Fritz Lang’s classic work of science fiction, now nearly a century old, manages to be a grand, impressive performance piece in spite of its age (and of a few questionable story and pacing decisions). The believable setting it depicts is both fascinating and tragic, and beyond having to negotiate a few downright odd and sometimes unnecessary scenes, fans of science fiction will hopefully consider this film to be worthy of their time.
The story opens with an overwhelmingly complex display of machinery and mechanisms, themselves managed by dozens upon dozens of overworked and depressed laborers with hardly a name to call their own. The workers’ city is deep below the surface of the earth, far out of the sight of the industrial management, and the social and economic symbolism of a wealthy upper city on top of a poorer lower one is plain to see.
We are introduced to Freder, the primary hero of the film, and to his father Joh, who is more or less the industrial overlord of the huge metropolis. He is willing to spare little thought toward the plight of the people who keep the city running, but even if his ends don’t justify the means, his design accomplishments in themselves are unmistakable: the art direction seen in the environments is incredible, with some areas boasting gorgeous fountains and others looking like mythic paradises.
On top of all this is a well done musical score that accompanies the whole of the film, as this is a silent movie; the score capably sets the mood for each individual moment, as well as conveying a character’s nobility or lack thereof to the audience, such as in the happier portions of the opening scenes, where the music sounds like a waltz.
Shortly thereafter, the film takes a darker turn as a machine has a significant malfunction, which brings many worker injuries and deaths with it. The working conditions themselves are hardly bearable, such that the story, complete with labeling, makes a blunt comparison between labor-abusing industry and masses of human sacrifices.
Actors’ and actresses’ body language is highly important in a movie without spoken dialogue, and as such, pretty much everyone’s movements remain exaggerated, with plenty of emotion, throughout the whole film. Workers walk stiffly and slowly between locations while repeating the same body movements time and again as they perform their labor. Even industrial executive Joh’s walking style looks evil, as it should: he simply feels that the laborers deserve their conditions of life, both at home and at work. His behaviors and “spoken” words (delivered via on-screen text) set an expectation for a corrupt archetype that he only somewhat lives up to, as will be explained.
His son Freder, on the other hand, sees the workers as his brothers and his equals, and while Freder isn’t a particularly complex character, he’s more likeable than most in the film. A touching deed of his early on is to take over the operation of a demanding machine from a laborer who has little in the way of identity but plenty of gratitude.
The movie becomes a very different one with the introduction of a mad scientist named Rotwang, who boasts that he can make a recreation of Freder’s mother, who died in childbirth. With her, he hopes to blur the line between man and machine, an idea that had much more story potential (robot workers displacing humans, for example) than what the film made use of.
Meanwhile, the workers have been sneaking down into the catacombs below their city, to where a sort of priestess named Maria tells of a mediator who will bring the laborers out of their terrible circumstances. Freder quickly takes on a messianic role as the predicted mediator, and from there the film becomes a sort of straightforward but enjoyable action movie, in which Maria is unfortunately made a damsel in distress for a time. The most interesting side of all this is not that it occurs in the midst of a workers’ rebellion, but rather the unusual way that said rebellion is portrayed.
The special effects are amazing from start to finish, especially in the early and late use of water, even though some sets look as fake as one might reasonably expect a movie this old to look. One central scene involving a robot boasts better special effects than I’ve seen at times in recent years. Technical issues come in the form of two scenes, one of which is a kidnapped-maiden sequence that feels overly long but is necessary to the plot; another of which is an awkward and disturbing ‘dance’ scene that feels overly long and is only present for establishing additional ‘sin’ metaphors.
Thankfully the character Joh’s personality becomes more complex even as some others’ are decidedly less so, but what this late-game priority shift ends up leading to, is a movie whose multiple antagonist groups and factions, divided among themselves, make the plot seem unfocused at times. It’s as though the story wants first to criticize one thing and then to focus on something else completely different different.
In the end the question of “who the ultimate villain is” is resolved a bit too simplistically, even as some unexpected and powerful story events do arise, and viewers who were hoping for a more complex depiction of class warfare between the rich and poor, particularly in a setting where robots exist and can be made to realistically resemble humans, may wind up disappointed. When viewed according to its own merits and taken as is, the narrative is acceptable, though it feels, somehow, unusual and plain at the same time. The way the film executes its story structure in the last forty-five minutes or so is much more interesting than the structure itself.
Metropolis doesn’t settle for cheap thrills, even with some chase scenes that tend to wear out their welcome. It also doesn’t spend quite as much time “showing its setting in action,” such as portraying the everyday lives of the wealthy outside of the occasional club visit, as I would have liked. I feel that more could have been done with the setting, the pacing, and the premise, but what is there is, for the most part, quite enjoyable. Some scenes are not appropriate for children, but adult fans of science fiction would do well to at least give Metropolis a try.