REMEDIAL SF 101: Metropolis

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What Nosferatu is to the vampire movie, so Metropolis is to science fiction. 

It gave viewers a vision of the future before movies learned how to talk.  Stylish and disturbing by turns, Fritz Lang's masterpiece is a seminal work of the genre.

That said, it's not really a great film.

It has its moments.  It gave to the world the archetypical Mad Scientist in Rotwang, and the android False Maria has become an icon, perhaps a little more familiar in the form of her great-grandson, See-Threepio.  The sets are daring and pioneering both artistically and from an architectural design standpoint.

But its story is rambling and long-winded and oftentimes completely unfathomable.  Critics as diverse as HG Welles and Joseph Goebbels loathed it and loved it.  Even Lang himself later said that he detested the film once he'd made it. The film has been chopped, sliced, diced, rearranged, and restored so many times that it's difficult to know exactly what Lang had originally intended when he laboriously converted a novel by his wife, Thea von Harbou, into this overblown cautionary tale of the idle rich and the overworked underclass who manage to slit their own throats when they destroy the machinery that keeps the eponymous city alive.

Lang's distaste may have stemmed from the Nazi Party's fascination with the film, in which a charismatic character incites the oppressed masses to rise up and overthrow their lazy, licentious masters.  However, the masses were actually being duped by the very leader of the city, Joh Fredersen, who made a deal with the mad scientist who was once in love with Joh's dead wife to give the robot doppleganger Rotwang had constructed the appearance of the activist, Maria, in order to manipulate the crowd into rebellion so that Joh would then be justified in using extreme force to suppress them permanently.

Oh, and Joh's golden-haired son, Freder, happens to have fallen instantly in love with Maria when he spotted her shepherding a group of workers' children to view the beautiful pleasure-garden they could never enter.  Freder follows Maria into the subterranean Workers' City, and winds up showing what a nice guy he is by taking the place of a worker who is about to collapse from exhaustion at his station on the Heart Machine.  Freder sends this man off with his chauffeur, and almost collapses from exhaustion himself as he works the valves for hours and hours on end.

Later, he discovers a map of the catacombs in the pocket of the overalls he'd swapped with the worker, and hears rumors that the workers are about to stage a riot.

Rotwang, in order to get vengeance upon Joh for stealing Hel, the woman they both loved--who later died giving birth to Freder--plans to double-cross Joh by using the False Maria robot to destroy Freder.  When Freder sees the robot, in the form of Maria, embracing his father, he faints, and is wracked by nightmarish visions of her as the Whore of Babylon.  Meanwhile, the robot goes about stirring up trouble in Metropolis, further discrediting the true Maria, who is being held captive by Rotwang.

Freder, assisted by his father's ex-functionary Josaphat, who was fired for failing to warn Joh about troubles brewing in the workers' city, returns to the catacombs looking for Maria, and finds the robot preaching the virtues of war to an enthralled crowd.  Freder challenges the False Maria, but the crowd realize he is the son of the hated Joh Fredersen, and attack him.

As the False Maria leads the mob out of the underground city to destroy the Heart Machine and shut down Metropolis, the True Maria arrives, and finds the children of the workers trapped in the rapidly flooding worker's city.  Maria attempts to lead the children to safety, and is soon joined by Freder and Josaphat, who manage to get the children to higher ground just as the city walls start to collapse.

Unfortunately, instead of being hailed as a hero for saving their children, the workers turn on Maria as the cause of their misery, once it becomes clear to them what their riot has accomplished, as the Heart Machine also ran the pumps that kept the water out of the underground city.  Instead of catching the True Maria, though, they find the False Maria having a high time with the city's rich, and drag her off to be burned at the stake.  The robot isn't the slightest bit concerned, laughing madly at them as her flesh falls away to reveal the truth--she was only a machine.

 But wait, there's more--the delusional Rotwang finds the True Maria hiding from the mob, and drags her to the cathedral, believing her to be his lost lover, Hel.  Freder confronts him, and in the ensuing fight, Rotwang loses his balance (if he ever had balance) and falls to his death, leaving Freder and Maria to be the "heart" that joins the "head" to the "hands" of Metropolis, as they broker a truce between the workers and Joh Fredersen.

A rambling potboiler of a story, laced with disturbing, sometimes erotic imagery, invested with stunning visuals and state-of-the-art special effects--yep, that's the archetypical science fiction movie, all right.

Since this movie's been around since 1927, there's a good chance you've seen it.  Kino released a painstakingly restored version in 2010, which gathered together all the footage that could be found, much of which had been presumed lost over the decades during which Metropolis was edited with various blunt instruments to make it more watchable, or at least more commercially viable.  The new print also has the original film's score, as recorded by the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra.

All of this doesn't make the film any less bizarre and hard to follow, but Metropolis, being the granddaddy of SF films, should be in every true fan's collection.

Will Conservatives like it?  Well, probably not so much, since it does go heavy on the religious imagery and the Communistic undertones.  And it's inescapably political in nature from beginning to end.  I guess it would depend on whether or not you believe that the elites in the media are manipulating class envy in order to incite an uprising against the "one percenters" by promoting a Messianic figure who...oh, never mind.

I find I have to agree with HG Welles in his assessment, originally published as a review in the New York Times,(and quoted by Wikipedia) who accused it of "foolishness, cliché, platitude, and muddlement about mechanical progress and progress in general." He faulted Metropolis for its premise that automation created drudgery rather than relieving it, wondered who was buying the machines' output if not the workers, and found parts of the story derivative of Shelley's Frankenstein, Karel Čapek's robot stories, and his own The Sleeper Awakes. Wells called  Metropolis "quite the silliest film."

(It may be worth noting that Lang had stated he was inspired to make Metropolis upon seeing the New York City skyline for the first time...so maybe the Times was serving up some sour grapes.)

Still, in every bad film, thre are some good things to be found, and there are plenty of good visuals in Metropolis to make it worth watching, as long as you keep one finger on the fast forward button.

 

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