METROPOLIS. (1927) DIRECTED BY FRITZ LANG. SCREENPLAY BY FRITZ LANG AND THEA VON HARBOU. MUSIC BY GOTTFRIED HUPPERTZ. STARRING BRIGITTE HELM, GUSTAV FRŐHLICH, ALFRED ABEL AND RUDOLF KLEIN-ROGGE. REVIEW BY SANDRA HARRIS. ©
‘The Mediator Between the Head and the Hands Must Be the Heart.’
When you leave the cinema so awe-struck by the film you’ve just seen that you’re unable to even discuss it with the people who accompanied you there, that’s usually an indication that you’ve seen something extraordinarily special.
That’s what happened to me recently when I went to see a one-off special screening of Fritz Lang’s METROPOLIS at the Irish Film Institute here in Dublin. The film was being shown for two reasons.
Firstly, it was April 2016’s choice for the monthly Bigger Picture presentation, which argues for a film’s place within the canon. I think everyone there was of the opinion that this legendary silent film speaks for itself…!
Secondly, METROPOLIS formed part of the FUTURES PAST: HOW CINEMA OF THE PAST HAS IMAGINED OUR FUTURE season being held in the IFI this month. Other films being shown included THE DAY THE EARTH CAUGHT FIRE, STANLEY KUBRICK’S 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY, SILENT RUNNING, SOYLENT GREEN, GATTACA and GEORGE LUCAS’S THX 1138. There’s enough material in there to satisfy even the hungriest fans of futuristic movies…!
Because of the scientific content of this dystopian film, it was introduced by Lynn Scarff, the Director of the Trinity Science Gallery here in Dublin. Mercifully, Ms. Scarff kept it brief! She acknowledged herself that we were all dying to see the film, a mostly fully restored version of which was being shown to us, complete with the English subtitles and German intertitles, as they’re called.
Do we all know that METROPOLIS is a film about a terrifying futuristic slave nation, in which miserable workers toil endlessly underground manning the machines which keep the city above-ground ticking over for the overlords who live there? Well, it is.
It sounds nightmarish, doesn’t it? It truly is a dystopian nightmare, at least for the poor drones who risk life and limb in the hellish steam pumping out of the monstrous machines around the clock.
Fritz Lang (1890-1976) apparently was inspired to make this epic German expressionist science-fiction movie after observing the skyscrapers of New York. His above-ground city certainly resembles this famous American city in its towering buildings of glass and steel and the endless flow of traffic back and forth across the intricate interlocking network of roads.
The choreography of the workers as they march to and from their horrible duties is superb. One shift clocks off as the next clocks on, with everyone so downtrodden and depressed you can just about tell which shift is which. The music accompanying their defeated trudge is out of this world. When it’s being blasted out at you full-blast from the big screen, it’s positively mind-blowing.
The machines and the gigantic geometric sets are both fantastic and terrifying. How Fritz Lang could make a film of this magnitude way back in 1926 is incredible. He co-wrote it with his wife, Thea Von Harbou, from whom he separated in 1933.
Thea had begun to sympathise with the Nazis in the early 1930’s whereas Lang, Jewish by birth, would have had much to fear from them as the war approached. He left Germany in 1934 and started up a career in Hollywood not long after.
The main character in METROPOLIS is Freder, the son of Joh Fredersen, the wealthy ruler of the above-ground city of light, comfort, leisure and pleasure. One fateful day (as they say!), Freder follows a beautiful young woman called Maria deep down into the underground world of the workers. What he finds there makes him sick to his stomach.
Finding out that his father is forcing thousands of workers to slave away in the bowels of the earth under appalling working conditions does not sit well with the foppish young womaniser. Before our very eyes, Freder transforms from a slightly ridiculous playboy in splendid knickerbockers into a man of real courage and compassion.
He joins with the sweet and kind-hearted Maria to save the workers from the devious machinations of his father and Rotwang, a crazy inventor. Rotwang has created a Maschinenmensch or robot-human and has given it the physical appearance of Maria, whom the workers trust implicitly.
This Maschinenmensch has been described, incidentally, as ‘a brilliant eroticisation and fetishisation of modern technology.’ I couldn’t have put it better myself. If a robot can be sexy, then this robot-human is as sexy as Marilyn Monroe mashed together with a young Diana Dors, if you can imagine such a magnificently-bosomed, doe-eyed sex-bomb. Or you can use your own ideals of feminine beauty to create an equally apt analogy, if you prefer. But whatever way you slice this tomato, boys, she is hot, hot, hot…!
Joh Fredersen wants the Fake Maria to be used to incite the workers to an ill-advised revolution, which will give him the excuse he needs to use force against them in turn. Can Freder and the Real Maria, with whom he has fallen truly, madly, deeply in love, avert a disaster for the whole city?
Is Freder really the Mediator (der Mittler) for whom the workers have been waiting for so long? Can Maria help him to be the Heart that unites the Head (his father) and the Hands (the workers)? Maybe, but the clock has already started ticking…
The underground caverns are wonderfully scary. Check out the Seven Deadly Sins. They’re positively chilling, and doesn’t Death have a lovely big scythe…? The scenes of luxury and decadence when the Fake Maria is performing her (virtually!) topless dance are so very ‘Twenties, although of course the film is meant to be set somewhere around the year 2027. We laughed our heads off at the gurning, drooling, lustful faces of the watching males. Men sure don’t change much over the centuries, do they…? Snigger snigger.
Speaking of Maria, she’s far and away the most interesting and animated character, especially when she’s being the Evil Maria. Those delightfully hammy expressions she puts on when she’s being Evil! She’s great fun when she’s Evil, but as the Real Maria she displays almost superhuman strength and courage when she’s trying to save the poor little kiddies from the flooding of the underground city.
What a gal! It’s weird to think that she (Brigitte Helm) lived all the way to 1996, especially when she’s the very epitome of that gorgeous ‘Twenties dame with the big eyes and the Cupid’s Bow lips. Fritz Lang himself made it to the mid-‘Seventies. That feels weird too, doesn’t it?
It’s just about conceivable too that some of the children in the film might be alive today, though of course they’d have to be in their nineties and older. Imagine having that on your CV. ‘I was in Fritz Lang’s ‘METROPOLIS…!’ It’s a bit like being able to say that you were in F.W. Murnau’s NOSFERATU. That’s really something to brag about.
I’ll leave you with a thought. It’s what makes this film a horror movie for me, as well as a superb sci-fi epic. There’s a scene early on in it when the autocratic Joh Fredersen dismisses his man, Josaphat, from his service. To be dismissed means to be sent underground forever without hope of reprieve.
The very thought of this exile-slash-virtual death sentence sends Josaphat reaching for his gun with the intention of blowing his own brains out. If you’ve seen the film, you’ll understand perfectly why he would prefer death to a life below ground-level. And if you haven’t seen the film, you need to rectify such a grievous error post-haste. Whaddya mean, what do I mean? Go and see the film, that’s what I mean…!
AUTHOR BIOGRAPHY OF SANDRA HARRIS.
Sandra Harris is a Dublin-based novelist, poet, short story writer and film and book blogger. She has studied Creative Writing and Vampirology. She has published a number of e-books on the following topics: horror film reviews, multi-genre film reviews, women’s fiction, erotic fiction, erotic horror fiction and erotic poetry. Several new books are currently in the pipeline. You can browse or buy any of Sandra’s books by following the link below straight to her Amazon Author Page:
Her debut romantic fiction novel, ‘THIRTEEN STOPS,’ is out now from Poolbeg Books:
The sequel, ‘THIRTEEN STOPS LATER,’ is out now from Poolbeg Books: