METROPOLIS — CLASSIC FILM PICK
The original three-and-a-half hour version of “Metropolis” was shown to an audience of 2500 guests during the Weimar Republic in Berlin in 1927. It was the most expensive film ever made up at the time. Cited as the first feature-length science fiction film, Fritz Lang’s expressionist silent movie is a dystopian vision of a futruistic Germany in the year 2000. Impoverished downtrodden masses suffer under an autocratic corporate capitalist system that favors an elite few. Sound prescient?
Sadly much of “Metropolis’s” fragile film stock was lost over time. It wasn’t until 2008 that a 16 mm reduction negative of the original movie was discovered in the archives of Argentina’s Museo del Cine. Another print, discovered in New Zealand’s National Film Archive in 2005, contributed to an extensive restoration process that replaced 25 minutes of missing footage. Although it is still missing nearly an hour from its original, the restored version functions as a complete narrative.
Joh Fredersen (played by Alfred Abel) is the oligarch who oversees his monolithic empire from high above the city of Metropolis in his skyscraper office. Joh’s son Freder (Gustav Fröhlich) wears the sporty white clothes of a tennis player. He spends his days in an idyllic “pleasure garden” where the rich frolic around a large fountain and exotic birds play. Women of high class wear outlandish dresses that look like something from a fairy tale. The arrival of a beautiful working class teacher named Maria (Brigitte Helm) — on a field trip with a large group of destitute children — awakens Freder to the disparity of wealth around him even as he falls instantly in love with Maria.
Freder goes searching for Maria only to discover the inhuman working conditions in the city’s giant underground boiler room. He witnesses an explosion that kills many workers and watches as many more are systematically murdered. Freder reports back to his father, who in turn questions Rotwang, the mad inventor responsible for creating the city’s colossal power-driving machine. In a crucial subplot, Rotwang is busy creating a machine-human incarnation of Freder’s mother who, coincidentally looks exactly like Maria.
Although it ends with an overwrought climax, topped off with a laughably banal cliché that unites the workers with their greedy overlord, “Metropolis” is filled with stunning archetypal imagery and grand-scale spectacle. Its production designers drew heavily from the Art Deco movement for their designs. Cameraman Eugen Schüfftan’s groundbreaking methods — utilizing miniature sets in conjunction with specialized camera techniques involving mirrors — contributes to the film’s lasting effect. Significant too is the design for Rotwang’s female robot that serves as the ultimate vision of a mechanized femme fatale.