Metropolis (1927)

From 1927, yes 1927, comes Metropolis the German expressionist epic science-fiction film directed by Fritz Lang. This, the oldest movie I have ever seen, is a silent movie, actors expressions & actions only aided by speech cards and a soaring score to get the scenes across to us.  Filmed in 1925, at a cost of approximately five million Reichsmarksand thus, it was the most expensive film ever released up to that point. It is also considered to be the first feature length science fiction movie ever to be made (some shorts have been released before it). After it’s original release, most of the film was lost and it has spent many decades being restored. There are different cuts available – 130 minutes, 159 minutes or so – but in 2010 a copy of 95% of the original Lang cut was restored and it clocks in at 2 hours 30 minutes.

The film is set in a dystopian future (unsure of the date) where the world is segregated into two in the vast city of Metropolis – the wealthy industrialists live in luxury in high rise buildings while the majority live in a lower class of underground-dwelling workers toil constantly to operate the machines that provide its power. The workers have tiring 10 hour shifts at the end of which they shuffle with their heads held low to their residences as another group takes over, walking & obeying like sheep. Metropolis is ruled by the ruthless Joh Fredersen, who’s son Freder spends his time idling away in a pleasure garden with the other children of the rich. Freder sees Maria, a woman who has brought in a group of young children from the lower class on a tour of the rich’s lifestyle but is quickly ushered away by guardians. Freder however falls instantly in love and in hopes to find her, goes to the underground. There watches in horror as a huge machine explodes, causing several injuries and deaths, after one of its operators collapses from exhaustion. Freder has visions of the machine turning into Moloch, the ancient Semitic deity honored by human sacrifices. Appalled by what he has witnessed, Freder runs to tell his father. A head worker Grot is also there to report the same accident and Fredersen fires his assistant Josaphat for not being the first to report the incident. Concerned by his son’s actions & behaviour, Fredersen dispatched The Thin Man to follow Freder.

Josaphat attempts suicide as his termination means a life working hard labour with the lower class but Freder stops him and tells him to go and wait at his home. Freder then goes to the underground machine rooms and encounters the worker Georgy who almost collapses from ovework. Freder takes his place, changing clothes with the labourer and tells him to go to his place using his driver & car. However on his way Georgy is distracted by the sights and sounds in the licentious Yoshiwara nightclub and spends the evening there instead. At the end of the work shift, a tired Freder finds a map that leads to a secret meeting. Meanwhile Fredersen goes to meet the inventor Rotwang with copies of the same map and asks him to decipher it. Rotwang was in love with the late Hel, who had left him to marry Fredersen and was mother to Freder. She died giving birth to Freder, but he has since built a robot to “resurrect” her, to Fredersen’s horror. They use the map to go to an underground meeting of many of the workers and see Maria addressing the workers. The charismatic Maria preaches peace & patience and prophesies the arrival of a mediator who can bring the working and ruling classes together, and urges the workers to have patience. Freder comes to believe that he could fill the role, and after the meeting breaks up, he declares his love for her. They agree to meet in the city cathedral the next day, then part. Fredersen orders Rotwang to give Maria’s likeness to the robot so that it can ruin her reputation among the workers, but does not know of Rotwang’s secret plan to destroy Freder as revenge for losing Hel. Rotwang chases Maria up through the catacombs and kidnaps her.

The Thin Man catches Georgy and finds out the address where Freder had asked him to go to and finds Josaphat there. Freder had come earlier and left on not finding Georgy. Josaphat rebuffs the Thin Man’s attempts to bribe and intimidate him into leaving Metropolis; the two fight, and Josaphat escapes to hide in the workers’ city. Freder does not find Maria at the cathedral, but he does overhear a monk preaching about the Whore of Babylon and an approaching apocalypse. Coming across statues of  Death  and The Seven Deadly Sins, he begs them not to harm Maria, then leaves to search for her. He hears her cries when he passes by Rotwang’s house and enters to find her ends up trapped inside until the robot has been fully transformed into Maria’s double. Rotwang sends the robot double to Fredersen and Freder finds the two embracing in his office and faints, falling into a prolonged delirium. The false Maria begins to unleash chaos throughout Metropolis, driving men to murder out of lust for her in Yoshiwara and stirring dissent amongst the workers. 10 days pass and once Freder is better he seeks out Josaphat who tells him of the spreading trouble and violence. At the same time, the real Maria escapes from Rotwang’s house after Fredersen breaks in to fight with him, having learned of Rotwang’s treachery. Descending to the catacombs, Freder and Josaphat find the false Maria urging the workers to rise up and destroy the machines. When Freder accuses her of not being the real Maria, the workers recognize him as Fredersen’s son and rush him, but Georgy protects him and is stabbed to death.

The workers follow the false Maria, abandoning their posts and destroying the Heart Machine, the central power station for Metropolis, leaving it without power. As all the systems fail, the real Maria finds the undergound flooding with water gathers the children in the main square, and with help from Freder and Josaphat, they escape from the workers’ city as it crumbles in the flood. Grot meanwhile gets the attention of the wildly celebrating workers and berates them for their out-of-control actions. Realizing what they have done the workers gather into a wild mob and grab the false Maria, branding her as a witch and the whore of Babylon and burn her at the stake; a horrified Freder watches, not understanding the deception until the outer covering disintegrates to reveal the robot underneath. A mentally degrading Rotwang mistaking the real Maria for Hel, chases her to the roof of the cathedral, pursued by Freder, who eventually gets the better of the mad scientist after a brief fight and Rotwang falls to his death, as the workers watch. On the cathedral steps, Freder fulfills his role as mediator (“heart”, linking the hands of Fredersen (the city’s “head” and Grot (its “hands” to bring them together.

The setting for Metropolis was influenced by the skyscrapers of NYC as Fritz Lang said after seeing them for the first time. The movie draws on Biblical influences especially with the 7 deadly sins and the whore of Babylon. As with such old films, I am often amused by the fast running that they all seem to do, like everyone was Usain Bolt back then. The false Maria’s dancing is awkwardly hilarious and so are the reactions and expressions of most of the men. The style of the times demanded them to overact and over express themselves to get over the lack of sound & dialogue at it is funny at times to watch. Still it is a great piece of art and especially for it’s time. Metropolis was well ahead of it’s time and is a landmark movie and everyone should watch it, especially if you like Scifi. Although the full length takes a little getting used to; I had to watch it in 3 attempts as I couldn’t get through it in one full sitting. For a movie on it’s own I will only give it a 7 outta 10 but for it’s time – a 9.5 outta 10!

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