Metropolis – 1927

Director Fritz Lang
Screenplay Thea von Harbou, Lang (uncredited)
Starring Alfred Abel, Brigitte Helm, Gustav Fröhlich, Rudolf Klein-Rogge,Theodor Loos, Heinrich George

Someone has to stay at the machine!

Worker 11811

It’s a story that helped to launch movements both bold and horrible. Left as a silly plot device for an early Science Fiction masterpiece of visual effects, it is rightly viewed as a fantasy. Fritz Lang’s creation of Thea von Harbou’s powerful and naive vision of the way things could be helped to propel ideas for Hitler and Goebbels into a national movement that would have world wide ramifications. The idea of the “heart as a mediator between the head and the hands” became a rallying cry for social justice in post WWI Germany. This helped to form the Nazi movement.

Von Harbou, being married to Lang at the time, bought into the propaganda. Lang became disenfranchised. He would eventually divorce the screenwriter and flee Germany. Like many others, the director would struggle with his role in this magnificent piece. It is really an interesting story and a monument to world – much less cinematic – history.

The premise of the story is Freder (Fröhlich), privileged son to the “brain” of Metropolis, is awakened by the presence of Maria (Helm) to the plight of his “brothers.” These bretheren are the common workers acting as the “hands” for the leader of the town, Jon Fredersen (Abel). They are cogs in the machine of industry, for which only the town’s leaders benefit.


Fredersen then works with a mad scientist, who has created the Maschinenmensch, a machine made to look the part of a woman. Both the Master and the Scientist had been in love with Hel, the mother of Freder. She married the Master and died while giving birth. The machine is designed to take Hel’s place, but the scientist is convinced to have her made into the image of Maria.

Feels like Cloud City…

The process in which this takes place is astounding, given the time it was created. The story takes an incredibly creepy turn that delves into the depths of German expressionism. There are sequences within this film that stand out for any era. When I see Metropolis in full movement, it brings images of Cloud City, from The Empire Strikes Back. It is well known to fans of Star Wars that C-3PO is based on the design of the Maschinenmensch.

Falling under the trance…

Of course, some of this shit’s just plain weird. The prophecy of Babylon with the 7 Deadly Sins feels exactly like the nightmare it is supposed to represent. One really does get the impression that Death really is going to descend upon Metropolis.

The machine Maria begins to wreak havoc throughout the city, for both the privileged and the working class alike. The scientist has more in store for the Master and Freder. In this sequence, Helm does incredible work creating two personae that will subsequently create a situation to drive the hands against the brain.

The concept that the false Maria creates, a revolution against the machines that enslave them, is an enduring image that lasts to this day. Even one of Apple computer’s first great MacIntosh ad campaigns has definite overtones of this and Orwell’s 1984.

Rise against the machine
Drudgery of the common worker

All of this brings on the last thrilling act. The effects are numerous, varied and geniusly created. The destruction of the city is as powerful a metaphor as one would see at the time. The struggle to save the children becomes the film’s rallying cry borne out of the most powerful of images.

The movie, with the restored footage found in Buenos Aires, clocks in at nearly two and a half hours. Even in it’s edited version, it is one of the longer features of its time.

Why are all the lights out?


This is a story where a mad scientist and an asshole of an assistant to the Master almost ruin it for everybody. The simple message – connecting the hands of the machine to it’s brain with the help of a mediator with the heart machine – becomes a rallying cry. One can almost hear the von Harbou screaming out: the mediators (administration) know what is fair. Let them help create a world where everyone is represented through the purity of the human heart. This is definitely a message that Bernie Sanders and his modern Maria (Alexandria Ocasio Cortez) hear differently than the dwindling majority of Americans today.

Even through it’s complicated history of interpretations, Metropolis is very much the definition of essential cinema. It stands head and shoulders above its contemporary films, no matter what one understands of the competing interests that helped in its creation. Criterion has woven together the varying strands to create the best possible version of a landmark in cinema.

(**** out of *****)

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