Thursday, 2 October 2014

Review: Metropolis

(unknown, 2012)
  • Native Title: Metropolis
  • Primary Language: German (silent)
  • Format: Black and White
  • Year of release: 1927
  • Director: Fritz Lang
  • Budget: est. 5,000,000 Reichsmarks
  • Film Length: est 153 minutes (original)
  • Production Company: Universum Film
    Another German expressionist work, Metropolis is a science fiction-drama set in the ambiguously-located megacity of "Metropolis" that explores the dangers of the divisions between the working classes and the wealthy elite. As well as an exploration of Marxist philosophy, the dangers of technology and plight of the worker in the roaring twenties, it also includes a variation on the synopsis of the classic Shakespearian tale of Romeo and Juliet. But there is far more to it than this alone as for a film whose length vary between two and two-and-a-half hours depending on what version you encounter (as the original faced heavy censorship with a sizeable portion of its material lost for many years)
    The first scenes are powerful images of the darkness of this fantasised world: After a montage of working heavy machinery and an establishing shot of the metropolis itself, we are shown the first people of this megacity: The common worker, who shuffles as part of a regimented mass with hundreds, joined by hundreds more to and from factories. The movements of the people going in and the people going out are similar but echo different feelings: The "in" groups shuffle with their heads low as they dread another long day of hard labour while the "out" groups stagger as if stiff, their heads low and their movements sleepwalker like, exhausted from the long day and perhaps dreaming of collapsing onto a soft bed or even a wooden chair although we never see how these people live in their own homes.
    Then we see the city's wealthiest in the metropolis above, enjoying themselves to the fullest in immense environments, including an Olympian stadium and a beautiful forest-like garden populated by weird trees to which the young fritter about in the most outlandish of outfits (the film's primary protagonist, Freden, for instance and a mild example wears a shirt, tie, and baggy breeches. One of the women he entertains and playfully chases in this park wears a tricorn hat with a dress fit for a film actress and one of the one-time extras wore a petticoat that made her dress four times as wide as her hips but with no depth). It is then in this garden that we meet Maria, who brings a group of workers' children to this park and explaining how she is showing them their brothers and sisters. The park's occupants however, stop and stare at the children as if they were a glaring eyesore on their perfect world or perhaps something that they had not seen before, but weren't enthused either.
    Later on we see the labourers at work, and it is quite shocking to see human beings move in such a rigid and choreographed fashion that could understandably have the user confuse them for robots (although not far from the truth given the original definition of the word robot could be summed up as "he who performs hard labour"). It is difficult to describe their motions, which although appear stiff and rigid compared to normal human movement, are also fluid and efficient. As though the workers are dancing in unison to perform their roles and keep the entire machine working. Aside from the Heart Machine however, there is little mention of what all this industry is producing or supplying so it can appear as though the workers (such as one registered as "11811" who has to move the hands of a clock-like device to meet any lit-up light bulbs) are going though a laborious and torturous ritual of "progress" in order to appease and slow a thermometer that starts filling up if they're too slow like a doomsday hourglass.
For their time, these sets were a phenomenal effort considering the scale and the detail.
(Biodrowski, 2010)
   Metropolis is perhaps nothing short of a groundbreaking effort by the sets and scenery alone. As Observer journalist Philip French, noted "Ever since I first saw Metropolis 60 years ago ... I have been entranced by its boldness, imagination and vision and its readiness to combine high intelligence with crowd-pleasing melodrama." To begin with, the film conveys well how phenomenally immense this city was, from the perspective of a viewer from the 20s, The Metropolis (as it was called in the film) was far larger than any city thought imaginable at the time. Images of train lines and  main roads the width of entire buildings would resemble to the modern viewer like an image from modern-day Los Angeles or Tokyo. Its phenomenal production budget of five million Reichsmarks certainly shows in the scale of the sets and the camera trickery to make people appear like ants in those cityscapes. Which lends a suggestion to the production value regarding the camera trickery and set trickery required to make these sets and scenes larger than tower blocks at the time. There was also the cast of extras involved in the enormous crowd scenes, "Some idea of the prodigious work in this production can be imagined when it is said that about 37,000 extras were engaged in some of the episodes. Eleven thousand of the men have shaven heads." (Hall, 1927). If this figure is correct, then the number of extras who worked on the set of Metropolis potentially outnumbers the average medium-sized town. For its day, and perhaps for many years after, few films could cope with a cast of extras this large and its easy to see how this ambition and risk (all those extras had to be paid after all) had bankruptcy understandably hanging over the heads of Universum executives..
    It is also possible that the atmosphere of the Weimar Republic had an influence on Metropolis, as only a few years before the nation had suffered a disastrous case of hyperinflation (reports exist of Germans using million-mark notes as notepaper or entire basketfuls to buy stamps at the dawn of the 1920s (Jensen, 2013)) that was only just settling down when production of the film started. And a couple of years after the film premièred, the Great Depression hit.the world, with a still-recovering Germany being hit very hard. Its possible that one of the missing scenes - where a worker found large wads of money - was taken out by 1927 censors in reactionary recollection of when the German mark was worth next-to-nothing only a few years before.
