From the far reaches of the Milky Way Galaxy, It's Retro Nerd Girl with a film review for you.
Today I'll be reviewing the movie Metropolis released in 1927.
Brigitte Helm, Alfred Abel, Gustav Fröhlich
The Synopsis is:
In the year is 2026, the son of a master builder falls in love with a peasant girl who leads an underground group of workers in the city. A budding romance develops amid a class war.
*THE REST OF THE REVIEW MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS. *
The story began as an idea Fritz Lang had while he was visiting the U.S, in 1924 after seeing the New York City skyline. Fritz had his wife, Thea von Harbou write a novel they knew they would make into a film drawing inspiration from H.G. Wells and other German dramas. It was not long afterward that they wrote the screenplay together.
At the core of it, this story is a love story with a lot of social commentary about society. The story nearly feels like an opera, as many silent films often do, but you see that Fritz Lang really wanted to epically show the vast differences among the classes of society and somewhere in between where there is humanity, compassion and love.
And woven into the story are two parallel concepts the film offers in many symbols throughout the film:
Man, machine, and love.
The head (mind), the hand, and the heart.
At 2h 33min it’s really tough to get through if you are not familiar with silent films. It’s very engaging because you have to wait for the title cards to appear. You can’t look away or you’ll miss something.
The challenge from the onset, is daily life for the workers of the city. Their lives are bleak, hard, and full of suffering as they reside under the utopia they have built.
The master builder of the city and the man who runs it is Joh Fredersen from the New Babel Tower, much like the biblical tower of Babel. He is the father of the protagonist in the story Freder, and a figurative father to the city.
In the heart of the city there is a machine called the Moloch, that runs it. In history, the Moloch was a bronze statue heated with fire into which the victims were thrown for the sacrifice of the deity.
In the film, it is in the Moloch which is where the majority of the workers nearly die each day to keep it going.
At some point Freder has a hallucination and I love how symbolic the visions are. At first there are tied slaves being fed to the Moloch by force, now, the workers walking through the jaws willingly.
Joh Fredersen is like that machine, cold and heartless as he fires loyal employees and commits atrocities against his workers without remorse. He eats them up and spits them out. There is little humanity in him except for when it comes to his son, Freder. He is the only thing left of his beloved wife, Hel, who died giving birth to the child.
But now, other than being a bad boss, he doesn’t warrant us to call him a villain because he believes that he is doing something noble for mankind.
Well just to prove he’s a villain, Joh mysteriously visits the eccentric inventor Rotwang in his nebulous abode to get his help to wipe out the underground group of workers who simply want better treatment.
Rotwang is very interesting character. Joh and Rotwang are pretty much enemies, because it seems when Hel was alive, he loved her as well... so much that he has built a statue to her and he is building a machine, the new Hel for him to love… or rather, to stay and obey him.
One interesting bit of information is that the making of the machine, otherwise known as futura, Rotwang has sacrificed his right hand, which is a theme repeated in many modern films.
Luke Skywalker, Darth Vader from Star Wars, Dr. Strangelove all had a right hand replaced with a robotic or fake stand in. And more recently nearly every Marvel movie has a character that loses a hand.
There is a special significance of the right hand, the right hand being the right hand of god. To sacrifice the right hand is to sacrifice good.
Whether good there was in him before these events, he has lost and now it's too much to turn back now. He basks in his sinister vengeance to the point he has lost focus of his plan to have someone to love.
But now set up his new Hel to be his slave.
To drive home that Rotwang is evil, there is a pentagram drawn on the walls behind his wonderful creation foreshadowing his evil.
Joh Fredersen gets a brilliantly devious plan is to get Rotwang to make the machine in the image of worker’s leader, Maria to cause dissention among the workers. He thinks he can teach the workers a lesson about what happens when they even think about revolting. After the city is destroyed, he’ll rebuild it, and will be given permission to be even more tyrannical rule without question.
But there is a delicious double cross in the works, Rotwang wants to psychologically destroy Joh Fredersen, by foiling destroying his son, Freder who is in love with Maria.
The machine is the ultimate temptation of the female form for the pleasure of man. Her influence over men is ironic since she was designed to be a slave.
