In a futuristic city sharply divided between the working class and the city planners, the son of the city's mastermind falls in love with a working class prophet who predicts the coming of a savior to mediate their differences.
Hello, gentle reader. I’m new here, and honestly, this is the first review I’ve written with the intent of other people reading it. Naturally I had a doozy of a time figuring out what to review first. Well, after racking my brain for a while, I finally decided to spend my time at this website focusing on the films of Fritz Lang. Lang doesn’t get much attention anymore - In fact, I made it through four years of film school without ever hearing his name. But his work was one of my first loves of cinema, and I can’t think of another director that made a bigger impact on me. For that reason, I’ve chosen to focus on the films of Lang for this and subsequent reviews.
Fritz Lang (1890 – 1976) loved to tell stories. He loved to tell stories so much, in fact, that’s is hard to differentiate where his stories stopped and the truth about his life began. His self-reported tales of his films and his life must be taken with a grain of salt. At this point in time, it’s simply impossible to completely separate fact from fiction – but that really doesn’t matter. As in life, Lang’s stories were always more entertaining than the truth could ever be.
During the filmmaker’s most successful period, from about 1924 to 1933, he was one of Germany’s most widely known and respected directors. His forte, in the early days, were expressionistic films that were often epic in scale, films like Die Niebelungen, Metropolis, Spies, M and the Dr. Mabuse series. For reasons we’ll get to in another review, Lang fled to America right after completing the second Dr. Mabuse film. Unfortunately, he never quite reached the same heights of success in America as he had in Germany. He was something of a tyrant, and American studios and stars were much more hesitant to work with him than those in his native country.
Although he was still working in Germany at the time, Lang made his first trip to America in October of 1924. As the story goes, Lang’s ship was stuck in the harbor for a while, with the New York City skyline looming over him. It was loud, bright and noisy, and to him, New York seemed like a city of the future. This would become the inspiration for Lang’s 1927 Science-fiction epic, Metropolis. It is perhaps his most widely known film, one that has stood the test of time even eighty-one years after its release, and has set the precedent for all science fiction films that would follow, and seems as good a place as any to start.
Even if you’ve never seen Metropolis, you’re most likely familiar with the plot. Variations on Lang’s view of a dystopian future have been etched in the sci-fi collective ever since its initial release. The story is set in the futuristic city of the film’s title, where Joh Fredersen, the architect/ruler/dictator of the city, has worked to separate its citizens according to class. The rich, well-to-do citizens of Metropolis spend their days enjoying the finer things in life while the city’s working class is forced to eek out a cruel existence underground, keeping the machines of Metropolis running. The only thing keeping their spirits up is a young girl named Maria, who promises that a mediator will come to unite the head (Fredersen) and the hands (the workers). That’s the basic gist of the film, and it’d be a shame to give away more. For too long, it’s felt as if the film has been viewed more as a curiosity, a footnote in cinema history, than as the expertly crafted film that it is. The flow of Lang’s narrative, even eighty-one years later, is a triumph of expert story telling that needs to be experienced and appreciated firsthand. However, in all honesty, Metropolis isn’t remembered for its story, but for its visuals.
When a viewer thinks of Metropolis, they automatically think of the robot (or the machine-man, as the film calls it). Yet, the robot that everyone is so familiar with is in the film for a total of five minutes. With that, Lang set the precedent for the rest of the film. The film is indeed a feast for the eyes, and although Lang gives us one staggering shot after another, he never dwells on them, and in turn the film never loses focus on its characters. This is why the film works as well as it does – the visuals never become top-heavy and threaten to overwhelm the narrative. The worker moving the hands of the clock, the transition of a machine into a monster, the flooding of the worker’s city – these images have stood the test of time because Lang didn’t show us so much as to became oppressive. In doing so, Metropolis does what the CGI-laden films of today can’t – it feels alive. It’s still impossible to watch the film and not wonder what is around every corner.
Although the film is widely respected, it’s important to note that Lang himself didn’t much care for the film. He was still a fairly young man when he made the film, and his popularity was on the rise after the success of Die Niebelungen and Dr. Mabuse: The Gambler. His greatest film, M, was still to come. During interviews he gave late in his life, after he had become somewhat cynical towards the American studio system, he called Metropolis “simplistic” and “naive.” At the time though, Lang believed in what he was making, and his passion is on display in every frame of the movie. Although it’s this “passion” that at times seemed to contradict the films’ epitaph, that “the mediator between the head and hands must be the heart.” At the conclusion of the film, a crowd of children is attempting to escape the flooding worker’s city. The water was reportedly freezing cold, and the children were forced to stand in the water for hours on end, risking hypothermia. This isn’t an isolated case – he was a very difficult man to work for, but it’s hard to ignore that this fact seems to work in opposition to the film’s pro-working class stance. Despite this however, the film still holds up remarkably well. For a long time now, that the only version of the film that is out there is incomplete. The current restoration of the film, the one that was reviewed here, runs just over two hours. Long thought lost, the complete 210-minute cut was discovered in a vault in Buenos Aires just two months ago. So for the first time since it’s release, we’re all going to have the chance to see the film as Lang intended. But for now, we have a version of the film that has stood the test of time. Even in its incomplete form, it still manages to entertain and inspire all these years later.