Was Rotwang dabbling in science man was not meant to know?
(Gwarden, 2011)
    The film is not only a political one but there is also a considerable degree of religious imagery. The two most over-arching religious messages are the Old Testement story of the Tower of Babel and the Book of Revelations. The mad scientist Rotwang's house is marked with pentagrams on all its doors, and emblazoned on the wall above his machine-man is a downward-pointing pentacle. While both are pagan in origin (although both can be mistaken to be used interchangeably), the pentacle can represent evil, perhaps in this case Rotwang's desire to play God and recreate the human form as a machine. When the robot duplicate causes chaos though The Metropolis, she uses the seven sins to turn decent men against each other with a pinnacle depiction showing her standing in a fashion that reproduces the image of the Whore of Babylon from the Book of Revelations exactly. After an explosion, Freden hallucinates one of the machines turning into a representation of Moloch - an Ammonite god - and watching as regiments of workers are sent into his mouth (possible a reference to Leviticus 18:21 that states that people should not give offer their children as sacrifice to Moloch. Some interpretations mention sending them tough his fire or mouth, which the worker hallucinations were doing; marching in unison into Moloch's burning mouth). There is more than religious symbolism however. The film is positively oozing from the seams with references to mythology and popular culture both subtle and obvious: Yoshiwara - the high-end club that the false Maria frequents - being Tokyo's red light district and a well-known leitmotif of the French national anthem heard as the false Maria riles up the workers are but two possible examples within the film.
Maria fully embracing herself as the Whore of Babylon.
(Gwarden, 2011)
    Metropolis might very well be the codifier for the science fiction version of the trope of the literal stratification of the light-dwelling rich and the squalor-dwelling destitute (other instances of this theme include Gotham City in the "Nolan Batman" trilogy, Panam's division between Capital and the twelve districts in The Hunger Games, Shanghai in Deus Ex: Human Revolution and Coruscant explored in Star Wars: Episode II), perhaps this was a reflection on a growing trend in New York-like cities where the wealthy lived in spacious apartments within elegant high-rises that towered above street level while less fortunate had to make do with more functional buildings. Metropolis may be dystopian as you have the trodden-on working class and the hedonistic elite. But despite the echoes of 1984, "The workers aren’t trapped in their pitiful underground city and the machine rooms, nor are the Upper Ten Thousand barred from visiting them there. It’s just that… they don’t. No one leaves their sphere. No one thinks about how the other half lives. No one is curious." (Edwards, 2010). It may very well be a simple matter of "why bother?" to these people; The workers are too busy or too exhausted for a day-trip to the surface and there is probably nothing in the Worker City that can satisfy the desires of the elite well enough. In one part of the film a worker goes Josephat's apartment by Freden's suggestion. As he travels he finds the huge amounts of money Freden has and subsequently loses himself as he explores the upper city. But Edwards is correct; despite Maria being a worker-class (presumably), she made it to the Eternal Gardens before being shooed, her duplicate could walk freely within the city's red light district, there were no door guards to stop Freden from going to the lower levels and in both his initial trips while he was in his daywear no one really acted like he didn't belong there until the third act and everyone realised who he was and what he represented when he drew attention to himself. And even then their anger was more directed at him being the son of the city's master than a general "your kind aren't supposed to be here".
The wink itself is perhaps creepy enough, but when she does
this in front of Joh Fredensen the moment lasts several seconds.
 (Edwards, 2010)
    There is also a possible anti-futurist  element explored not just by the trodden-on labourers of the Worker City, but also by the robot version of Maria, who upon being released with her new skin was virtually indistinguishable from a real person as Rotwang had intended. Although it was perhaps more clear to the audience than the characters who the real Maria was, as the duplicate had deeper eyeliner and was far more expressive and emotive in her body language. While the real Maria stood solemn in a single position with a straight back and gestured with her hands as she retold the story of the Tower of Babel, the duplicate conveyed her message of revolution as she darted from end to end of her stage, leaning over the corner blocks and literally reaching out to her audience with wide eyes and a euphoric smile. There was perhaps only one scene in the entire film where she stood with her back straight while as her duplicate. And even in that scene the duplicate wasn't perfectly normal as she gave a wink to someone so slowly it was almost disconcerting. When she was caught she had her legs moving in every direction, her head swaying everywhere, had she existed in the real world she might have been considered insane. Despite how sinisterly Rotwang behaves, and him having the master plan, it is perhaps this robot that is the true threat of this film as she simultaneously riles up the workers to play out story of Babel and descends the elite further into hedonism and lust, promoting anger and vengeance by little more than showmanship and a silver tongue. "The anti-Maria foments unrest among the city's oppressed workers, while driving the city's wealthy sons to lustful violence with her astonishingly lubricious nightclub dancing" (Romney, 2010) She a robot but she's also not physically unstoppable; from what we see she doesn't have the super-strength or durability of the Terminators for instance despite the futurist belief that steel was superior to flesh.

