It is difficult to understate the cinematic importance of a movie such as “Metropolis.” Originally released in the Weimar Republic (a.k.a. post-World War I Germany) in 1927, “Metropolis” paved the way for the genre of science fiction by combining impressive silent film acting with incredibly creative practical effects and a beautiful, otherworldly soundtrack. To celebrate its recent entrance into the public domain as of January 2023, I have composed a review. While the review will contain some spoilers for a nearly hundred-year-old film, little of what I describe here does justice to the experience of watching the movie yourself.
One of the first observations I made when viewing “Metropolis” is what a highly longitudinal film it is. Much of the action within the movie is dependent on the upward and downward movement of a central elevator, which connects the upper level of the Metropolis, largely inhabited by the wealthy professional class, with a subterranean workers’ city. Throughout the film, the elevator itself becomes a character of its own, often signifying plot transitions as tension between the lower and upper class builds and finally explodes. The disconnect between the upper and lower classes is perhaps best exemplified by the headquarters of the city master, Fredersen, called “The New Tower of Babel.”
Most people would assume the villain of a society as divided as the one in “Metropolis” is the one positioned at the very top, in this case, the city master, Fredersen. However, far from being the Machiavellian mastermind plotting the suppression of the lower classes, Fredersen is depicted as a hapless bureaucrat who is indifferent to the plight of the workers, not out of malice, but out of a sort of legalistic apathy. The true villain of the film is Rotwang, the inventor and sort of advisor to Fredersen who delights in nothing more than the misdirection of the toiling masses.
I didn’t find the protagonist, Freder, to be an interesting or compelling character. However, I also do not necessarily believe that the director intended him to be. Freder instead seems to function as a stand-in for the audience, gasping in horror at the conditions endured by the workers, and later becoming disturbed by the ignorance of the workers as they, whipped into a populist furor, destroy the very machines which protect their homes from flooding.
I find Rotwang to be a delightful character, and arguably the most compelling, capturing so many of the anxieties both present in 1927 and today regarding the dangers of modern technological advancement. Rotwang kidnaps Maria, an inspirational, Christ-like figure for the workers, and creates a disturbing robot copy of her, unleashing her to command them to destroy the machines that keep Metropolis running. The acting performance by Brigitte Helm as both Maria and her eventual robot clone can only be described as both stunning and incredibly unnerving. As the Machine Man, her unnatural movements, the twisting and bending of her neck and limbs in an inorganic fashion and yet her clearly organic form to me reflect very modern anxieties about the rise of artificial intelligence. “Metropolis,” topically, invokes current conversations over the dangerous potential for the creation of deep fakes of celebrities and political figures using artificial intelligence, and the question of what distinguishes human creations from that of AI.
To conclude my review, I can only give my greatest recommendation of the film to any reader curious about the origins of the science fiction genre, filmmaking as a whole or anyone wanting to see a perpetually relevant cinematic masterpiece.
Ian Odell is a first year majoring in international relations.