The future is now
by Dan Moray
Ranking among the top twenty-five films ever made, Fritz Lang's 1927 sci-fi masterpiece Metropolis is full of inventive visual styles and thematic structures that offered the then newly formed art of film analysis a lot to sort through, define, and simply marvel at. Metropolis has been called the greatest example of German expressionist filmmaking, but you could also focus on its cubist set designs, its surrealist lighting and imagery, or the film's advanced science-fiction premise and how close to reality it really is. In the midst of all this, it's easy to overlook that the film is also just another love story.
In Metropolis the future is now our now. We are living Lang's vision of the future. The faces of those coal miners trapped 245 feet underground as they emerged from the rescue baskets are reminders that miners and other laborers are still working deep underground and that there are people everywhere in the world working like automatons to keep our prosperity afloat.
Set in the twenty-first century, Metropolis tells a familiar tale of a corporate upper class that lives in towering angular skyscrapers, cavorting amid fountains, gardens, and peacocks, with airplanes, cars, and trains to shuttle them about. Lang's city supposedly was inspired by his first glimpse of the New York skyline from the deck of a ship. Far below this realm of skyscrapers and luxury lies the misery and drudgery of catwalks, furnaces, factories, and a mechanical devotion to machinery.
Mr. Frederson owns all of these foundries and factories. During a frivolous romp through his gardens and fountains, Frederson's son, Freder, spots Maria, the daughter of one of the workers. She is playing with a group of children, and he's smitten with her fresh-faced innocence. Sneaking a peek at the condition of the workers in the underground, Freder is shocked by the multitude of faceless bodies and the dark, airless atmosphere.
When Mr. Frederson overhears Maria comparing the factory workers to the
slaves who built the Tower of Babel, he decides to have his chief scientist build a robot version of her. His plan: to have the robot incite a rebellion, thereby providing a pretext for him to replace his inefficient human workers. Maria's transformation into a robot is one of the most spectacular effects ever put on film. The robot Maria is a sensual, frisky, lusty, flirtatious preacher of the proletarian message.
When the workers revolt, young Freder awakens the real Maria, who turns him into a mediator between the workers and his father, the master of Metropolis. And in the end, the guy gets the girl.
Metropolis is at the Michigan Theater for two showings: on Saturday, September 21, with live organ accompaniment, and on Sunday, September 22, with a restored orchestral sound track.
[Originally published in September, 2002.]