    Metropolis is a film perhaps long ahead of its time, a precursor to modern science fiction and the summer blockbuster, it contains so much that viewer can discover new details within again and again with each view that perhaps justifies its modern-day celebration as a masterpiece in film history. There is also a hint that this film is perhaps ahead of its time in terms of its themes, as some such as the segregation of rich and poor and the harsh exploitation of a distant workforce bring up strong images of The Great Depression and exploitive globalisation respectively. Metropolis has something for everyone be it a love for tense political drama, a satirical observation of modern society, a timeless tale of love, loss and betrayal, an escapist window into the future, a symbolism-riddled story to pick apart or an over-the-top action reel. It could potentially be stated that Metropolis is a well-composed window into a far-off yet familiar world that can be seen and appreciated by a variety of audiences.



  1. Fantastic review Mark - a real pleasure to read ! I take it you enjoyed it then :)

    Just one technicality... don't forget to italicise your quotes.

    1. I enjoyed it a lot, yeah. I did encounter a case of "the more I recalled it, the more goings-on I discovered" while writing it up which I think is always a good thing for a film as I suppose it encourages you to go back and watch it again.

      Okay so it wasn't a bad thing that my quotes in Caligari weren't italicised. I can see it highlighting the lines being said and is a potential indicator its not me saying it alongside quotation marks so I understand why its useful to do that. Thank you.

  2. great review, Mark - impressive in terms of its breadth and depth. This is the stuff of successful written assignments! :)

  3. Mark, this made for a very fascinating read, I can tell you really liked the film :) Great to see that you also managed to pick up on the numerous biblical references. I agree, this movie is packed with so much. If we watch it again, we would probably perceive even more of its elements. Additionally, the writing structure, and flow of this piece is solid. I especially liked how the conclusion finalised the entirety of the review.

    I think what would make this easier to read, is if you fully separated your paragraphs, and used maybe more line spacing (1.5 or 2.0, not sure what you are using). It is quite overwhelming seeing so much writing packed so tightly together.

    Keep up the hard work man! :D

  4. It was an amazing film yeah, I definitely would watch it again. Interestingly Phil thought I'd like it as well although I think his indication was towards the transhuman elements, I did not realise at the time how much of a religious tone the film had prior to seeing it, but it was a good addition for me.

    In retrospect yeah, despite my attempts to break the start of each paragraph with spacing it does still look like one solid mass at first glance. I'll look into a way of perhaps adjusting to make it seem less overwhelmiong.