Throughout the history of cinema, there have been many movies that have tanked on their initial release, only to gain a wider, more appreciative audience much, much later for actually being under appreciated and excellent examples of film making. ‘The Sweet Smell of Success’ was one. ‘Once Upon a Time in America’ was another and the most shocking in this category has to be ‘The Shawshank Redemption’. (Yes folks, believe it or not, that was a box office bomb). The movie I am reviewing today can probably lay claim to have started this trend, as it dates back over 90 years. It is Fritz Lang’s 1927 silent movie epic ‘Metropolis’.
Metropolis is set in a dystopian future where society is split into the three sections. The lower level, where the poor down-trodden workers live with their wives and grubby children, in run down apartment blocks where there is no sunlight, transportation or hope. The middle section which is reserved for the ‘machines’, where the workers slave away like robots in rotating shifts 24/7 until they drop from exhaustion. The workers power the machines which in turn power the city above, which is beautiful, clean, futuristic with many skyscrapers and freeways, where the social elite who inhabit it, gather for their hedonistic pleasures either in the eternal gardens, or the many nightclubs around where a lack of morals is matched only by a lack of responsibility. Overseeing all of this is Joh Fredersen, the master of Metropolis who sits in his palatial office with one eye on the workers below and another out on to the utopia the workers are creating, but not enjoying.
Freder, Joh Fredersen’s son, is one of the rich toffs who either doesn’t know or doesn’t care as to how the city is powered, nor about the misery and dire poverty that the workers are forced to live in. However, his social conscience is aroused when he is approached by a beautiful girl from down below named Maria, who is surrounded by about 50 children in rags. She makes him aware of who they are and where they have come from before turning and leaving taking the children with her. Smitten by Maria’s beauty and concerned for the welfare of the children, he runs after her. Instead of finding her, he finds himself in one of the machine rooms and witnesses first hand the misery of life below ground. When one of the workers collapses from exhaustion, an explosion occurs killing several workers. Appalled at the inhumanity, Freder confronts his father who is indifferent to the workers plight, much to his sons disgust.
One of the workers killed in the explosion was in possession of a map directing him to the catacombs and to a secret meeting. Jon Fredersen than goes to visit inventor and old love rival Rotwang who’s inventions had helped build Metropolis. Rotwang who conveniently lives above the catacombs takes Fredersen down to them where they clandestinely observe a meeting of workers with Maria addressing them. The whole scene plays out like a religious meeting with Maria’s version of the ‘Sermon on the Mount’. Maria assures them that a ‘mediator’ between workers and their overlords will soon end their struggle and misery.
Fredersen sees her as the main cause of dissent within the workforce as they see her as a Saint like figure with much influence and he is thinking of a way to silence her and it’s Rotwang that provides the solution. Rotwang has built a fembot and has found a way to transform the appearance of another person into it and be programmed to do the bidding of whomever controls it. Fredersen sees this as the perfect opportunity to quash any rebellion by having Maria be the guinea pig. Rotwang kidnaps her and in an iconic scene transplants Maria’s physical form over to the robot, but instead of having ‘Robot Maria’ merely convince the workers not to rebel as Fredersen intends, Rotwang in a bid to destroy Fredersen for stealing the love of his life many years before, has programmed her to entice the workers to full on riot and to ‘kill the machines’ putting Metropolis itself at risk of destruction.
There are more plot points and twists but if I included them all, I’d be here forever and they’d be no reason for you to see the movie.
The acting on the whole is nothing to write home about, with the valiant exception being Brigitte Helm who played Maria, who turns in a wonderful performance especially as the Robot version of herself as personified by the emotional detachment she displays as well as the sudden jerky head movements she adopts in some of her scenes.
A lot of the cast sadly went on to star in Nazi era propaganda movies such as Heinrich George who appeared in the deplorable ‘Hitlerjüngen Quex’ in 1933 and the absolutely grotesque ‘Jud Suß’ in 1940.
The movie was predominantly written by Fritz Lang’s then wife Thea Von Harbou. Who wrote a novel and screenplay simultaneously. The screenplay was jointly written by Von Harbou and Lang. Filmed between May 1925 and October 1926, the movie cost an astronomical 5 million Reichmarks and this was in a country still reeling from the economic consequences of the Treaty of Versailles. Whilst some of the special effects used in the movie were indeed pioneering, the use of miniatures and stop motion filming were by no means new techniques. The French Pathé Frères company had been using these techniques almost since the dawn of film making.
