Metropolis is often classified as science fiction, but it bursts through mere genre; it is its own wild thing, often imitated, never duplicated. There will never be another Metropolis, not like this. It’s an opera about industrialism, with heavy religious/apocalyptic overtones (sounds a bit like There Will Be Blood, actually); it’s grand and breathtaking and ridiculous and even a bit hypocritical. There is purity, there is stone-faced evil, there is madness and beauty and chaos and the frightening sight of thousands of workers schlepping to work or home from work, hunched over, wearing caps, looking like the monster in Murnau’s Nosferatu. The machine turns men into pale night creatures; eventually they become extensions of the machine, literal cogs. Chaplin’s Modern Times is the greatest comedy about the encroaching industrialized labor of the early 20th century; Metropolis is the greatest serious film about it.
Everything is run by Joh Fredersen (Alfred Abel), the “master of Metropolis,” a cold industrialist who commands armies of identical workers. They toil for ten hours a day on the “Lower Level,” while up above the moneyed libertines frolic in fake gardens. The upper level is home to Freder (Gustav Fröhlich), Fredersen’s son, who develops compassion for the workers after spotting the angelic Maria (Brigitte Helm), who preaches peace and forbearance to the rough, frustrated workers — she contends that there must be a mediator between the labor and the management. Not a union, exactly, but a man of pure heart who can straddle both worlds.
So far — other than spectacular shots of the city’s vast architecture — Metropolis could be set whenever. It moves into futurism, though, when we meet Rotwang (Rudolf Klein-Rogge), a mad scientist with a metal hand. Rotwang is working on “the Machine Man,” machinenmensch, and he has modelled his first attempt on Fredersen’s late wife, whom Rotwang also loved. Fredersen encourages Rotwang to build a “false Maria” — a robot facsimile that will lead the workers into revolution, which Fredersen can then use as an excuse to crack down on them.
The movie gets downright bugfuck and lovable when False Maria shows up. She has the oddest way of moving — slinky yet herky-jerky — and her left eyelid slides down in a lazy, lecherous wink. This, apparently, is Lang’s idea of duplicitous evil, and False Maria even favors the degenerate rich boys in the upper-level red-light district of Yoshiwara with an erotic dance, complete with pasties. But truly the film is pretty slapheaded even before that, with Freder having a vision of the machine as beast, crying out “Moloch!” (Allen Ginsberg later incorporated this into Howl), or the beatific story of the Tower of Babel.
Lang must’ve gotten rapturously lost in his own visionary nonsense; he later expressed embarrassment about the film (he was 35 when he started filming it). But please don’t take any of this as denigration on my part; only an epic this fevered and off-the-rails could have endured as a masterwork all these decades. Screenwriter Thea von Harbou (Lang’s wife) came up with the idealistic story, but how much did Lang really care about the workers? They’re shown as a mindless rabble easily swayed by False Maria. If von Harbou is Maria, longing for a humane connection between the overlords and the underlings, Lang is something of a cross between Fredersen and Rotwang, using thousands of extras and what must’ve been thousands of man-hours to build the great city and all its levels. The tension at the heart of Metropolis between love of the human and fascination with the inhuman trumps anything in the film’s most obvious spiritual heir, Blade Runner. It’s a complex, questionable, not always agreeable work, but that’s the case with a lot of genuine stark raving art.
We know that the 2001 Japanese anime film Metropolis was glancingly inspired by Lang’s work, and there are rumblings of a possible remake. But just as you can’t duplicate the authentic stink and grime of Tobe Hooper’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre without duplicating the ghastly conditions in which it was made, you can’t achieve what Lang did even if you use CGI. Especially if you use CGI. Metropolis emerged from a very specific atmosphere in German history; it was the apotheosis of German Expressionist cinema, a study in excess both conceptual and financial (its cost would translate as $200 million of today’s dollars). And it came, of course, in the years when Hitler (rumored to have admired the film) was turning German fear and loathing post-World War I into a virulent movement of hatred (Mein Kampf was published during Metropolis‘ production). I think again of those disgruntled workers, easily swayed by rhetoric, either to destroy their oppressors or to “burn the witch” when they take the real Maria to be the false Maria. Would they have fit right in at the Beer Hall Putsch? Metropolis is deeply screwed up and perhaps inextricable from the developing psychopathology of its time and place, but again, its very madness is what gives it purchase as a world classic.