May is Non-Alliterative Silver Screen Classic Movie Month!
Before watching the movie:
For such a historically important movie, I’ve heard surprisingly little about this. Again. I’m not even sure off-hand why it’s important, because I want to say “first science fiction film”, but that ought to be Meliès’s A Journey From the Earth to the Moon.
The robot Maria is pretty much the only thing people mention about this film, to the point that she’s the icon for it. But the skant summary I’ve found doesn’t indicate her role in it at all.
After watching the movie:
In the great industrial Metropolis of 2026, the factory workers live deep underground below the wealthy upper class above. One day Freder, the son of Joh Fredersen, the owner of the company that keeps Metropolis running, is interrupted in his idylls at the paradise the industry leaders built for their children by a strange woman who has broken in with workers’ children declaring that the workers and the masters are brothers. Fascinated and likely smitten, Freder tries to follow her and finds himself in the machine district, where he sees a machine explode scalding steam over several workers. Realizing their plight, Freder exchanges places with a worker for an exhausting shift, and after it ends he goes with the workers to listen to the woman, Maria, preach peaceful cooperation between the workers and the masters, and of a coming mediator between them. Freder realizes he loves Maria, and wants to be her mediator. Meanwhile, Joh Fredersen goes to see the inventor Rotwang for advice about plans found on the workers. Rotwang declares that he has invented a Machine-Man to replace his wife Hel, who left him for Fredersen years ago and died giving birth to Freder. When Fredersen learns about Freder and Maria, he tells Rotwang to give the android Maria’s appearance so that he may sow discontent among the workers. Rotwang agrees, but he secretly plans to use the Maria-robot to destroy Fredersen and his son. And that’s the Prelude.
One matter I must address first: the gynoid (female robot) image associated with this movie is usually misleadingly prominent, as most robots from classic sci-fi are (see Robbie the Robot from Forbidden Planet and Gort from The Day the Earth Stood Still). I chose a poster without it in order to reflect that. The robot is important to the story (as the novel-length summary indicates), but not looking like that. In the scenes it looks like that, which may be considered its blank form, I’d be more inclined to call it Hel than Maria, since Rotwang introduces it as Hel. When the robot is Maria, it looks like Maria, albeit Maria with an eye twitch, sensual swagger, and propensity for contortionism.
While it can’t fully escape being a product of the early days of cinema (the actors wear stage makeup and emote for the back of the theater), there is so much that seems like it couldn’t possibly have been made in the 20s or the 30s or the 40s. There’s a staggering amount of extras, the setpieces are huge and beautiful, the visual effects are (relatively) remarkable, and the story comes across better than some movies made today. And it’s all set in a fabulous art deco world that seems to fit between between The Hudsucker Proxy and the future portrayed in The Time Machine.
One problem I have with the film is that it’s very long, and feels like it could be shorter. Late in the film, tense moments are built for at least three or four times as long as they should have been, so I kept dropping out of the story just waiting for it to advance again. “Okay, I see that the city is flooding with the children inside, and they’re gathering in what appears to be the lowest point in it. Is anybody going to try to escape? Nope, give it ten minutes.”
What is completely unmentioned when I’ve seen people mention Metropolis is that it’s all essentially a reimagining of the Tower of Babel as class struggle. The city’s designers (brains) and builders (hands) have lost the ability to understand each other, and need a heart to mediate between them. At times the message is particularly heavy-handed, but in the end, it’s an effective message. That somehow manages to include a sexy robot.
Watch this movie: As an impressive accomplishment in cinema.
Don’t watch this movie: to see an evil robot menace a sprawling city.