Posted on 12/31/09 09:27 AM
As one of the earliest examples of cinematic science fiction fantasy, director Fritz Lang's "Metropolis"" ranks as an unparalleled achievement in its size, scope, and vision. Forty years would elapse before Stanley Kubrick's "2001: A Space Odyssey" (1968) would rival Lang's epic spectacle about a troubled, dystopian society fractured along the fault lines of the economic inequality isolating the haves and the have-nots. Nevertheless, nothing could ever be said to surpass "Metropolis" as a film of beauty, majestic, and surrealism.
The preamble encapsulates the film's timeless, universal message: "It has a moral that grows on the pillar of understanding. The mediator between the brain and muscle must be the heart." " Metropolis" inspired generations of filmmakers with its use of state-of-the-art visual effects that transformed the science fiction film. Thea Von Harbou's saga about an evil robot is designed by a vengeful inventor to impersonate a flesh & blood female Christ figure and incite anarchy can clearly be traced as a source of inspiration to many contemporary sci-fi films and television shows, such as the "Terminator" franchise, "Robocop" franchise, "Blade Runner," "Logan's Run," "The Fifth Element," and Battlestar Galactic." The "Metropolis" robot was not the first robot, but it was unmistakably the seminal one that sired a long line of cinematic robots. The famous transformation scene where the robot turns into a human foreshadows the "Frankenstein" franchise.
Many detractors of Lang's visionary work?primarily noted sci-fi author H.G. Wells--derided it as shallow and his criticisms are not without substance. Indeed, the characters lack depth because they represent archetypes instead of individuals in a larger-than-life story. The spectacle, this Marxist chronicle of humanity at odds with itself over machinery, and the anarchy that emerges from this division makes "Metropolis" a memorable mediation about our flawed society, part sci-fi, part horror and a statement about the incompatibility polarity that comes about between those who control and those who are controlled. Again, von Harbou's theme re-echoes with greater intensity. The virtuous Maria would say that the head and the hands would need a mediator and the mediator would be the heart. You cannot understand and appreciate science fiction as a cinematic genre until you see that every sci-fi film owes a debt of gratitude to Lang's masterly work of genius. Actually, while Lang would make many great movies in a long career, the legendary Austrian director never made another sci-fi film that surpassed this milestone.
A malevolent robot, messianic crusaders, a patriarchal titan of industry, a mad scientist with vengeance in his heart, and masses of mindless men and women enslaved by the patriarch constitute the array of characters in this milestone of German Expressionist cinema that embraces Art-Deco in his architectural designs. Scenarist Thea von Harbou and Fritz Lang assembled these protagonists and antagonists for the clash of the century with visuals that were designed to overwhelm 1920's audiences by their sheer beauty and grandeur. In the annals of science fiction film, these special effects, involving the use of mirrors to supplement shots of live action, matte paintings for sprawling cityscapes, and miniatures of the city, were singular. All the planes, trains, and automobiles in the long shots were done either with wires pulling them along or shot-action photography.
Reportedly, Lang got the idea for his cityscape from a trip to Manhattan, but there are too many undocumented stories about Lang and his inspiration so you'd have to read the biographies available about his life to sort out the fiction from the facto. One thing is certain Lang was more a film dictator than a director and he toiled endlessly and made his cast and collaborators toil to forge his vision. Lang drove his actors, actresses, and technical crew like a slave driver and often exhibited a sense of perfectionism that defied civility and common sense. He amounted to a cinematic Herod.
While "Metropolis" qualifies as sci-fi, the film also dabbles in the disaster film. The villainous father of the hero, Joh Fredersen (Alfred Abel), enlists the evil inventor, C.A. Rotwang (Rudolf Klein-Rogge), to create a robot look-alike of the virginal heroine, Maria, who preaches a gospel of sorts to unit the workers. Rotwang dresses in dark colors, has wind-blown hair, and wears a black glove on his right hand. Fredersen wants Rotwang to forge a robot that can assume the identity of Marie (Brigitte Helm), mislead the masses, and get them to destroy themselves. Joh has obtained secret plans for meetings among the workers and wants to thwart them. When they learn about the meeting, Rotwang escorts Joh down into the 2000 year old catacombs to witness Marie preaching her gospel of unification and that is where Joh sees his son Freder (Gustav Fröhlich) appear and embrace Maria.
Freder has been smitten by Maria since he saw her first early in the film. She entered the Club of Sons where Freder cavorted with various women. Freder was so stricken by Marie that he descended to the depths where the workers operated the machines and witnessed a meltdown. Joh is worried about his son's dalliance with the workers because it threatens to destroy everything that he has worked for so many years. Eventually, the false Maria does mislead the workers into destroying the machines and the loss of power leads to a flood that wipes out their homes.
Lang deals with one of his recurring themes: mob violence. He explored mob violence in "M" (1931) with Peter Lorre and "Fury" (1936) with Spencer Tracy. Although "Metropolis" has been available as an inexpensive public domain film for over 40 years, Kino Video has released a splendid restored version that true movie lovers will genuinely appreciate for its clarity of picture. Meanwhile, this is one hell of a silent German movie!
This is what I call the Grandfather of the Sci-i Genre.