Throughout history, there has always been a large gap between the top echelon of society and those at the bottom dregs. Literature and cinema have done a great job of showcasing this both by comparison to utopian societies as well as by showing it against a dystopian society. While most of our human history hasn’t fallen into one or the other, the examples give us something to strive for, and to steer clear of. An early example of a cinematic dystopian society is available in Fritz Lang’s METROPOLIS from 1927.
METROPOLIS is set in the future in a city powered by countless workers that push themselves through the drudgery of maintaining machines daily in long shifts with little to no reward, returning to their homes well below the city. The wealthy ones in power live high up in the city, enjoying leisure activities and pursuing frivolity. No one is enjoying this more than Freder (Gustav Frohlich), son of Joh Fredersen, leader of the city. Freder spends his time with his friends in a pleasure garden. One day while celebrating a winning race, he is distracted by the entrance of a woman leading a group of young, poor children. She is giving the children a view of what to strive for in the city, and it strikes a chord with Freder. He immediately pursues her and tries to figure out more about this woman, Maria (Brigitte Helm). During his pursuit, he stumbles upon an industrial accident in one of the machine rooms in the city, causing multiple deaths.
Maria preaches to the workers below about a Mediator to come that will bridge the worlds between the workers and the prosperous ones high above them. She tells the story of the Tower of Babel as a cautionary tale that peace can’t be brought about by a war between the cultures.
Joh Fredersen (Alfred Abel), the brain of the city, rules the city with a tight grip, not afraid to banish those that displease him to the depths. Upon hearing of plans from workers to rebel and that his own son is showing interest, he sends his henchman The Thin Man (Fritz Rasp) to investigate. He also tries for assistance from the mad inventor, Rotwang (Rudolph Klein-Rogge). Rotwang still holds a grudge with Joh, who took the woman that he loved as his wife, Hel. Hel died during the birth of Freder and Rotwang is still not over this loss, many years later. He tries to mend this by creating a robotic female and names her after his lost love. He shows the robotic Hel to Joh, who decides that she could be used to his advantage as sowing discord among the workers and dissuade his son from his foolhardy ventures. The inventor ends up kidnapping Maria and uses the robotic woman to create a doppleganger for Joh’s plans.
Brigitte Helm does a stupendous job in the film as both Maria and as her robotic doppleganger. She plays two very distinctly different characters, one being kind and stoic, while the other is frenetic and tempting. She is convincing in both roles, one as a caring teacher, the other as an enticing vixen wanting to watch the world burn. The villains, Rotwang and The Thin Man are also well acted as their menacing ways would fit in well in most horror settings.
The city is almost toppled much like the Tower of Babel was after Hel/Maria set Joh’s plan in motion. The workers were consumed with all seven deadly sins as Hel/Maria came to resemble a woman described in the book of Revelations that signaled the end of the world. The workers attacked the machine rooms, not even taking notice that it would destroy their homes in the catacombs, along with their children still down there.
The war between the cultures reminded me of a more recent film, SNOWPIERCER. In that film, the poor were stuck in a train car on a train that was the last vestiges of society post apocalypse. They rose up against those running the train, throwing their lives away to escape their pit of existence, but with little regard for what may happen if they were to succeed.
METROPOLIS had wonderful set pieces throughout the film, in the city, the machine rooms, and the catacombs below. Each room grandiose, yet fitting the theme of that specific level. There were also wonderful matte paintings done for the scenery, mixed with miniatures to effectively animate some scenes. I also appreciated the use of different camera angles such as effective POV shots during some chase sequences. And for a silent film, where body language is so important to tell a story, the direction allowed for some embellished acting, but wasn’t overly silly for the majority. The use of extras, both with adults, but especially with children is impressive, as there are an extreme amount of them, and all of the scenes with large mobs are done well.
The version of the film I viewed was the restored 2010 version available on Netflix Instant. After the initial release in 1927, the film was altered and cut down drastically, with most of those pieces discarded. The full version was thought to be lost until a copy was found in Argentina in 2008. While in poor condition, they were able to restore most scenes minus two despite a drop in film quality for those scenes. While we live in an era of deleted scenes and director’s cuts of films, it’s a miracle when classics like this are able to be restored near to their full glory.
The biggest lesson to be learned from METROPOLIS fits for our own lives as well as how we handle society. The mediator between the head (those in control) and the hands (the workers) must be the heart. Compassion for our fellow men should lead us towards prosperity both in our souls as well as in our culture.
Photo credit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/tonechootero/4334225041/