Fritz Lang, who made that fabulous Ur-noir, M, made Metropolis (1927) as well, but until the last few years, it was never seen in its original form. The restored version, including lost footage retrieved from a full print found in Argentina, is available on Netflix, and it is glorious. A sci-fi fairy tale with ominous Art Deco sets and art production, a full-on tale from the Germanic medieval Apocalyptic tradition, and an Expressionist masterpiece, it awakens in me a deep understanding of the older name for movies, motion pictures. The images, each one, are fabulous, and they are given life through the technology of cinema.
Lang expressed distaste for his masterpiece later in his life. He felt that it was politically naïve and simplistic. His feelings may have had something to do with the fact that his collaborator on the work, his then-wife, Thea von Harbou, went on to embrace the Nazis, leading to their divorce soon after, and to his exile to Hollywood where he made several excellent film noirs, including Human Desire, Scarlett Street, The Big Heat. It’s hard for me to watch this film and not think about the conflagration to come to Germany, and Europe, ten years later.
The melodramatic plot concerns Joh Fredersen, The Master of Metropolis, the city that he built on the backs of his workers. The city is a brilliant aerial extravaganza: the workers live underground in dismal blocks of flats that look like the work of a dropout from the Bauhaus architecture school. His magnificent brain produces the ideas and directives that keep the city humming, and his every word, utterance, and gesture is attended to with slavish awe by his subordinates.
The children of the rich frolic in pleasure domes at the top of the city towers that look like something out of Hieronymous Bosch, if he had gone to Hollywood. Maria, a teacher from the worker’s world, brings some of her charges up on a field trip. One wonders what were the guards who let her in thinking? That begins the ruin of all of them.
Freder, The Master’s son, is transfixed by the sight of Maria, and decides he must go down to the depths of the worker’s city to find her. She is regarded as a spiritual leader by the workers, and restrains their violent tendencies, telling them that a Mediator will come, to join together the Head (The Master) and the The Hands (the Workers.) The allusions and similarities to New and Old Testament language and imagery are deliberate and consistent.
Freder is appalled by what he finds underground. He witnesses an explosion at the main machine that kills many workers, and he has a vision of the infernal engine as a Moloch devouring the people. From then on, he refers to his father’s city as The Tower of Babel.
He goes in search of other knowledge, and comes upon a man killing himself with the effort of manning his post. He is part of a crude feedback mechanism, and he must manually move the arms of the machine to point to the lights on the outer circle as they blink. They change often, and he is worn out with keeping up, but if he does not, disaster will ensue: He looks like a man crucified. Freder relieves him and takes his place and his worker’s clothes. He sends the man up to the city and to wait for him at a friend’s apartment, but the worker ends up spending his type at the city’s casino, a decadent fleshpot. So much for the virtuous proles!
In another part of the city, in the only building that retains a pre-modern appearance, a tall, ancient mansion, lives Rotwang, the mad scientist- inventor. It is obvious from his artificial hand that Dr. Strangelove owes something to this movie, as do so many others!
There’s a back story here: Frederson’s wife, Hel, is dead, but it seems that both Master and Madman loved her. The inventor maintains a shrine to her memory that Frederson contemplates when he pays a visit to his main technological adviser and mentor. (These images are from restored footage, and they are grainy, and cropped differently.)
Rotwang reveals that he has been developing a mechanical man to reincarnate Hel, and Frederson is horrified, but intrigued.
Knowing that his workers are being roused to rebellion by Maria, he commands Rotwang to fashion her in the image of Maria, and send her among the workers to sow chaos and discord. Instead of Maria’s message of peace and reconciliation, the mechanical-Maria will preach insurrection and violence. Joh Frederson will have a perfect excuse for retaliating brutally and teaching the proles their proper place.
Rotwang kidnaps Maria and uses her in his deranged experiment…
…which ends up being rather successful.
The transformed Maria is presented to Frederson, and he sets his awful plan in motion, not knowing that his son is in love with the real woman, and is living among the workers. The guys on the top just don’t know what’s going down…
Freder sees his father with the false Maria and is stunned and horrified. He swoons, and is put to bed, where he has an extended vision along the lines of Revelation, ending with his cry, “Death come to the city!” I have created an animated GIF of his vision, below, that you can click to activate.
Meanwhile, the false Maria carries out her mission of evil among the workers.
Talk about a femme fatale!
Roused by her calls to violence, the workers storm the engine rooms, and overcome the foreman, who occupies a rather difficult position in the class hierarchy. He is a worker, but he is at the top of the class, a sort of craft-union type, and he knows the mob is wreaking destruction on itself! He shuts the gates to hold off the mob, but The Master, with his own long game in play, orders him to raise them. He obeys, the engines are smashed, the pumps stop, and the workers city begins to flood.
The workers do an infernal dance around the smoldering ruin of the main engine, but the foreman breaks the spell, demanding of them, “Where are your children?” Indeed, they gave no thought to them as they went on their rampage, and the foreman makes clear to them their utter dependence on the machines that they have smashed. Luddite he ain’t.
The real Maria comes to the rescue, herding the children left behind to the alarm station where she is ringing the bell.
Meanwhile, the false Maria declares, “Let’s watch the city go to the devil!!” an parties with the city élite.
Like Hugo’s novel Notre dame de Paris, the center of the city, even of the godless machine-metropolis, is the cathedral. It symbolizes the mediating heart between head and hands. And as in that novel, a climactic struggle between Good and Evil takes place on the roof as Freder fights with Rotwang.
Down in the square, the foreman leads the action, roping the false Maria to a stake for burning in the good old fashioned way.
With purifying flame comes the revelation of her true nature.
Finally, Freder emerges with Maria and his father, and mediates an uneasy reconciliation between the foreman, speaking for the masses, and his father. Happy ending for ruler and ruled!