THE 100 GREATEST FILMS OF ALL TIME – 58: METROPOLIS

by Daniel Suddes


Metropolis (1927) – Director: Fritz Lang   Adapted Screenplay: Thea Von Harbou and Fritz Lang Starring: Briggette Helm, Alfred Abel, Gustav Frohlich  OSCAR COUNT (0)

There are many silent films that are still looked upon as important without actually being relevant to society. To many, Metropolis is seen as one such film. Being the official “first science fiction film” lends it the air of respectability. But most view those old films as just that – antiquated pieces that are of no interest to anyone except those stodgy professor types that go on and on about how the death of silent film meant the death of cinema itself. This is unfair toMetropolis. In many ways, this film is just as relevant now as the day it premiered. It does not look at the late 1920s Germany that spawned it. Metropolisexamines all of human history in its running time, showing us exactly what has happened (and what will still happen) as our civilization grows. It is one of those films that will still be remembered hundreds of years from now.

The story has become relatively simple (in a nutshell: the working class lives in the slums, the upper class lives in the highest echelons of the skyscrapers, the son of a wealthy industrialist becomes infatuated with a revolutionary lower class girl, and a mad scientist is hired to quell a potential uprising using a robotic double of the same revolutionary). However, it is told so profoundly that it reaches the level of a myth. Think about your favorite painting. Many of them are easy to describe. However, those paintings affect us based on the layers that they have created and the ultimate message they convey. Metropolis is one of the few films that operates in the same manner. It wants to explore its themes by gradually revealing to the audience what it has to say, rather than taking the modern approach of explaining everything repeatedly.  Metropolis is dedicated to treating itself like a traditional work of art rather than a film (which was still in its infancy at the time) and is incredible because it succeeded so well.

It is impossible to discuss this film at any length without discussing the city itself. That is what many think of when they hear about the film. WithoutMetropolis, Batman’s Gotham City would not exist, and the world (even if it comes to a radically different conclusion than the Communist revolutionaries of the time did). The city is designed to physically separate them as they felt neither would Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, Alex Proyas’ Dark City, Dean Motter’s Radiant City, or the Los Angeles of Blade Runner. But the city does not just exist for the sake of being an impressive effect. Rather. It is a perfect externalization of the film’s themes. Metropolis is meant to be a discussion of the class conflict that was occurring all over they socially were in reality. Such a simple trick demonstrates the power of all cinema – to make abstract ideas appear as real. It is little wonder that so many films wish to copy the look of the city – it works so well thematically.

Yet the film goes so much deeper than its design. If it is the first science fiction film, then it is strange that most modern science fiction films do not try to learn from it. Today, science fiction films have an obsession with reality and feel that being as close to it as possible is the key to success. I believe that Ray Bradbury outlined this characterization (I’m paraphrasing here): “Science fiction describes what can happen. Fantasy describes what cannot.” Metropolis does not subscribe to this belief and is a better film for it. The film tries to resemble a dream as much as possible. Metropolis is not meant to describe what the future will look like. Rather, Metropolis is meant to look like the idea of a city that may exist at some point, but also the city of today turned into a caricature of itself. Besides from preventing the film from ever becoming dated, this idea turns the film into a true work of art. When one watches, say, Steven Spielberg’s remake of War of the Worlds, one finds suspending disbelief to be a daunting task (aliens hiding massive structures for millions of years?) while watching Metropolisencourages such a logical leap. It allows the focus to be placed on the themes of struggle, hardship, and cooperation. The film did not need the giant city to succeed – the acting and the score help just as much, and the climax is still a nail biting one. A film as old as Metropolis that still manages to be as exciting and interesting is certainly one that can be considered among the greatest of all time. Metropolis set a standard for science fiction that only a handful of science fiction films have managed to match.

It is hard to think of a favorite moment in the film. The entire piece blends together so seamlessly that it is difficult to separate the work into individual scenes. However, the creation of Maria has become so iconic that it is impossible to ignore. Why is this? Yes, Maria may be the first cyborg ever used in film (she may even be the first cyborg ever in fiction) so that fact alone accounts for some of it. However, I believe that the transformation ultimately says more about what happens to many revolutionaries than anyone has cared to admit. Every single person inspired to produce “change” becomes a mechanized version of themselves, caught in a system that will not allow them to accomplish anything. The film is a wonderfully symbolic example of what actually has happened throughout history to people like Maria – they attempt to do good for the world but end up bringing ruin. Additionally, the scene contains the same sort of dreamlike effects that the rest of the film relies on. This actually makes the symbolism deeper. If the film had, say, used a Terminator sort of assembly line, it would not have worked as well. The film would be removed from its fable-like story. This scene tells one what they need to know about the storytelling utilized in Metropolis.

DID YOU KNOW?: This film was reportedly among Adolf Hitler’s favorites. It is for this reason that he wished Fritz Lang directed films for the Nazis. However, Lang refused and fled to Hollywood.

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