Metropolis - the first cinematic science fiction masterpiece

If you have not seen Metropolis, you must. There is a newer restored version with scenes just recently found, but that one is not essential viewing.  Whatever version you see, Metropolis is unforgettable.  Silent film is 'pure cinema', in that it tells its story's completely visually.  The word cards are just clues to what is really going on in the visual world before your eyes.  Somehow I think its appropriate that cinema had to start with out sound, (though music and effects were added during the presentation,) it forced the pioneers of the early medium to invent visual metaphors, and none were more adept at this than the German Expressionist filmmakers. 

Fritz Lane was one of those native German Expressionists. He made many films before Metropolis. Each one with a unique flavor. Metropolis has some of his unusual visual style and the images that are there are more memorable than many science fiction films that came after.  Nearly 90 years later, it is still spellbinding.

While in production, Metropolis nearly bankrupt the film studio and Lang himself, later reflecting in Hollywood, was not a fan of the picture, seeing it as a bit silly.  The overt message of the film, that the mediator between the hand and the brain is the heart, may be simplistic, but the dehumanization of the individual in the robotic machine world of tomorrow, is more relevant today than it was in 1927. (Though someone working for Henry Ford at the time might disagree.)  Many workers now have been replaced by robots, some office jobs too can make one feel like a part of a machine than an organic living thing.

There are many messages in the film, but there's more here than simple morality tales. The story is of class struggle and the monsters of our own creation.

A wealthy, naive innocent young man, who's father is the kind of governor of Metropolis, has shielded his son from the hard realities of the worker class and slums below the pristine super-city. Enchanted with a woman who is the leader of a kind of protest movement, a lady Madonna or Mother Jones preaching equality for her fellow lower classes.  The young hero ends up venturing in to the lower world and experiencing first hand the struggles and hardships of the hidden people that keep the city's heart beat alive.  But trouble pops up when a mad scientist invents for his master, the governor of Metropolis, a mechanical woman, who looks exactly like our Madonna of peace!  The robot woman has been invented to mislead the people and bring and end to this peaceful revolt.   Well, things go badly for everyone and the third and final act is filled with chaos when the misguided works flood their own city!

Many films owe their look to Metropolis.  It has been reinvented on film countless times; the Batman movies, Star Wars massive city planet Coruscant is Metropolis on steroids. The 1984 film of Dune has some of its style and scope, as well as 1982's Blade Runner. The robot in Metropolis looks a lot like everyone's favorite robot C3PO.  Frankenstein, made just 4 years later in 1931, took from Metropolis it's birth scene (never in Mary Shelly's book) with all its electric sparks, flashing lights and mad scientist filled with manic euphoria.  It's a flattering tribute, a homage to the first and possibly the best science fiction film ever created.

I'm trying not to take away from 1977's Star Wars (Episode 4), the best modern film ever made, forever changing the way spectacle, tent-pole movies were paced with excitement - where before, only the old serials gave us a hint of what was possible. 

Though the style of silent acting may seem staged and dated, Metropolis gave us a vision of what movies can achieve to be, even if it over-reaches at times.   

Give Metropolis as try. It's a fun trip. 

- Mark

I have included (below) a video from the Giorgio Moroder 1984 rock version of the film, which was my introduction to the Metropolis.

Another silent SCIFI classic and Real Robots getting closer to the movie bots! 

A Trip to the Moon - Georges Méliès, cinemas first special effects wizard

Androids, getting closer all the time

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