REVIEW – ‘Metropolis’

90 years after its initial release, Fritz Lang's dystopia is as relevant as ever.

Review by J.T. Johnson

ORIGINAL RELEASE DATE: January 10, 1927
DIRECTOR: Fritz Lang
CINEMATOGRAPHY: Karl Freund, Gunther Rittau
WRITER: Thea von Harbou
MUSIC: Gottfried Huppertz

“Blade Runner”, “Dark City”, “Star Wars”, “The Matrix” and several Tim Burton films have one thing in common. One of their inspirations is “Metropolis”, a 1927 silent film and a key film in the German Expressionist era along with earlier films such as “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari”. Thanks to German Expressionism, Germany was making even more advanced and sophisticated films than Hollywood at this time.

After its initial release in 1927, the film was altered and cut down for release in other countries and for several years, it appeared that the original uncut film was lost to the ages. Still, several restoration efforts have occurred over the years and in 2008, a damaged yet complete version of the film was found in Argentina. After a lengthy restoration process, this version is currently the most complete version of the film and was released by Kino Video in 2010.

The story behind “Metropolis” is pretty simple. The city of Metropolis is a utopia of skyscrapers, cars, and airplanes. At the center of it all is the Tower of Babel where the master of the city, Joh Fredersen (Alfred Abel), oversees everything. What is not seen by most of the population is that the city is built on top of a hellish underground city where wage workers work to constantly to keep the city running.

Joh’s son, Freder (Gustav Frohlich), soon witnesses an explosion after visiting the underground city. After seeing the dystopian city, Freder decides to rebel against his father and save his brothers and sisters.

When I see several shots of this movie, I immediately see the influence on other films. “Blade Runner” obviously took its inspiration from the various establishing shots of the city itself. The sharp angles and abstract scenes obviously inspired certain Tim Burton films such as “Edward Scissorhands”. The biggest visual inspiration, though, is the design for C-3P0 in “Star Wars”, a character that was directly modeled after the Maschinemensch found in “Metropolis” and popularized in the film’s promotional material.

Considering the technology of the time, the special-effects featured in the film hold up surprisingly well. There are several visuals that combine models, matte paintings and composite shots that bring the city of Metropolis alive. This is one of those rare films where it is worth it to watch the film simply for the visual splendor alone.

The film’s story, while pretty simple, contains a sweeping message about how the rich upper-class often ignores the lower-class that allows the rich to have their affluent lifestyles. While the rich get to have fun in the pleasure gardens, the workers risk their lives for meager pay and work long hours. The message of the film is a swipe at capitalism and considering today’s political climate in the country, it is a message that is still sadly relevant.

My only real problem is that the film also has several religious overtones including the search for a savior to unite all the people. The Machinemensch also becomes a false god and is clearly a representation of the Devil. This isn’t necessarily bad for the most part, but the third act almost loses me because the story suddenly leans into its religious themes a little too heavily and there aren’t as many visually entertaining effects at this point as well.

“Metropolis” turned 90 earlier this year and it is one of the first great science-fiction movies. Its influence has been felt in several other films ever since its release. With a message that is still relevant today and visuals that are still stunning to behold, it is not hard to see why Lang’s dystopian is considered a classic despite its heavy religious themes.

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