If I were to make a list of films that accurately reflect the current social climate, Fritz Lang’s Metropolis would certainly be on that list. Released in 1927, the movie explores the gap between the extremely wealthy and the working class. Woven together with machine metaphors and Biblical references, Metropolis offers more than entertainment. The film gives a powerful message about the dangers of social inequality.
The story takes place in a fictional futuristic city where the rich industrialists lead opulent lives while the workers, who keep the city functioning, live and toil in a subterranean world far below the earth. The main character is the protagonist, Freder (played by Gustav Frölich), who is the son of the city master. His world suddenly changes when he sees a beautiful young woman named Maria (Brigitte Helm) leading a group of young children. Freder follows Maria, only to find himself submerged into a world where people are treated as cogs in the machine. One man collapses from exhaustion, which causes a terrible explosion. The incident transforms Freder. He is both horrified and curious of this world, and he decides to switch places with one of the workers.
Over the course of the film, Freder’s naiveté gives way to a somber realization that his father’s creation has caused the suffering of so many people. The beautiful woman Maria who is a figure of hope and purity, sees something in Freder. She calls him “The Mediator,” the heart that must keep peace between the hand and the head. The two characters immediately fall in love. However, in order for these two to be together they must overcome incredible odds, including Freder’s father, a mad scientist named Rotwang, and the workers who revolt against the tyranny of Freder’s father.
Part of the appeal of this German film is that it is nearly a hundred years old. Despite the fact that it is a silent film, where dialogue is minimal, Lang successfully tells a story about love and the conflict between two socioeconomic classes. Also, the movie is very stunning. Even the machinery, which is supposed to be foreboding, has a steampunk appeal. The iconic robot, man-machine, which incites a rebellion between the workers and the industrialists, is both horrifying and beautiful. In this film, no detail is overlooked. Lang deftly incorporates multiple influences, such as Art Deco (which was very popular during the 1920’s) and Biblical references like the story of the Tower of Babel. All of these elements together are part of what makes this film incredibly complex, beautiful, and still relevant.
Before the filming of Metropolis, Frölich and Helm were unknown actors. Frölich was a novelist and Helm was just a teenager, who was quite ambivalent about having a movie career. However, the movie catapulted Frölich and Helm into stardom and both actors went on to have successful careers. In 2008 more than 25 minutes of missing footage was discovered in Buenos Aires. Today viewers can enjoy a restored treasure in film history.