Co-written by Lang, an anti-fascist of Jewish extraction who was inspired by Soviet literature, and his temporary wife Thea von Harbou, an aristocrat and future member of the Nazi Party, the film's story is an awkward fusing of two magnetically opposed philosophies. Hence, the story depicts the "heads," the thinking elite known as the "upper ten thousand" who live lives of leisure and mindless luxury in magnificent skyscrapers stretching to the heavens, and their "hands," the dirty, shoeless workers who live beneath the earth and keep the machines--and the city above them--running. The beautiful Maria, an odd prophet of the Protestant work ethic and the spirit of capitalism, advocates that the workers keep their noses to the grindstone, earnestly hoping that a "mediator," a "heart," will redeem them. Joh Fredersen, the oligarch in charge of Metropolis, combines forces with Rotwang, a crazed, ugly, dark-featured intellectual who controls the scenes from behind to his own benefit, to build an evil robot version of Maria that incites the workers into a violent, destructive revolution while simultaneously encouraging the upper ten thousand to abandon their virtues to wanton decadence. Society and progress come screeching to a halt, all the children almost die--including Fredersen's own son Freder--and everybody on both sides, after killing the evil Rotwang, realizes that they are all brothers and sisters of one race. They must work together according to their abilities--the animalistic, brutish hands running the machines, the cold but sensible heads controlling the hands--in order to build humanity on a continual, godlike path of progress closer to the stars. On the steps of a cathedral, the hands and the heads are united by Freder--the mediating "heart"--a symbol of compassion and religious faith.
In other words, the status quo is confirmed at the end of the film. The workers should not try to revolt because otherwise they will become homeless and their children will die. Joh Fredersen should remain in power because every society needs a leader with complete authority, and because he has a son that he (sort of) loves, the workers should love him and sympathize with him because they know that he is a human just like them. Rotwang--the sinister intellectual with the crazy dark hair (perhaps he's Jewish?)--is the only villain. And all that the status quo needed to be a perfect society capable of transcending human limitations was a demagogue clothed in religious imagery who just so happens to be the dynastic successor of the current governing elitist. Whatever specific compassion this mediating "heart" will offer is never mentioned (better wages maybe? nine hours of constant, backbreaking work instead of ten?), but his role is likely just propagandistic.
In 1932, Thea von Harbou joined the Nazi Party, and in 1933, the same year that Hitler came to power, the two divorced. In 1934, Lang's film The Testament of Dr. Mabuse was banned in Germany by Joseph Goebbels, who feared that it would undercut the country's faith in ideologues; however, Goebbels, a fan of Metropolis, offered Lang a loaded position as head of a film studio. Fearing that he was being forced to become a fascist propagandist, Lang fled that night to Paris. Two years later he moved to Hollywood, where he lived until his death.
At its center, Metropolis is a fascist film, but Fritz Lang's anti-fascist sentiments are evident in the film's heartfelt depiction of the workers as oppressed individuals, in its ridiculing of the elites as non-consequential fuddy duddies in short pants and combed hairdos, and in its depiction (throughout much of the film, at least) of Joh Fredersen as a heartless, calculating tyrant in love with his own unquestionable power. The film contradicts all this at one point or another, which makes for a perplexing message, but Lang's heart is evident somewhere amongst the soupy mess. Years later in an interview with Peter Bogdanovich, Lang explained
"The main thesis was Mrs. Von Harbou's, but I am at least 50 percent responsible because I did it. I was not so politically minded in those days as I am now. You cannot make a social-conscious picture in which you say that the intermediary between the hand and the brain is the heart. I mean, that's a fairy tale — definitely. But I was very interested in machines. Anyway, I didn't like the picture — thought it was silly and stupid — then, when I saw the astronauts: what else are they but part of a machine? It's very hard to talk about pictures— should I say now that I like Metropolis because something I have seen in my imagination comes true, when I detested it after it was finished?"
And that's a key point in the enjoyment of this film. If one can dismiss the plot as merely a fantasy, then one is free to enjoy the visual and technical splendor of the film and all its inspired imagination. The most expensive film ever made at its time, Metropolis features over 38,000 actors and extras, who are used to emphasize the dehumanized role of machine-like workers in a technological future, to illustrate the exhaustion and robotic motions of the oppressed classes, to highlight the anonymity of even the upper classes in a vast and wealthy urban culture, and to add sweeping chaos to climactic scenes of destruction. The disaster scenes of the film's final "furioso" moments, which combine miniature models with actual grand sets, are exhilarating even today. The film, with its starkly black on white nods to German Expressionism, utilizes a variety of meaningful and alluring architectures--the Art Deco skyscrapers and their flashing advertisements; the brutal modernism of the machine district and the workers' underground city; the organic, earthy darkness of the ancient catacombs with their twisting staircases and hidden passages; the intricately detailed Raygun Gothic style of Rotwang's futuristic laboratory; and the larger-than-life, surreal Biblical structures seen in the Tower of Babel and the shrine to Moloch.
Lang's visual compositions are breathtaking, with constant motion in every direction--elevators, trains, airplanes, hoards, falling buildings. Even the camera, in one panicked moment, moves forward to zero in on an important discovery. Some of the special effects will be obvious to today's viewers, but Lang's vision is timeless. Metropolis achieves the utmost levels of movie magic in that its never quite clear what was really filmed and what was mere camera trickery. Given that, it's easy to give up guessing and succumb to the film's imaginative world.
While the acting, particularly that of Gustav Fröhlich as Freder and Rudolf Klein-Rogge as Rotwang, often succumbs to silly silent overacting, Brigitte Helm is notable as both the saintly Maria and the evil robot. With a devilish smile, one constantly winking eyelid, a pivoting head, and gyrating arms, Helm as the Machine Man conveys the terrible possibilities of progress and the dehumanizing nature of rampant technology. She's one of the first notable screen villains, in addition to Fritz Rasp as The Thin Man, a tall, ghastly thug with chiseled features, pointed ears, and strong, slender fingers concealed in black leather gloves. He wears a black outfit resembling both that of an assassin and a monsignor, and his leering face reveals a desperate desire to unleash his destructive power.
Metropolis is full of such captivating details as this holyman assassin. Even the numerals on the film's many bizarre clocks are strange and interesting. Metropolis is a testament to a total style of science fiction filmmaking in which the creation of a good, convincing film requires the creation of an entire new universe full of countless believable yet unreal details. (2001 and Children of Men are further examples of this.) Though the story is baffling and childish, Fritz Lang's complete investment of imagination has guaranteed that the film will always remain a must-see masterpiece.
d: Fritz Lang w: Fritz Lang, Thea von Harbou
(Brigitte Helm, Gustav Fröhlich, Alfred Abel)