In which we go to the year 2000, where not much has changed but they live underground.
More so than The Cabinet of Dr Caligari or Nosferatu, the imagery of Fritz Lang’s 1927 film Metropolis influences cinema and pop culture today. The famous poster art of the 1920s inspired cityscape and the iconic look of the robot Maria have been homaged, parodied and integrated into design for over ninety years.
Just like those two early films, I’d never sat through Metropolis in full before watching it for this review. Again, I’m glad I did as the movie goes far beyond design and much like the others entertains on the strength of its story too.
Set in the year 2000, Metropolis introduces us to a city where the rich and poor are more segregated than ever. The wealthy live in luxury high above ground, while the workers who toil with physical labour barely survive underground and out of sight. When the city controller’s young son Freder begins to explore the hidden world beneath his feet, he becomes drawn to both their burgeoning rebellion and commanding leader, Maria.
With his uncaring father intent on replacing workers with machines, Freder and Maria must try to win freedom and orchestrate a new order between rich and poor. Little do they know, the first worker to be replaced is Maria herself.
As with many of the 1920s films I’m beginning to watch, Metropolis is a German production – this time an expressionist science fiction tale rather than a horror, though it uses horror imagery throughout with representations of the seven deadly sins and a burning at the stake. The famous city was inspired by Fritz Lang’s time in Manhattan years earlier and is contrasted with the underground gothic feel of the catacombs and dark industrial factory floor.
The contrast between societies is a key theme of the film, most obviously in the physical separation of the workers’ and elites’ worlds. It’s perhaps simplistic in its message, but powerful all the same as we see the workers barely able to stand through their long shifts and those above either sending down orders or partying like it’s the roaring 2020s.
There are two stars of Metropolis for me, the unparalleled and iconic production design, and the dual roles of Maria and the Robot played by Brigitte Helm. Helm is powerful as the figurehead of the underground rebellion, both stirring up support and keeping the workers peaceful as they wait for a mediator (Freder) to link the two worlds. Even better though is her mesmerising turn as the robot, first inspiring violent revolt then laughing at her comeuppance as she’s found out and turned on.
I’d recommend watching Metropolis if you haven’t seen it. While it’s great to watch the iconic scenes play out in a greater context, it’s the story at the heart of the film that most draws you in. Its messages hold firm today. Just as predicted, we build ever higher skyscrapers for the rich and we’re replacing manual roles with machines wherever we can to save money and improve efficiency. We may not have avoided the technologies and structures of world Lang envisioned, but let us hope we can find a closer bond between those who benefit most and those who build them.
Let me know what you think by joining the conversation on Twitter.