It’s important to note that when the machine awakes, she adopts the personality of a devious female.
She is fascinatingly wild, but specifically crafty at using all elements of persuasiveness drawing inspiration from the whore of Babylon, leading her followers into a frenzy to destroy the city.
Even her demise is sensational, as she is physically subdued in a kind of wild and primal manner. She really goes out like a boss.
The protagonist, Joh Fredersen son, Freder, is very likable. I remember the first time I saw him I thought he looked alot like Leonardo DiCaprio as Jack in Titanic.
Basically, Freder, starts out in the story as the prince, playboy, enjoying the spoils of his aristocracy in a fantasy garden of eden. All of that changes when he sees Maria surrounded by children. She says to them looking at the rich, these are your brothers and sisters.
Brother and sister is a term that is used often in the film to connect the classes of the city into one humanity.
Almost instantly, Freder falls in love with Maria. To be honest, the love story is highly contrived and happens so fast that it feels like a plot point that was needed to push the story along... and it does.
Maria disappears into the worker’s underground and this takes our protagonist in search of her. Initially, he doesn’t find her, but he finds is the machine Moloch within it the heart of the city, represented by a clock, like a beating heart, that needs constant attention.
There is an iconic scene of Freder filling in for one of the workers tending to clock.
This incident of Freder finding the Moloch also foreshadows the evil machine that will have Maria’s appearance later. He goes looking for Maria and finds a machine.
Going deeper into the search for Maria, Freder Fredersen begins to relate to the men who slave away for his father and the other aristocrats who live above ground.
He answers the noble call to help… his newly recognized brothers and sisters in some way.
He finds Maria, preaching to the workers, urging them to hold on to hope that a mediator will come to help them getting better work conditions. And mind you, that is all the workers want… better working conditions where they don’t die everyday.
When we pay closer attention to Maria’s image among the underground, she is swaddled in angelic white and surrounded by crosses, which made me realise how much this film is dripping with biblical references.
Why hadn’t I noticed it before like the Tower of Babel, The Seven Deadly Sins.
The name of Maria, is a version of mary, the virgin mother. She represents everything that is pure, opposed to her double, the false maria who was actually represented as the whore of babylon.
Let’s not forget, the mediator references Jesus, the mediator between God and his people. And that mediator is actually Freder, our hero.
Going back to the Virgin mother idea, Freder calls the workers his brother and sisters, lead by Maria, the mother of the underground. Later, Rotwang's machine, who was originally supposed to be the new obedient version of Freder’s real mother, Hel.
I love how all of the characters and settings have such fascinating symbolic meanings and subconsciously, I found myself really rooting for Freder to unravel the plans of his father and the wicked mad scientist.
The budget was about 6million in 1926 but if you consider inflation, it cost around $200 million of today's value.
This film took almost a year to shoot... 310 shooting days to be exact.
Film included more than 37,000 extras including 25,000 men, 11,000 women, 1,100 bald men, 750 children, 100 dark-skinned people and 25 Asians.
The economy was so bad in Germany at the time that the producers easily found 500 starving children to film the flood scene, taking 3 weeks to shoot.
Fritz Lang refused to use stunt dummies as stand-ins for the workers to be thrown in various scenes but instead hooked to harness belts instead. In fact, he wanted all of the characters and even the extras show their physical and emotional pain, even when there are no close-ups.
The scene in which workers are fed to Moloch, it was actually winter and the extras were naked and freezing most of the time and on the brink of revolt, since it Fritz was such a perfectionist, it took several agonizing days to film.
The actual futuristic vision of the city of Metropolis was as I said before, inspired by New York City, but it also has a very distinct art deco aesthetic fully driving home the fantasy.
When ever people see fantastic images of future cities, most people immediately see the reference to Blade Runner, but for me, I always see the reference to Metropolis.
The visuals of the city really feels as if we could be close to this kind of city aesthetics in probably 2060. Let’s hope we won't have and accompanying underground city and we can all live together with harmony and respect.
However these images so strong, hitting a primal source of wonder. It’s simply beautiful and allows the imagination to run wild as we are observing all of this.
Metropolis’ reputation in cinema is really due to the special effects brilliantly executed with the tools of the day to show us Fritz Lang’s epic fantasy images.
