Directed by Fritz Lang
Released in 1927
Many ancient religions begin with a man living in a haze of tranquilizing purity, only for an abrupt introduction of knowledge and suffering to ignite a spiritual reawakening. Christianity, Judaism and Islam have Adam and Eve, while Buddhism owes all to Siddhartha Gautama. Fritz Lang’s 1927 proto-sci-fi classic Metropolis lifts this narrative with protagonist Freder (Gustav Fröhlich), the son of superich industrialist, Joh (Alfred Abel). One can say that Lang tethers every plot point and image to a character or symbol from the Bible, Qur’an, Talmud or any other established religious text. With arresting dystopian art direction and a clear political thesis, Metropolis enhances its age-old tale to rise as a timeless work of art on its own.
For the famous intro, Lang keeps his camera distant as he follows nameless workers descending into the depths of an industrial labyrinth for just another day on the job. 32 years after film history commenced with Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory, Metropolis inverts this canonical image to communicate despair and brutal classism. The story effectively begins with Freder, who we can tell is important through a liberal use of close-ups. He wears all white as he frolics about an indoor garden — the Eden symbolism could not be more blatant. Maria (Brigitte Helm) disrupts his peace when she ushers in a group of battered, poor children to his chamber; confused and curious, Freder tracks them back to their subterranean dwellings. There, he watches in horror as an intricate, mechanical complex explodes and transforms into a sacrificial altar where the survivors are herded to die. Whether or not the satanic visions are hallucinations or not does not matter, as Freder faces life-changing truths, deciding to defy his father and fight against extreme capitalist injustice.
Freder’s struggle rages both internally and externally, which allows for close-up decisions and long shot battle scenes. Psychoanalysts revere Metropolis for good reason. Freder must come to terms with his father’s cruelty and considers rebelling against class inequality as atonement for his many years of enjoyment at the expense of the proletariats. After changing clothes to match their black uniforms, Freder relieves a struggling man of his seemingly meaningless task — furiously adjusting the hands of an enormous clock — and substitutes with his own labor. His failure to keep up speaks to the futile and painful work so many “unskilled” hands must persevere through every day. The scene ends with Freder’s arms stretched across the clock like Jesus Christ. In Metropolis, religious metaphors overlap with political, social and technological commentary, and characters serve both micro and macro functions, as signs of human agony and symbols for class disparities.
The subtext in Metropolis relies on montage editing, for sure, but it’s the mise-en-scene envisioned by Lang and production designers Otto Hunte, Erich Kettelhut and Karl Vollbrecht that captures the audience’s attention with beauty and meaning. Like Chaplin’s Modern Times (produced nearly a decade later), boss Joh occupies an ornate office far too large for his needs — he is above mere “needs,” clearly. Cinematographer Karl Freund contemplates the cityscape throughout the picture, with emphasis on the central skyscraper, modeled after Brueghel the Elder’s The Tower of Babel. Maria captivates a crowd of laborers with the Biblical story of the Tower, which Lang stages through a very theatrical flashback. Placing his camera before a stage with the proscenium in view, Lang exaggerates the artificiality of this story to, in turn, make the present storyline only that more authentic.
The Alloy Orchestra, prolific silent film composers, accompanied the packed screening I attended at Cornell Cinema. In addition to pounding percussion, legato accordion and spooky keyboard, Ken Winokur and co. added diegetic sound effects, like striking a violin bow to indicate a creaky door or gear. The trio powered through the two and a half hour runtime not only with flawless accuracy but also with consistent energy, giving its all at minute 74 as well as minutes one and 148. Like the Alloy’s rich soundscape, Metropolis offers semiotic depth as deep as the dystopian city it depicts, but there lies the tempting alternative to just surrender to the spectacle.