German director Fritz Lang seemed to be the first to showcase a strong directorial vision in his body of work. His was a unique combination of expertise in editing and production design, mixed with simplistic stories. Lang even helped along the career of Alfred Hitchcock and Karl Freund, back when he was an assistant. He should be credited for making the best effort of early science fiction fiction cinema with the "Metropolis". Going above and beyond pioneering French magician/ filmmaker Georges Mélièsshort film "A Trip to the Moon"/"Le voyage dans la Lune", the ambitious "Metropolis" took painstaking strides in technical achievement.
Set in an indeterminate future city, this iconic science fiction film is about a privileged young man named Freder (Gustav Fröhlich) who is the son Metropolis' ruler Joh Fredersen (Alfred Abel, who worked with Lang, Murnau, Lubitsch, and Hitchcock). The city is divided between the simple haves and have-nots, those who frolic in the Olympus-esque sky-scraping Tower of Babel, and those who toil beneath the city operating the machinery that help the city run. One day, a prophetess (Brigette Helm) visits the Eternal Gardens and with Freder looking on she proclaims with a large collection of boys from the lower depths that the men in the Club of the Sons are their brethren as well. Freder is more than entranced with her saying, he falls in love. Going so far as to depart his idyllic surroundings to search for her down below. Instead he finds his brethren below sweating in an industrial environment on the M-Machine, which explodes killing some of the workers. He even has a vision of them being sacrificed to the ancient god of child sacrifice, Moloch. Freder assists one of the workers and gives him a calling card. When one of Fredersen's trusted assistants fails in a task, he is fired, which means he must go below to the depths with the other workers. As an attempted suicide attempt shows, it must be a fate worse than death for the upper echelon of Metropolis, but Freder convinces him to live as he decends down with him to see how the other half live.
Meanwhile, Fredersen visits an old friend in Dr. Rotwang, your typical mad scientist complete with a Frankentstein-esque laboratory. Fredersen laments at a shrine for his late wife, Hel (named after a Norse mythological goddess of the dead), who apparently died giving birth to Freder and was also a lover of Rotwang as well. However, Rotwang boasts about an invention that is the next best thing to Hel, a Machine-Man in the shape of an android woman in the likeness of Hel. Rotwang also shows Fredersen a map of 2,000 year old catacombs (similar to the kind early Christians were in), where the underground workers congregate. They actually go down from beneath Rotwang's house and through a hole in the rocks observe the beautiful prophetess Maria give a sermon about the ancient Tower of Babel and the coming of the Mediator; one who will be the bridge between the workers below and the eloquent rich above; and once Freder realizes he is that man, the true battle of good evil begins. As Rotwang plots to capture Maria for his Machine-Man image to kill Fredersen, ultimately setting a series of events that leads to an all out revolution of the workers that will destroy the city or allow for a bonding.
Shot for a remarkable five million dollars, "Metropolis" was the biggest European film ever made back then; and unfortunately its biggest failure. Because of this failure, investors made Lang trim back the two-hour-and-27-minute version for global release. It's important to note that Hollywood was a new-kid-in-town when it came to the film industry. Germany, France, Japan, and the then USSR were the big fish in the water, and Germany was in a kinda artistic Renaissance with their German Expressionism movement.
Of Lang's work, "Metropolis", a silent film made in 1927, is still a masterpiece. I would say a recurrent element in Lang's films is visual metaphor or the fact that he could use just images to say something. No music. No dialogue. Just the image. In "Metropolis", he's able to use the elevator scenes with the workers going down to the depths to show they are descending in more than one way. The panoramic shots Metropolis' everyday city bustle have been used repeatedly since, as in "Blade Runner" or "Minority Report". These shots, by the way, are almost the only real establishing shots in the film. The other scenes are almost staged set pieces that don't create a futuristic atmosphere. For what it's worth, the acting is good., particularly Brigette Helm, and though most acting in silent films is strong and overt, the performances are less realistic. However, with the setting of this film being in the science fiction genre, this is forgivable and doesn't matter. I love how Lang sets up shots. They are just choreographed beautifully in this film, particularly when they are going to burn Maria at the stake.
The sets and the special effects are dazzling enough to ward off any criticism of the acting. The editing ( if you can call it that since they usually "cut-in-camera" back then) however, is something that is starkly different from a "talkie". It can distract a viewer when someone is saying something and there's a cut to a title card, and then to the person they're speaking to for a reaction shot. I think Lang knew how to handle this though, at least in the version I saw, he only used dialogue where he needed and even at this point I've noticed that all his shots where dialogue is spliced in. These shots are beautifully rendered, as when Rotwang obsesses how his mechanical hand has built the robot "Maria" and his arms are up with "Maria" behind him. This is punctuated with a title card. In this film, there are many shots like that where the title card helps the visual and is not just there like many modern subtitles. Also, the title cards in this film, were usually designed correctly to the emotion of the characters in the moment. But, the editing of the scene "The Dance of the Whore of Babylon" is close to something Eisenstein did in "Battleship Potemkin".
The problem I originally found with properly critiquing Metropolis is that I wasn't certain with what I was seeing was what I was supposed to see (as there were many re-edited versions of the film out there). Fortunately, the impossible happened. Back in 2008, a duplicate print of the film was discovered in Buenos Aires, and was eventually restored with the original missing 25 minutes of the film. Along with other silent classic films like "Nosferatu" and "The Cabinet of Caligari" helped push the German Expressionism movement in cinema. The film has a less than subtle message on religion as Lang and Harbou have multiple references and allusions to the bible including:
"Club of the Sons" - Heaven?
"Eternal Gardens" - Garden of Eden?
Moloch - ancient pagan god
The Tower of Babel
Maria - Mary?
The Flood- Noah
Like the greatest science fiction films it evokes the audience to see the message of social commentary through the fictional lens of a fantastic environment. This is the dystopian future told from the distant past. "Metropolis" doesn't just survive because of its innovative and visionary glimpse into the future, but because its message is timeless. It has been told before the film and will be told after. A tale of humanity in a constant struggle between good and evil, rich and poor, man and his inventions, and most of all love versus hate.