Rather an easy lay-up for the first entry of a movie blog, you might say, and I would say yes, exactly: the plan. Have there been entire dissertations on Metropolis? Surely.
I lightly studied Fritz Lang’s M once in a 20th-century German history class, and was delighted with it in much the way I’m delighted with this. There is such a keen interest in the craft of film in Lang’s work — probably in a lot of German work, for that matter. Innovation and Design. This is a movie that credits a sculptor right after the composer, that sort of thing. Metropolis was artistically daring in what it was trying to achieve, and it shows, and I love that. Unusual as they are, I also really love the gaps of missing material. There’s something so special about watching something that has been rescued. I got very sappy and sentimental about this. Also sentimental about the typeface game filmmakers used to bring to their inter-titles — pour one out for the lost art of triple-dashes used like ellipses.
What we have not lost, however, are Metropolis’s themes, for when haven’t we been telling stories about the downtrodden rising up against the system that holds them down? Robots though, that’s newer. Workers literally fed to the piston jaws of the Machine and a beautiful girl built of metal who can tear apart society — wow Weimar Republic, wow.
But for all the cold grinding gears, this movie is just stuffed with emotion. Our hero, Freder, who resembles a gentle mascara-wearing Leonardo DiCaprio, is forever showing distress by curling his hands in fists against his chest, like he needs to pull his ribs open to create space for all his feelings. And his father, our villainous greedy overlord, has these incongruously sympathetic sad eyebrows, something like a cross between Mark Rylance and Mark Strong. But that’s probably a good sign, as much of the narrative will hinge on accessing his stores of empathy.
There’s also an exceedingly tall vampire-looking henchmen just called The Thin Man, who stalks around having a wonderful time threatening people, and a mad worshipful inventor living in a medieval barn somehow still wedged between the art deco skyscrapers. It of course has secret access to the catacombs beneath the city, where the workers meet after their long shifts to listen to the beautiful starry-eyed Maria, a saint in the underground, their prophetess with the wisdom of the hearth and heart. Maria believes in reconciliation between the Haves and the Have Nots, and her faith in mediation lends hope and strength to the weary.
But of course, Saint is not all Maria is. Metropolis might be the best example I know of the problem of having just one female character in your movie, who ends up having to be everything, all at once. Because Maria is also the Beloved of Freder, as well as the Mother to the workers’ children. And it is also her form that is copied for the malicious robot that the inventor has built — whom you can always tell from the original because Fembot Maria wears more eyeliner and her left eye has a rakish squint. And now we see “Maria” become yet more: Temptress, Witch, Whore of Babylon. She even bears a resemblance to Freder’s own dead mother, for whom the crazed inventor harbored a hopeless love.
Although there is a separate male character for each of the archetypes they are portraying, they don’t exactly rise above tropes either. But they don’t need to, because Metropolis is an allegory — what you remember are images. And they’re stunning: the Machina shining under the electric rings, the business Tower of Bable rising above the glittering glassy city, a swarm of leering eyes, crowds rushing like waves. What I adore about watching movies like these, the big ticket Influential ones, is how you can glimpse so many later movies flickering over the frames. It gives their oldness this odd magic power of seeming to tell the future.