Johhan Fredersen (Alfred Abel) is the authoritative governor of Metropolis, a city divided between a paradisiacal higher world and a dark underground close to Dante's hell. His plans to annihilate his slaves will be thwarted by the meeting between his idealistic son Freder (Gustav Fröhlich) and the beautiful Maria (Brigitte Helm). The man will try to sow discord thanks to a robot looking like Maria but a revolution will bring back the order.
A blockbuster before the hour
Whereas other traditional German classics like Nosferatu and the Cabinet of Dr. Caligari are always fascinating thanks to their artistic dimension, Metropolis too often sinks into excess. Knowing that the director finished his career in Hollywood with more than doubtful productions, one better understands his taste for spectacle that does not combine very well with the political and artistic aims of the project.
Equipped with a budget of more than 7 million Marks, a colossal amount at the time, Metropolis required more than one year of shooting and nearly 37,000 extras. Though the production cost is apparent in the gigantic set and special effects, the film has aged badly. The science fiction set opposing an imposing ultramodern city to a dull underground world surely created sensation in the Twenties, just like the birth of the robot in halos of light.
While one can be impressed by the production of such effects so early, it is more difficult to digest other aspects of the film. In addition to its interminable length, the extreme over-acting of certain actors and especially a far too commercial direction tarnishes the aura of the picture. Certain scenes turn ridiculous like the conclusion on the roofs typical of any caper film, and a happy ending that's too naive and moralist. One will note also the propensity of film to recycle, another quality of current productions. The birth of the robot obviously recalls Frankenstein while its condemnation is reminiscent of the fate of witches in the Middle Ages.
The artistic membership appears in two precise elements of film, the architecture and the crowd, which sometimes meet. Just like in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Nosferatu, the set, and in this case the crowd as well, are so dominating that they become characters. The use of a very geometrical architecture testifies to an Expressionist stylization, like the long monotonous lines of slaves who sometimes merge into the urban landscape to become its extension. With its large machines and blackness contrasting with the fluidity of the upper-world, the underworld also borrows the theme of the industrial revolution, a favorite of German painters from the beginning of the century.
The Political Dimension
Under its guise as an entertaining science fiction flick, Metropolis hardly hides its political ambitions. The upper-city and its governor without scruple reflect capitalism and, more particularly, the American system, as the town of Metropolis clearly resembles New York. The slaves symbolize the people or "the masses" that are exploited by capitalism. Their representation like servile beings stripped of any personality and spirit almost make them robots, which means that the film does not preach Communism either. The end with the reconciliation between the "management" and the "people" translates the German state of mind shared between the American and Russian models.
The principal criticism of the picture goes undoubtedly against the German society. The slaves point out their Egyptian protagonists who built the pyramids while certain decorationsthe front of the factory resembling a god and the stadiumrefer to Roman civilization. One inevitably thinks of Nazism that was strongly inspired by this ancient imagery and the film can thus be described as visionary just like the Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Nosferatu.
The influence of Metropolis on modern cinema
Lang's film certainly marked the cinema of science fiction forever. Its vision of the city strongly influenced a pillar of the genre like Blade Runner while the robot has since been re-used many times, from Star Wars' C3PO to the Terminator. Without forgetting the familiar spectacular ending that never ends. It is thus not surprising that Lang was one of the first German imports to Hollywood, the commercial productions of his later in his career being the logical resultor derivative.
If Metropolis survived its defects all these years, it is probably to testify to the lack of inspiration of contemporary cinema whose only evolution seems to have been technical.
It is in this context that it should be appreciated.