in 2010.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.