I mentioned this on Facebook a couple weeks ago: I finally watched, all the way through, Metropolis.
Tonight I watched the 1927 silent film Metropolis, for the first time all the way through. (I watched the first 45 minutes or so a couple times before.) A fascinating film, of course, for its futuristic dystopia, its vision of an enormous city ruled by elites and powered by underground workers — but also because, in its last half hour or, it’s an action-adventure disaster film! The first, long before movies about the Titanic or earthquakes or burning skyscrapers?
And in a comment to comments about that post:
I never saw the Moroder version. What I just watched was a restored version using footage found in Argentina, of all places, in 2008, grainy bits edited back to recreate the original release. Somehow they smoothed out the music (re-recorded it? not sure) so everything fits. The music is pretty good, very expressive in a Wagner/Strauss sort of way.
Here are some specific notes.
- First: years ago I had a very old DVD of this film which didn’t play on my current DVD/Blu-Ray players, so I ordered a newer version. The one I got was a ‘restored’ version that includes footage that was cut after the film’s premiere – rather as Kubrick cut 20 minutes from 2001 after initial showings – footage that was found, in all places, in Argentina, in 2008. (Perhaps they didn’t get the memo about cutting too long a film.)
- It’s a silent movie, with lots of music – pretty good music, as mentioned above – but otherwise we only see actors speaking without hearing them; in the convention of the day, we see occasional title cards displaying lines of dialogue, when it’s really important for us to know what the characters are saying. But most of the time, the film – as did most silent films – assume you can deduce, from context, what the characters are saying to each other, from context.
The film begins.
- We see credits for director and screenplay, etc.; and the cast. And then an epigram: “The mediator between brain and hands must be the heart!”
- And then we see a huge city, an imaginary, futuristic version of New York City. Then: images of huge pumps going up and down; a clock, with a 1 to 10 scale reaches zero and whistles blow; and the shift changes, with side-by-side lifts, one row of workers marching to leave, another to enter, all very robotic, all in black dungarees. “Deep below,” the title card reads, “the earth’s surface…lay the workers’ city.” The city is an underground cavern, with squared building rising several floors toward the ceiling. The workers march off the elevator, literally looking downward. Very stylized.
- And then we see the land above, the “Club of the Sons,” we are told, “with lecture halls and libraries, stadiums and theaters.”
- We see an open-air track field, with many rather skimpy white men [not physically fit by any modern standard] racing around it, in white shorts.
- And then we see the “Eternal Gardens,” a place with huge plant-like structures, and a man dressed like a foppish orchestra conductor trying to corral a number of young women in outlandish garb. He is, we gather, choosing a companion for Master Freder, Joh Frederson’s son. The ladies curtsy and turn. Freder runs in, quickly chooses one woman to chase around the fountains and pheasants. Freder wears all white, shirt and tie and odd pants that billow at the top, as if dressed like a boy; he’s not an adult. He grabs one the women and they speak—
- But then a door opens, and a plainly dressed women enters leading a group of children, all poorly dressed. They look around tentatively; the music is plaintive. “Look, These are your brothers” she tells the children. Freder stares at her. She stares back, as other men arrive to guide them back into the elevators. Freder asks the ‘conductor’. “Who—was that?” and he rushes out to follow her. Title card: “But this is what happened to Freder – son of Joh Fredersen, master of Metropolis – when he went to search of the girl:”
- [Oddly, the son here is named Freder, while the father is named Fredersen; generally, it’s the other way around.]
- We then see Freder down among the huge machines, where men work at banks of dials and levers. The direction is very stylized: the workers bend back, and forth, in unison. There’s a huge machine with central stairs. Then there’s an accident: steam erupts. The worker there can’t reach the lever; he struggles, fails. The temperature rises; steam hisses—men collapse, Freder falls back.
- Freder has a vision: the machine is a monster, Moloch, a huge head with an open mouth, the stairs leading up the mouth, where priests lead slaves up the stairs to throw them into the fire.
- The illusion fades; Freder sees injured or dead workers being taken away on stretchers.
- Freder runs outside and commands a taxi to take him “To the new Tower of Babel – to my father–!”
- Now we see the grand city shot with bridges of motorways and trains among the skyscrapers, and biplanes (!) flying between [banking oddly in tight turns]; a shot of three highways full of cars; then the grand building in middle distances, traffic in front and below. Also dirigibles.
- And then we are inside a huge office, on a high floor in one of those skyscrapers, with enormous windows giving a view of the city. Fredersen, a distinguished older man, walks back and forth giving orders to minions. On a wall creep numbers, like stock tickers. Nervous underlings write everything down.
- His son, Freder, rushes in, crying expressively to another man, and then his father [about the accident in the underground, we understand]. The father responds by turning to this other man: “Why is it, Josaphat, that I learn of the explosion from my son, and not from you–?” “The details—”
- The son pleads with his father, worried about those “in the depths” who might rise up against him.
- Another crisis: the chief foreman of the Heart Machine arrives with two more plans, diagrams of some kind, found on the men involved in today’s accident. Didn’t Josaphat know about this?
- Father fires Josaphat.
- Freder follows Josaphat out, offering assistance.
- Freder returns to the factory, offering to trade lives with one of the workers, to tend the machine.
- Frederson, the father, visits a “strange house” in the middle of Metropolis, where lives Rotwang, an inventor. Rotwang shows Frederson a female robot. It stands, walks, to delicate music. Rotwang promises that soon no one will be able to tell it’s a robot.
- Frederson asks Rotwang for advice—what to do about these secret plans that the workers have?
- M/w Freder finishes his shift and follows other men down into the catacombs, where a woman, Maria – the same woman he saw earlier, with the children – stands before several tall crosses and speaks to the crowd, to tell them the legend of “THE TOWER OF BABEL.”
- We see the story told, the tower rising, then collapsing; the men could not understand one another.
- “Head and hands need a mediator… the heart.” Who could the mediator be? She looks at Freder. He offers himself. They kiss.
- But Fredersen and Grot, the foreman of the Machine, are spying on them; Frederson tells Grot to make the machine into an image of Maria.
And that’s just the end of the ‘prelude,’ about a third of the way in.
The ‘intermezzo’ and ‘furioso’ show the transformation of the robot into Maria, and the infiltration of this robot into the workers’ underground to foment, or quell, revolution. Workers panic, attack the machines, and the city begins to crumble. In particular, flood water pours into the underground city. This becomes a disaster film, as actors, including many children, are washed away, and miniature building sets crumble.
Eventually the mobs catch up to Maria, who they think is a witch, and burn her on a pillar of fire… only to see she is really a robot.
The real Maria survives. The film ends with workers meeting with Fredersen, Freder, and Maria, and the offering of a handshake. And the epigram: “The mediator between brain and hands must be the heart.”
- The takeaways from this film are the visuals: of the vast cityscape, with enormous buildings and levels of different modes of transportation; of the stylized humanoid robot Maria; of the monstrous underground machine and the robotic human workers; of the aerie-like office of Fredersen, the Master of Metropolis.
- The plot is both simplistic, in its contrast between the elites above and the workers below, and muddled, with a confusing subplot about Fredersen and the scientist Rotwang and their past – the original reason for the robot, you see, was to recreate the daughter lost by something something. Soap opera. The central theme is pure science fiction in its dystopian depiction of the dangerous of industrialization and the way mass production would dehumanize workers, but the film doesn’t offer any solution to this problem except for the shaking of hands.
- As noted I was surprised that the last quarter or so of the film was an extended, disaster movie-like action sequence, with riots and cascading waters and collapsing buildings.