Fritz Lang's sci-fi epic was almost too far ahead of its time when released in 1927. Metropolis gets strong praise from some, and puzzlement from others. One reason for this is that for a long time, only a poor quality copy, which had a hack-job of an edit done to it, was all most people were exposed to. At its premier, the original was over 210 minutes long, while the common edit was around 114 minutes. American theater moguls felt American audiences wouldn't sit through 210 minutes of movie. Little wonder some folks were bewildered by Metropolis. The story was too complex to still make total sense with over a quarter of it cut away. Watch is the restored version. (more on the restoration below)
Quick Plot Synopsis
Set in the year 2026, the world (typified by the city "Metropolis") has widened the separation between the privileged classes who live in penthouse gardens, and the workers who labor at huge machines underground. Freder, the twenty-something son of Metropolis' ruler, Joh Fredersen, becomes fascinated with a young woman who takes care of workers' children. He follows her down to the subterranean workers' world. Maria, spiritual leader of the workers, is kidnapped by a sinister scientist who replaces her with a robot duplicate. Robo-Maria incites the workers to revolt. They smash the machines that supply Metropolis with power. This destruction also causes the reservoirs to flood the underground workers' city, where all the rioting workers' children remained. Freder and real-Maria (who escaped) rescue the children, taking them to the upper world. The rioting workers think they've killed their own children by listening to Maria (Robo-Maria), so chase after real-Maria to extract revenge. In a mix-up, the workers catch RoboMaria after all and burn her at the stake. Mad scientist carries off real-Maria, but Freder fights him and wins. Freder then becomes the mediator between the workers and the elites (his father)
Why is this movie fun?
Metropolis is one of THE foundational classics of the sci-fi genre. In its day it was a influential as Star Wars was from the late 70s onward. As long as you accept Metropolis for what it is -- and not expect it to be a modern movie -- there are tons of things to keep you fascinated. The whole atmosphere of an early Art Deco Modernism, German Expressionist saga is just so different, even the sets, pacing, effects, etc. are great to watch.
The contrasting pairs of forces are interesting too. The bright world of the penthouses vs. the dark world of the workers. The foliage and fountains vs. the steam-belching iron below. The holy vs the demonic. The modern vs the ancient. Through all these opposing pairs, moves the main character, Freder, the focal point of them all.
Cold War Angle?
Produced in the mid-1920s, there was no Cold War. Peripherally, however, we can see the workers-vs-bourgoise struggle that is the spiritual heart of Socialism, which can cast a different tint onto Cold War morality tales of the mid 50s.
The Acting -- Modern viewers are sometimes put off by the exaggerated acting inherent to silent films. We moderns need to keep in mind that both actors AND audiences of the silent film era were accustomed to the "body language" of stage acting. Live theater moves required exaggeration to be seen at all. Audiences of the 20s knew how to "read" the sign language. Instead of griping about the "unnatural" moves, try to appreciate them. Try to "read" them.
Early Distopia -- It was fairly common in the early 20th century to imagine the future as a wonderful realm of techno-marvels. Perhaps as a counterfoil, a common theme of sci-fi movies is a future-gone-wrong. In Metropolis, society is the problem. Technology is not cast as the bad guy (despite the Moloch scene). In fact, when the worker mob take on the Luddite role and wreck the machines, they end up ruining their own homes and endangering their children.
Auto Future -- An icon of later sci-fi would be to include a car-of-the-future. Flying cars, bubble cars, hover cars, etc. Metropolis seems to miss the boat. At first glance, all the cars look like ordinary 1920s machines. A closer look, however, reveals a fascinating bit of auto-trivia. In the traffic jams (the only close-ups of automobiles), you'll see Rumpler Tropfenwagens.
Rumpler, a former aircraft firm, took to building cars after the war. Their Tropfenwagen had a "streamlined" cab-forward body shaped like a water drop (hence the name). Very radical stuff considering that Ford's Model T was a contemporary. There are two amid the junk the mob uses to burn Robo-Maria at the stake. You've probably never heard of the Tropfenwagen, but they're rescued from auto-history oblivion by Lang.
Robot Rampage -- Rotwang's robot, which they call "Mechanical Man" (even though clearly made to look like a woman) is the forerunner of later sci-fi robots. It's no stretch at all to see C3P0 in her. Rotwang's "Futura" (as the script called her) is also a forerunner of the robot persona -- the replacement person, but an opposite one. Where real-Maria was angelic, altruistic, and religious, Robo-Maria was decadent and heartless, the embodiment of all seven deadly sins. Robo-Maria didn't "turn" on her master (as many later robots would) but faithfully carried out Rotwang's orders to ruin both the workers and the elites.
Religious Elements -- Metropolis shows a strong Catholic or Lutheran influence. Maria is very much a Madonna figure standing under several crosses. She preaches to the crowd of a coming "Mediator" which would rescue them. In contrast, the robot is given Maria's likeness beneath a huge pentagram -- clearly the product of satanic forces. The very gothic cathedral scenes stand in stark contrast to the art deco "secular" world -- underscoring the schism between mankind's spiritual and secular lives. Maria tells the workers the Biblical account of the tower of Babel, as a foreshadowing of Metropolis, including the worker revolt and damage.
Another interesting Biblical reference comes when Freder sees the M-Machine explode. From the shock, (perhaps delusion) he sees the machine as if it were an ancient idol being fed workers as a sacrifice. The word "Moloch" flashes on the screen. This was the Phoenician god mentioned in the Old Testament, to which people sacrificed their children (by fire). Freder's vision was of the machines as evil men-devouring false gods.
When Metropolis debuted, it ran 210 minutes. This was quick cut down. Some "edits" were less than 90 minutes long. The American cut was 114 minutes. People who viewed the seriously hacked versions were understandably confused. Too much of the supporting side stories were removed, giving the whole movie an almost chaotic feel. The 2002 Murnau restoration (123 minute run time) combined all known footage. Several side stories' footage remain lost. The Murnau version supplies title cards to describe the action of the lost scenes. This helps the explain otherwise puzzling characters such as the Mephestopholes-like "Thin Man" and the prince-and-pauper character, worker "11811".
Overall, any sci-fi fan ought to watch Metropolis, so as to get familiar with a sci-fi ancestor. Despite its age, Metropolis still has messages relevant today.