Miniatures of the city of metropolis was built, much as it would for effects today.
The establishing shots of the city filled with moving miniature vehicles were shot using stop-motion photography.
One of the coolest effect in these shots are the low flying vehicles and how interesting it would be to travel from building to building without having to travel on the ground level only. It’s a great concept, I am shocked we haven’t used yet.
Optical printing or color screen chroma keying didn’t exist at the time, so many creative techniques were employed, such as a large mirror was placed at an angle to reflect a piece of artwork while live footage was projected through, the removed silvering on the back of a mirror in strategically appropriate places for each separate shot.
For overlapping visuals, the film was shot, rewound, and shot again as many times as it was needed for the effect.
Cinema special effects have come a long way, but for it’s time even these rudimentary effects had never been seen before.
Besides the special effects, the film features the iconic robot, futura which continues to inspire our culture to this day. The costume was created by sculptor Walter Schulze-Mittendorff out of wood, or rather using a new kind of plastic wood developed at the time, if you can believe that. Where’s a 3d printer when you need one.
The musical selection for the film had been swapped out over the years, but then more recently the original music by Gottfried Huppertz was found and is on most of the newer releases.
Gottfried actually played piano on the set in order to assist the performances of the actors. And you can see how well this original music flows with the film when you hear it. It’s a wonderful composition.
The performances are really tricky because, the performance in this film, was exaggerated to compensate for the silence.
These guys were actually inventing acting and over the progression of time, it changed to the kind of acting we have today.
And for me in particular, I really enjoy the acting of the silent era, because it makes me laugh a little. But there are definitely are some scenes where, I was a bit more serious about the content.
If you aren’t use to silent films, it could be grueling for you.
Brigitte (pronounced like Brig-getta) Helm's performance was incredible as she played two distinctly different personalities and suffered a lot for this role. She mentioned in later interviews that she had many cuts and bruises from the robot costume, performing all of the stunts you see in the film for the authenticity Fritz Lang wanted on screen.
In fact all of the actors did their own stunts.
During the scene in which the false Maria is burned at the stake, the dress actually caught fire several times and just prior to that scene the actress was really being dragged by the hair as Lang demanded many, many retakes to capture the brutal reality.
Another performance of special note is Klein-Rogge who played the part of the deliciously evil mad scientist Rotwang. His performance inspired the archetypal character, repeated, copied, and recycled throughout cinematic history. His enthusiastic performance is magnificent!
This is a long list, but I will narrow it down to one main one which is the transformation scene, when the robot, gets maria’s appearance.
It’s an iconic moment in the film and it was done beautifully, in my opinion. There is so much to learn about filmmaking in that one scene.
The ending was good, but a little heavy handed with the religious subtext. The resolution for the city of Metropolis is that the head and the hands need a mediator, the heart… the heart being Freder since he is drawn into this story by love and physically foreshadows this by holding his chest near his heart a lot throughout the film.
This is the holy trinity, the father, son and the holy spirit… Man, machine, and love.
During the time, christianity was a belief system for most Europeans which many filmmakers got their audiences to care about the characters by creating a biblical reference to them and used the occult to drive fear.
Take the religious symbols away from it and you still get a fantastic story. The story is about love conquering all. Freder being the physical representation of love since the film is directly calling him the heart.
He began this adventure because of his love for Maria. He is alive because of his mother’s love for his father over Rotwang. Love is what brings them there, and love is what fixes everything in the end.
It’s an understated love story.
I wish we had the absolute complete copy of this film. Wow, imagine what it was like for the people to see this film in all of its glory during that first premiere in 1927.
At the film's premiere in Berlin on January 10, 1927, the audience burst into applause periodically during the many effects. However in general, the film got mixed reviews, mostly bad ones. Even the legendary, H.G. Wells chimed in with a negative review posted in the New York Times.
“It gives in one eddying concentration almost every possible foolishness, cliché, platitude, and muddlement about mechanical progress and progress in general served up with a sauce of sentimentality that is all its own.”
With its length of 153 minutes the movie was just too long for audiences of its day and the version that most people saw up until 2008 was the 90 minute version. That’s a lot of missing film.
