Towards the end of last year I went over the list of 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die and made some prioritization notes of my own. I try to follow what the Blog Club is watching, of course, but I wander off on my own quite a bit as well. So I highlighted several films which I consider to be foundational classics of my self-identified geek sub-culture and which, for various reasons, I had never seen. To my chagrin, there were many of these, from Forbidden Planet to Night of the Living Dead to Mad Max to The Killer. The bright side is that I now have a ready go-to list for the times when I want to continue chipping away at the must-see classics but am more in the mood for genre trash like Shaft than heavy drama like Schindler’s List.
Metropolis was on the list, too, since it is one of the earliest and most influential science-fiction films ever. And since it was released in 1927 I realized that February’s theme gave me a multiple-birds-with-one-stone justification for finally checking it out. And I have to admit, it is a pretty phenomenal piece of art. I was so taken with it that if I ever hear of a local showing, particularly if it’s on a big screen with a live orchestra doing the soundtrack, I’d probably go to great lengths to arrange another viewing of all two hours and twenty-eight minutes of it.
The bits and pieces I had absorbed about Metropolis over the years had left me with the impression that it was only barely a sci-fi flick, since it is nominally set in the future (which looks a lot like the present relative to when the film was made, and therefore the past relative to my lifetime) and also includes one robot character. So I was pleasantly surprised to discover just how speculative the movie truly is, with its gilded utopia powered by the brutal oppression of a sub-class of workers. The sets and costumes might be a strange (yet undeniably cool) blend of art deco and gothic styles, but the society envisioned by Lang is something out of a dark future. Granted, critics who say that this dark futuristic society seems to be deficient in its logical underpinnings have a point. The elite live in ease and luxury while the proles operate gigantic machines at great personal risk … but it’s never quite explained what the machines do, whether they are power generators or food replicators or manufacturing engines or what. What is made clear is that the machines (somehow) enable the decadent lifestyles of the elite presumably because of their advanced capabilities, yet the machines require human operators to constantly monitor and recalibrate them, with the machines overloading and wreaking cataclysmic havoc if they are not run properly. And the workers are forced to run the machines in grueling ten-hour shifts with no relief. This seems unsustainable by design, which of course is exactly what it is, since the climax of the movie involves the workers rebelling and allowing the primary machine under the city to self-destruct in order to bring down the high and mighty.
But I would argue that anyone looking for precise and airtight logic in Metropolis is kind of missing the point. The movie to me felt more like a ballet, with the music and the images conveying a simple almost impressionistic (or, technically, expressionistic) story, a broad allegory rather than a refined thinkpiece. Although, all due credit to Lang, the story of the wealthy abusing and dehumanizing the poor and a rich boy falling in love with a working class girl might be basic but the telling of it in Metropolis is anything but. I was impressed by the simple, quiet power of The Passion of Joan of Arc and charmed by the intimate limitations of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, but Metropolis is neither simple nor limited. The sets are huge, the special effects are striking, and Lang makes full use of various techniques which only film can achieve, rapid editing and multiple exposures and so on to create dream sequences, agitated states of mind, and so on. It’s ambitious and it works, and I know I sound somewhat condescending as I keep grading things on a curve when I look at these movies made almost a century ago, but I am duly impressed with the final result.
Even the silent-era acting in Metropolis is admirable. It’s over the top, of course, but it’s not entirely without nuance. Freder and Maria, the young lovers, manage to be intense in a vibrant way while the mad scientist Rotwang makes a pretty good case that Rudolf Klein-Rogge invented scenery chewing with wild abandon for cinema. Freder’s father and his cadaverous enforcer The Thin man, meanwhile, are much more restrained, though each in his own way, and other minor characters have their own personalities as well. The fact that numerous characters could be so distinctly drawn without properly speaking is another achievement. And, I should confess that I am a sucker for movies and tv shows in which a single actor plays multiple roles, especially an evil twin or impersonating doppelganger. Metropolis gives us Brigitte Helm as the beatific Maria, and also as the amoral hell-raising robot whom Rotwang disguises with Maria’s face. Fittingly for Rotwang’s creation, the robot version of Maria is all exaggerated caricature of a wanton woman, but the contrast with the portrayal of the human Maria is deeply entertaining.
All of that plus the flooding of an underground ghetto, a nightclub riot, a burning at the stake (of a robot) and a fistfight on top of a cathedral ending with the bad guy falling to his death! The flood scenes struck me as clear antecedents of James Cameron’s Titanic, while the cathedral fight undeniably has echoes in Tim Burton’s first Batman movie. I’m pretty sure Metropolis is canonically required viewing for any aspiring modern filmmaker. It probably should be required viewing for any filmgoer, too.