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A Century-Old Sci-Fi Masterpiece: Metropolis

A couple of months ago, I attended an encore screening of an old movie. I’d seen this film many times before, both on television and the big screen. It had a big budget, dazzling special effects and has become a cult classic of science fiction… all typical of many blockbuster releases in recent years, But the most impressive aspect of this film is its longevity: it was made in 1926 and released at the beginning of the following year – almost a century ago. .

Like any major art work, Metropolis emerged within a specific historical and cultural context. – the heyday of Germany’s Weimar Republic when society emerged from the restrictions of the Victorian era. In this climate, human rights expanded, official censorship declined and the arts flourished. While not essential, knowing this cultural context enhances our appreciation of it.

Metropolis was directed by Fritz Lang who wrote the the screenplay in collaboration with his then wife. It is based on her novel of the same name which describes a dystopian future of ruling elites and oppressed masses. Many elements combine to make this work a cinema classic: the story, cast and the visual aspects including both the sets and the special effects producing many memorable scenes.

It is a mix of futuristic science fiction combined with old world melodrama and a strong social critique. The plot is by now familiar: one of a nightmarish future where society is strictly segregated between the haves (the wealthy, the capitalists) who live in luxury and the have-nots (the poor, the workers, the proletariat) who toil underground servicing the machines which keep the city running.

Metropolis. Directed by Fritz Lang, 1927.

The story is relatively simple comprising four main characters, an industrial entrepreneur and his son, an eccentric scientist and an innocent young woman. All four inhabit the futuristic city of Metropolis which is dominated by Johann Fredersen. He lives in luxury, together with his son Freder who is oblivious of the underground world of his father’s employees. One day Freder encounters an angelic creature called Maria who is the pacifist agitator of the workers. Intrigued he follows her to the underworld of the workers and sees their suffering. Moved by their plight, he confronts his father. Thus far it is a standard rich-boy-meets-poor-girl plot. Once united, we know they will effect some sort of positive change. However, things will not go smoothly. In fact, they veer towards near catastrophe.

Add to the mix a mad scientist Rotwang who has developed a humanoid robot which he shows off to Fredersen. They plot to subvert any worker uprising by giving the robot the appearance of Maria. Unsurprisingly, things don’t go according to plan and the protagonists find themselves all in a bit of a pickle – to put it mildly. Things get out of hand with all sorts of destructive and potentially fatal consequences. 

The casting enhances this story: Gustav Frohlich as Freder is the enthusiastic idealist of youth prepared to make sacrifices even risk this own life to change an unjust system. Fredersen is the domineering, ruthless entrepreneur keen to retain control of his empire. Rotwang is the crazed scientist whose work becomes an obsession and eventually distorts his view of reality.

The standout performance is that of Brigette Helm who shines in this duel role. She is brilliant as the angelic Maria. The versatility of her expression is evident in the transformation from the benevolent Maria into the sinister robot excelling in this Jekyll and Hyde performance. She effectively alternates from an angelic figure to a seductive temptress. This contrast is graphically stressed by her scene as a nightclub performer. where she enacts a sensual dance appearing virtually naked.

While the film is filled with memorable scenes, it is the futuristic science fiction elements which are the most dazzling. Here we see – perhaps for the very first time in a film – the workplace of your average mad scientist. The archetypal evil genius’ laboratory with all its by now familiar paraphernalia – all the gadgets and gismos, flashing light bulbs and potions bubbling away in clear glass beakers. 

This elaborate set is merely a prelude to the metamorphosis of the robot – a marvel of special effects which sees the robot is transformed into Maria’s double. It is an amazing piece of sci-fi fantasy made ‘real’ and all the more impressive coming decades before the advent of computer graphics or even computers! This impressive transformation scene occurs roughly halfway through the film but the pace does not falter. Many action-packed scenes follow of violence, suspense, erotic display, mass destruction and even Old Testament prophecy.

All these elaborate sequences are linked by one dominant image: the robot – one of silent cinema’s most famous creations. Its expressionless face stares across time, an ominous glimpse of a possible future yet to come. It is the intimidating blank slate onto which something human will be projected when it transforms into a malevolent Maria. But the original lifeless image remains unforgettable as haunting as it is memorable.

Metropolis. Directed by Fritz Lang, 1927.

After nearly a century, it is easy to assess the accuracy of the film’s predictions. While some are rather fanciful, others are rather disturbing. On the one hand, people are  driving 1920s model cars and rickety biplanes zoom along the city skyline; on the other hand, some of its images eerily reflect the totalitarian regime about to envelop Germany.. 

Within six years of this film’s release, the political climate would drastically change. Adolf Hitler’s Nazi party would gain control of the German legislature and the Third Reich was on its way. Well before World War II broke out, the freedoms of the Weimar Republic would all be savagely stamped out. Many Germans would flee or be driven out of the country. Unsurprisingly Fritz Lang was one of these emigres eventually settling in Hollywood. It is also ironic that his then wife who wrote the original novel and co-wrote the screenplay subsequently became a Nazi sympathiser.

In hindsight, many aspects of the film seem to foretell the Third Reich. It is full of negative images that eerily hint at such a future. For example, we see workers in uniforms marching in serried ranks like a mindless army. Freder the ‘Lord of Metropolis’ presides over his empire like a military dictator. He is ruthless and calculating relying on informants to control his workers and even spy on his own son. Overall, there is the promise of a social utopia embodied in a deceptively charismatic but inherently corrupt figure. All this reflects what would soon eventuate in Germany.

But in the 1920s, all this calamity could not have been foreseen; the film was a projection of a possible future. In this context, its messages for contemporary society are rather simple. Firstly, there is the age-old warning that too great a disparity of wealth and privilege between social classes will always lead to conflict and discord..

As science fiction it has a more significant message: while technological progress can solve problems, it can also create others. It warns against putting too much faith in technology, not to make it the ‘God’ of any future society. It remains a timely reminder for contemporary society. For example, social media and artificial intelligence have led to issues such as internet stalking, cyber bullying, the cloning of images and the spreading false news). Basically, compassion and common sense should always prevail; technology is there to serve humanity not the other way around. This stance is adequately summed up in Maria’s final line: ’Between the head and the hand there must be the heart’.

The fact that the film has endured for nearly a century has led to more than one version, each   one of varying length. An unusual version was produced in 1984 which concentrated on the struggle between capital and labour. In addition it was had colour tints added and a soundtrack by artists such as Freddie Mercury, Bonnie Tyler and Giorgio Moroder. This version was another innovative blend of past and present: silent film of the 1920s and the pop music of the 1980s. At the time, scenes from the film were incorporated into the rock video of the Queen song ‘Radio Gaga’. The fact that it was resurrected after nearly 60 years is testament to its lasting appeal.

Not only does it exist in several versions of differing length but also it was even due for a renaissance. The recent writers’ strike in Hollywood has caused the postponement of various screen projects. Significantly, one of these was to be a remake of this particular classic. It is fascinating to speculate what a remake would look like and whether its appeal would last as long as the original.

A true classic never goes out of fashion. It continues to captivate audiences over successive generations and ‘Metropolis’ has definitely done that.