It didn’t stop the film from being noticed and marvelled by movie lovers.
This film managed to string a legacy of influence in pop culture, music and fashion. From singers, like Beyonce, Christina Aguilera, Lady Gaga, and so much more.
Madonna’s Express yourself video was heavily inspired by the film including a segment of text that reflects similar sentiments of Metropolis’ final message.
Many people have connected the celebrity fanfair to conspiracy theories, which is quite understandable, since so many of them have adapted futura in some kind of way.
But the image is so striking that it could also just be how alien and fascinating it is visually, that has continued to inspire generations.
Perhaps it’s the beguiling nature of the machine. It plays into the universal human understanding that what appearances are deceiving. We are much more that what we appear to be.
But in the case of this man made machine, there may be something sinister. And that haunting theme has been repeated over and over again in cinema, from movies like, Terminator released in 1984 to Ex-Machina in 2014. You can say this film inspired the robot genre and influenced so many of our favorite entertainment.
Superman creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster named Superman’s city after it. (1938) after becoming intrigued with Metropolis’ futuristic art deco city exploring the fantasy of a new technological landscape.
Scarlet Street (1945) The "self-portrait" of Kitty March very closely resembles the scene of the robot Maria being brought to life.
Warning from Space (1956) One of the aliens disguises itself as an Earth woman, in a scene reminiscent of the transformation of the mechanical woman into Maria.
Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964) with the missing hand.
Star Trek: The Cloud Minders (1969) (TV Episode) the elite versus the underground workers.
Star Wars: Episode IV - A New Hope (1977)
C3P0 is modeled from the robot, and later in 1999 the planet coruscant.
Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) The India sequence features a close shot of hands pointing at the sky, which closely echoes a shot in the 'Babel' sequence of Metropolis.
Blade Runner 1982 in my opinion could be a sequel to Metropolis. It’s adapted from the book, Do robots dream electric dreams published in 1968 by Philip K. Dick, tackling the many similar ideas from Metropolis.
One interesting bit of technology featured in the two films predicting one of our modern technology assets of today is the video phone.
More influences include:
- Brazil (1985)
- Akira (1988)
- The Fifth Element (1997)
- Charlie's Angels (2000) in the character, The Thin Man
- The anime, Metropolis (2001)
- Equilibrium (2002)
- Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow (2004) Art deco/German Expressionist depiction of futuristic city. Beautiful and dangerous female android.
- Doctor Who: Rise of the Cybermen, The Art Deco design of the Cybermen, and their robotic movements, is reminiscent of the robot Maria.
- Yoshiwara Club (2008) (Short)
- Inglourious Basterds (2009) The celluloid image of Shosanna laughing while burning mirrors the Evil Maria in the bonfire in Fritz Lang's classic.
- The TV show, Futurama’s opening sequence
- And The Ghost In The Shell Franchise
Then there is the Giorgio Moroder version released in 1984, full of music from the time, such as Freddy Mercury from Queen, Pat Benatar, Adam Ant and Billy Squire.
I liked that version when it came out because it introduced me to the idea that you could set your own music to silent films, which was a favorite pastime of mine for awhile. Sometimes you can see how beautiful a film is when you turn off the assigned sound and music.
That version was not well received, but has a small subset of fans that have sustained over the years. However, nearly universally, many reviewers loved the ending of that version as did I.
I think it stands out because it wasn’t entirely silent. Some foley sounds were added and an amazing song by Pat Benatar, “Here is my heart” created a beautiful mood for the theme of the film. It’s totally worth watching for that ending alone and make sure you have a tissue when you watch it, because you just might tear up a little.
Another point to mention about the adaptation by Giorgio Moroder is that this was an attempt to get the generation of the time to appreciate silent films, when we were bombarded with terminators, gremlins, being the MTV generation.
Now for me, my favorite version is the most recent version of the film containing found footage from Argentina in 2008 and the original score. It’s as close as we can get to the original vision of the film.
In summary, I absolutely love this film and enjoy appreciating this film so much. It’s just amazing to see the incredible cinematic vision that was accomplished in the late 1920’s that keeps inspiring filmmakers today.
That sums up my review. I hope you liked it.
Take care movie lovers! I'm off to the next review!
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