The city of Metropolis is divided into the brain and the hands. While the city’s elite sit in the lap of luxury, the workers tend to the machinery for ten hours before retreating to their underground city “where they belong”. The one thing that keeps them from revolting is the promise of a coming “mediator”, a Messianic figure who will bring the hands and the brain together. The prophetic woman (Brigitte Helm) behind the legend believes the mediator to be Freder Frederson (Gustav Fröhlich), the son of the city’s leader, who thanks to a deft switch with one of the workers, stumbles upon the meeting in the catacombs. Meanwhile, his father (Alfred Abel) is in cahoots with a mad scientist (Rudolf Klein-Rogge) to create a life-like Machine Man to undermine the woman’s message. The Machine manages to incite a riot, which endangers the worker’s children. And who is there to save the day? Look up there! It’s a bird, it’s a plane, it’s…uh, Freder Frederson.
When we finally get the hang of this time-travel thing, one of the first orders of business should be to go to 1927 Germany and grab a completed print of Metropolis. Due to circumstances beyond anyone’s control, over a quarter of the film is lost and gone forever. So instead of Fritz Lang’s original vision, what we’re left with is most of it and title cards that explain what we’re missing. It’s a damn shame too, because we seem to be missing a lot of good stuff, including an entire trip to the entertainment district by the worker who’s switched places with Freder. There aren’t many films that could survive the loss of that much footage and still be a viable experience, it’s just too much to overcome, but Metropolis manages somehow. As it now stands, the film is nothing short of amazing and we can only imagine how much better it was in its entirety. Really, with the amount of space here we can only scratch the surface. Lang’s Metropolis is thrilling in every sense of the word. This is the standard on which all science fiction should be judged, and serves as the template for many a sci-fi worldview.
Apparently, Adolf Hitler considered this his favorite film, and while we would normally discard such information, I think it’s worth exploring for a minute. In the early scenes we see the workers shuffling to and from work en masse like comatose zombies. For a while I thought they actually had undergone some sort of lobotomy, but they’ve just been so marginalized by the city’s leaders that this appears to be the most effective way to get through the day. There’s a certain sense of fear about them. Only when the Machine starts to appeal to their sense of justice do they come alive, becoming a raving mob that has little regard for the consequences of their actions. Is that drastic effect on a large group of people what appealed to Hitler so much? Maybe, although the Machine does get hers in the end. Is it the themes of a drastic class structure? Or is it simply the erotic dancer? Hard to say, really.
Brigitte Helm has the difficult dual role of Maria, the prophetic woman, and her Machine double. Essentially, she has to play polar opposites, as Maria is a paradigm of virtue, almost a Mother Theresa character, and the Machine is a wild, wicked troublemaker who spends her spare time seducing the men of Metropolis as an erotic dancer. It’s a gutsy performance all-around and she’s clearly having a lot of fun with it. Then again, how could you not with a role like that?