To say this film is just a science fiction picture is cinematic treason. For it is so much more than that. Whilst the essence of this film is indeed sci-fi, Lang arguably had so much more on his mind. This is evident in the strong symbolism carried in Metropolis and the monumental themes that still stand so relevant today. The division of the working classes and the upper classes and the defining materialistic views that forces the convergence the two. Such themes are as strong as ever in a world still run by the corruptness of capitalism and will continue to stand as strong as they did 83 years ago. Metropolis, having been made in Germany during the height of the deceivingly stable post World War Weimar years, is a damning indictment of the new found materialism and the obliviousness to the inevitable decay of such an unrecognisably weak government structure. Weimar Republic chancellor Gustav Stresemann acknowledged this, stating that Germany was ‘Dancing on a volcano’. Lang clearly knew of the weakness at hand and Metropolis was seemingly proleptic of the downfall of Weimar, at the hands of the American Wall Street Crash that occurred two years after the release of Metropolis. The tremendous and breathtaking flood scenes were awash with this vision, serving as a metaphor for the uncompromising haste of a newly formed government and how the foundations of such a hierarchy were soon to collapse.
Furthermore, Lang and Harbou’s script highlights the flaws of capitalism that still exist today; the rich get rich and the poor stay poor. Metropolis sees the rich living in the lap of luxury, with giant structures (including the fascinating Tower of Babel) and awe inspiring technology whilst the poor remain in squalid houses (set pieces that are possibly even more daunting than the wealthy civilisation) and are marched into worse working conditions. Such a hideous view is what makes Metropolis all the more memorable. Is capitalism as pleasant as it is made out to be? Whilst free speech is certainly a high point, Lang is simply providing the argument that asks whether we are any freer with a capitalist government than we are with Nationalist or Communist government. His portrayal of a seemingly perfect employment of capitalism in a way that mirrors the hierarchy of a nationalist state is damning in its own right. The opening scenes where workers miserably shuffle into their decadent village whilst a new shift of identically dressed people start there tedious working hours is a horrifying and unforgettable scene and one that sets the tone immediately for the rest of the film. Whilst Metropolis serves as a grim portrayal of the faults of a capitalist view, it is also strongly prophetic of Hitler’s nationalist government that followed. Scenes of rebellion take place, with huge riots mirroring Hitler’s rallies, symbolising an age of uncertainty that ultimately leads to evil. Although Metropolis was made twelve years before the outbreak of World War 2, its view of the repression of capitalism leading unknowingly into stricter repression of nationalism was hauntingly spot-on. Additionally, it sparks a reminder of the view of communism and Marxism, with the working class erupting into a siege against the authorities, with an ending that portrays the working class and upper class finally making peace after a powerful stand against the evils of materialism (the burning of the Robot itself can be seen as symbolic of the burning of a hierarchy, particularly the communist point of view, since it was the robot that led to the rebellion and confusion). However, Lang seems to be taking an un-bias stance, choosing rather to take a look at the effects of each individual government form. Whilst the Marxist view appears sturdy at the end, it was only moments before that in which the city was ensued with confusion and a flurry of mistaken identity. Lang may be suggesting that all of the forms of leadership portrayed all have deep, underlying flaws and the happy ending remains less intact that it first appears; for the atmosphere is rank with a lingering feeling of disaffection, corruption and fear.
Lang had once stated that he wasn't as politically minded during his early career, yet his unflinching political scrutiny in Metropolis is admirable, whether he was consciously aware of exactly how powerful parable within his film or not.
As a film and not just a political statement, Metropolis is incredible. Not only does it competently raise questions of politics, it remains an incredible piece of art AND entertainment. The special effects are ahead of its time, as are the complex editing techniques. The set pieces are haunting, remaining both a conventional reminder of German Expressionism as well as remaining unique enough to break through those conventions. The score is incredible, one of the best of all time, as well being blasphemously under-rated, with each note carrying a potent relevance to each scene. The acting is fantastic, with Klein Rogge portraying a truly terrifying mad scientist, one of the first to be shown in a film to such macabre proportions. He far outweighs the literary inventions of over a hundred years beforehand such as Dr. Frankenstein, who is little more than an eccentric physics teacher in comparison to insanity of Rotwang. Brigitte Helm, playing both the monumental product of science (the Robot) as well as the kind hearted Maria is perfect. Her dual roles contrast substantially in character and Helm delivers a flawless performance as both, unique to each other. Karl Freund’s devastatingly impactful cinematography further plunges the film into a murky and unattractive but beautiful and vibrant dystopia, remaining one of the best Black and White photography jobs I have witnessed in cinema, just behind the stark photographic achievement of Kurosawa’s Rashomon.
Metropolis is more than merely an achievement. It is a monument to cinema as we know it and a film that should never be forgotten. Political themes, symbolism of the contrasts between good and evil, beauty and repulsion, technical achievement and a deeply complex and memorable plot all come together to make an unforgettable classic.