Fritz Lang must be some kind of genius. He somehow made Metropolis (1927/2010), an elaborate science fiction film so costly that it bankrupted the production company, during the Weimar Republic—and it’s a classic, to boot. That the sets and effects were done before digital is simply mindboggling, as are some of the methods to achieve them, on par with a good magic trick. I saw the almost completely restored 2010 version, which still has a couple scenes missing. Some of the newly discovered footage was maltreated by the archivists, so the rediscovered parts are obvious; in fact, a lot of it is crucial to the plot and characterization, and it’s fascinating to think about how badly marred a film most of the world had been seeing before. It’s accompanied by the original score by Gottfried Huppertz, slightly embellished, which probably worked well for the (supposedly) raucous contemporary audience, but for the home viewer (me), the omnipresent brass sounds too heavyhanded.
The unspecified-future city of Metropolis is run by the industrial-capitalist monopolist Joh Fredersen (Alfred Abel) and sustained by the backbreaking labor of a proletarian underclass. Fredersen’s son, Freder (Gustav Fröhlich), whiles his days away in gymnastics (in the Ancient Greek sense) and decadent frivolity, until his eyes fall on a vision of beauty intruding into his earthly paradise with a gaggle of unkempt children—he later learns that this woman, Maria (Brigitte Helm), is a sort of secular pastor of the working class, exhorting them to await a mediator between labor and management instead of revolting outright.
This sermon is overheard by Fredersen Sr., who, anticipating such novels as 1984 and Cloud Atlas, decides that a rebellion on his terms might be useful. He enlists mad scientist Rotwang (Rudolf Klein-Rogge) to give the latter’s automaton Maria’s likeness and have it spew forth classic undergraduate Marxist rhetoric. (A newly restored subplot is that the automaton is supposed to be an identical substitute for Fredersen’s deceased wife, Hels, whom Rotwang also loved, but it’s kneecapped by a lack of plausible detail.)
Meanwhile, Freder tracks down Maria, who’s held captive by Rotwang, but the real treasure is the friend he makes along the way: Gyorgy (Erwin Biswanger), known to management as 11811. Another restored subplot has the two switching places; Freder experiences the drudgery of the proletariat, while Gyorgy loses himself in bourgeois decadence. He later sacrifices himself to save Freder.
False-Maria incites a rebellion that destroys and floods the proletariat city, where (the workers have forgotten) the working-class children are. Maria and Freder manage to save them while the mob hunts down false-Maria. Of course, the mob doesn’t know there’s two Marias, so for most of the long foot chase, it’s the real Maria being hunted down. Luckily, the two Marias cross paths at a busy intersection, and the mob burns the automaton at the stake. Rotwang reappears, chases Maria to a church rooftop, they struggle, he falls to his death, and Freder gets to play the role of messianic mediator between workers and management. With all of this going on, the fact that we never lose our place is a marvel of great editing.
This is a silent film from 1927, so there’s a lot of gesticulating and melodramatic claw-hand acting (notably from Fröhlich, who also looks like he’s about to kiss whichever man he beseeches), but there are also a good number of death-defying stunts, including Helm jumping off a roof, standing for days in cold water, and being burned at a real stake with real flames. Helm’s performance is a wonder to behold, offering two equally memorable and complete performances—three if you count the automaton before it takes on Maria’s likeness. As Maria, she comports herself with a saintly demeanor; as false-Maria, she distorts this image, doing something funky with her eyelids, taking on off-center postures, and employing expressionistic and exhortatory body language, including a maniacal laugh. We’re never confused as to which is which.
Among the prevalent static camerawork, the few handheld shots and zooms carry particular emotional heft. The most harrowing scene plays with light: Maria, hunted by Rotwang underground in the dark, is chased around by Rotwang’s flashlight, and each time the light pins her down she gets more and more frightened, until finally she collapses in hysteria and despair. It’s a scene that, without fancy tricks, manages complete viewer identification to convey the full force of expressionist dread.
The film has been criticized for both its communist and (ironically) its fascist message, but as the triumph of the mediator should make clear, it’s really a capitalist film through and through. Its protagonist is the son of a monopolist, and we spend most of the running time following him, his father, or his father’s henchmen (including false-Maria) around. The only facets of the working class that are presented are their labor, standing at a wall of machines like the last scene of Philip Glass’s Einstein on the Beach, and their quite natural desire for liberation. It’s telling that, after discover the revolution-promoting false-Maria to be an automaton, they don’t pursue its provenance to the obvious conclusion (who else has the resources to build an automaton?) but instead abruptly let the whole thing drop. They’re even deprived of sufficient memory to remember their children, let alone any interior subjectivity. In fact, they exist merely to illustrate the capitalist nightmare scenario of complete rebellion. Only a capitalist wish-fulfillment fantasy would end with successful mediation between a still-alienated labor and unrepentant management.
In this sense, the unconscious of the film, the reality that it can’t fully repress, is the shot of Death in Freder’s fever dream, wielding His scythe without, in fact, holding it—a Specter haunting Europe.
Editor’s note: This piece has been published at Critics at Large.