When first released, the movie ran approximately 153 minutes, and grossed less than 2% of it’s entire investment making it one of the least profitable European movies ever made. yet when it came to the markets who saw a longer film as ‘fewer bums on seats’, it was drastically cut down, in some cases, as short as 90 minutes. the result was that for a long time, the movie had no coherent plot to follow such as the Rotwang/Fredersen back story, which never really explained why Rotwang was out for revenge or the animosity between them.
Other nations tried to cut out as much of the religious imagery as well as minimising the social justice/communist subtext too. Surprisingly, for a nation that was founded on a concept of ‘so called’ social equality, The Soviet Union banned the film entirely, obviously not wanting to see their own workers exposed to rebellion lessons.
However one political group who were impressed by films message of social justice were the National Socialist German Workers Party. Joseph Goebbels was so impressed with the film, (a surprise given the movies overt marxist theology), that in a 1928 speech, he declared that “the political bourgeoisie is about to leave the stage of history. In its place, advance the oppressed producers of the head and hand, the forces of Labour, to begin their historical mission”.
Shortly after the Nazis came to power, Goebbels, in a meeting with Fritz Lang, told him that Hitler, after seeing Metropolis in 1927, had declared that he would want Lang to make Nazi movies for the party. Lang, who’s mother had been Jewish, would not have passed Hitler’s strict Nuremberg laws to have made this a reality and despite Goebbels assurances that “WE decide who is Jewish or not“,legend has it that Lang left Germany that very night.
His soon to be ex wife Thea Von Harbou had no such worry she was a 100% committed National Socialist and spent the war and the run up to it, writing pro Nazi screenplays and literature.
Fritz Lang and Thea Von Harbou
Aftermath and Restoration
The poor performance at the box office almost led to the collapse of film company UFA, who had financed the production. UFA, close to bankruptcy, was soon taken over by Alfred Hugenberg, a nationalist businessman who would later serve on Hitler’s first cabinet. He was able to restructure the business successfully, but to this day UFA have never been able to make a profit on the movie. Hugenberg even went one step further and had his board of directors sign a contract not only stipulating that Fritz Lang should never work for the studio again, but, (and I kid you not), that all UFA employees had an honour bound obligation to be rude to Lang whenever and wherever they encountered him.
In 2008 an uncut, yet badly damaged version of Metropolis on 16mm film was found in a movie vault in Argentina. Some of the damage was irreparable, yet for the first time in over 90 years audiences were able to see this movie in its near entirety with a run time of 148 minutes. The five minutes of footage still missing has been replaced by intertitles explaining the missing piece. Such as a fight with Rotwang and Fredersen in which the ‘real’ Maria is able to escape her kidnappers.
The restored version is also accompanied by Gottfried Huppertz original 1927 score which is magnificent. However, It’s such a shame that digital enhancement has yet to advance enough to fully make the movie look as good as new, but the handful of ‘grainy’ shots and scenes hardly distract from this wonderful film experience.
Over the years, and long before the restoration, Metropolis has gained a bit of a cult following. Images from the movie were made famous in pop culture, courtesy of Queen’s video to their 1984 song ‘Radio Ga-Ga’. In 1987, Italian music producer and DJ Giorgio Moroder released one of the shortened versions of the movie with an all rock/pop soundtrack which included Freddie Mercury, Adam Ant, Bonnie Tyler and Pat Benetar. However, avoid this version at all costs as it is not very good and the music doesn’t set the correct atmosphere for the story that silent movies scores should always accentuate. Stick to the ‘complete’ restored version only.
Metropolis is now regarded as a classic and it’s influences and Art Deco appeal have spread far and wide. Many film makers since have played homage to it in their own works, both seriously and in parody. Look at the original Frankenstein, Blade Runner and even to Star Wars. There is no co-incidence that C3P0 is vertically identical to ‘Die Maschinenmensch’.
If you have never seen Metropolis, then I strongly urge you to do so. It really is a masterpiece of early cinema.
All pictures are for review and entertainment purposes only. I do not own the images and no copyright infringement is intended. If you own the copyright and you wish an image removed, please let me know.