I watched this movie for the first time last night. Mine was the restored length of roughly 170 minutes. In case you don’t know, most of this was thought be lost until a rather badly damaged 16mm version was found in Buenos Aires in 2008.
The film is obviously showing it’s age so if you want a up-to-date sci-fi epic, try something else. But for it’s time, it has some very strong iconography; the eponymous Metropolis of endless sky-scrapers, surrounded by snaking layer upon layer of grid-locked motorways and railways; the robot-woman, Maria; the towering machines of the underworld; and the epic chiaroscuro street scenes reminiscent of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.
The story is basically about the uprising of Workers, who live in a city far below Metropolis, some time in the future. The ruler of the City lost his wife, when she gave birth to his son, who has grown into an athletic star of the elite class. But the ruler has no idea that his son is about to rebel and take up the cause of the Workers. Meanwhile, a genius inventor has found a way to create androids in any likeness and the ruler wants one made to look like his long-dead wife. Or at least, that was my take. Little does he know that not only is the inventor still in love with the dead wife but that a girl called Maria is her spitting-image and the religious leader of the Workers. She ends up becoming the pawn of both these men but also the lover of the hero.
I did get very confused about some of the plot. What was the significance of the worker number, on overalls, which Joh Fredersen’s Son kept waving around? This didn’t seem to be well explained but that could just be that key scenes are missing or that the subtitles are few and far between. I didn’t understand why the Marseillaise kept cropping up. This was probably added later and not Lang’s intention.
Also, the acting of Bridgitte Helm is way over the top. I know this is a silent movie and so acting has to be largely mime, and therefore exaggerated, but she was just going too far for my liking. Gustav Fröhlich as the hero was much better and Alfred Abel, as his father and ruler of Metropolis, was good too.
I can see why Adolf Hitler adored this film. It is a big vision of what can be done with industrial might and of course how the class system might make this possible. Hitler would have loved the hymn to the rights of the worker that this film became. He even made the Jewish director, Lang, an honorary non-Jew as a reward. Lang left Germany that very night, which says a lot about what he wanted the film to portray.
There all sorts of influences detectable in this film; the aforementioned Dr. Caligari film, some of the early Boris Karloff horror movies and Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin (for the crowd scenes). I loved the scene of the race track at the beginning and the way the workers move in synchronisation, as if their will had been removed as well as their dignity and they had become zombies. This and many other features play on our subconscious ideas, lending the film an intensity, even today. Feminists will probably love the fact that Maria, and not a man, is the religious head of the Workers. The android is pretty familiar too if you have watched Star Wars. No prizes for guessing where 3CPO got his features from.
All in all, well worth a watch, even today.