This is a super shocking thing for me to have to confess, but I'm not going to lie about this anymore -- I owe my fans the truth, after all. Despite the fact that I went to film school and I actually enjoy German expressionism, this is the very first time that I've ever seen Metropolis from start to finish. I know, it's like God did I even go to any of my required film screenings when I was in college or what?
And in this case, I am the one who was missing out, because Metropolis is quite frankly astounding. The ambition and depth of the film is incredible, given the time that it was made, and it's even more impressive that get to see it now at all. After the original screening of the film, it was heavily edited, leaving behind only a fraction of what director Fritz Lang had originally intended. But amazingly, a huge portion of the missing footage was found in South America about ten years ago (heavily damaged, but one can't have everything). So now we have a cut of the film that has about 95% of the original content that was first screened in Berlin nearly 100 years ago.
Metropolis shows a dystopian future where the wealthy elites live it up in shining towers reenacting some of the jazzier scenes from The Great Gatsby, while the abused working class inhabit a dark undercity where they spend their lives toiling away at the unforgiving machinery that helps the rich get richer. What these people really need is a Bernie Sanders to help them rise up against their oppressors.
But what they have is a very chaste, pure-hearted woman aptly named Maria who preaches to them about the Bible and encourages them to await the arrival of the Mediator, a prophecized figure who will help the workers and the bosses find common ground. Now, she has good intentions, but this does seem like exactly the sort of thing that benefits the bosses more than anyone, because every second the workers are waiting around for a savior to come is time not spent plotting sweet revolution.
Another key cog in this magnum opus is Freder, the rich son of the most influential factory owner, who seems perfectly happy to live a life of leisure until he catches a glimpse of the aforementioned Maria. Then he suddenly becomes passionately interested in the well-being of the workers with all the fervor of a Christian teen going off on their first alternate spring break mission trip. He trades places with one of the factory workers and after like half of one shift he's all, "Wow, now I understand everything you go through. I am one of you." To be honest it's pretty insulting and I sort of want him to slow his roll because at the end of the day he can go home to his fancy mansion like every other trust fund baby. But he's not just another Richie Rich, we quickly learn -- he is potentially the much-lauded Mediator. So anyway, he's now on Team Worker.
But the bigger issue is his father, who has all the pieces of the pie and is terrified of the workers suddenly showing up and demanding what's owed to them. This guy decides to enlist the aid of his local mad scientist (who may or may not have been in love with his late wife, I don't exactly know the history but there is some stifling subtext) so that he can bring Maria down. This involves kidnapping her and stealing her likeness so that he can create a robot that looks like Maria but will do the bidding on the mad scientist. What follows is basically an episode of Robots Go Wild. And so the chaste preacher becomes the Whore of Babylon (seriously there is no subtlety to this biblical allusion).
She begins by driving the wealthy upper class into a frenzy, performing a surprisingly risque (especially for the 1920s) topless dance that leads the men to fight amongst themselves and essentially riot in the streets. At the same time, she encourages the workers to rise up against their oppressors, which culminates in the spectacularly bad decision to destroy the machinery despite the fact that this will flood the workers' quarters and drown approximately 100% of their children. But hey, no risk, no reward.
Luckily, our hero the Mediator manages to rescue Maria after a prolonged scuffle with the mad scientist, and together they are able to save all the poor little children from the rising tides of water and their parents' stupidity. Of course, once the rage and fervor of mob mentality wear off, they're left with the sobering realization that they just killed their own children.
But rather than accepting responsibility for their own actions, they blame Maria and exercise equally poor judgment in burning her at the stake. Imagine their surprise when her face melts off and it turns out that she's a robot, and the real Maria has actually almost single-handedly rescued all their kids.
So she and Freder are very much the heroes of this story. At the end, she proclaims that the system only works with the workers as the hands (true enough), the bosses as the brains (debatable), and Freder, the mediator, as the heart. Which, like...sure.
The story is one that would have been familiar enough to 1920s audiences, drawing heavily from biblical allegories and featuring the sort of classic worker's struggles that they would have seen frequently on some level, either with union disputes in many Western countries or in the complete overthrowal of the capitalist system in communist societies. Where the film breaks new ground is in its visual style of storytelling and the scope with which it does so.
The images presented in Metropolis are extraordinary, fantastical visions that just hadn't been seen before. And the painstaking detail in which Lang is able to control massive sets and numbers of extras is incredible -- this is art and while you can definitely notice (and hopefully appreciate) the craftsmanship that went into creating it, especially the large set pieces, it doesn't distract from the grand story being told. Of particular cinematic value are the tremendously unsettling images of the workers, hundreds of men, walking in unison, operating machinery in unison, as though they're all just cogs in a larger machine.
That's Metropolis. I was missing out, y'all.