Metropolis is probably one of the most well known films by Fritz Lang, and most likely one of the most influential films in science fiction. It’s combines biblical imagery in interesting ways – and it’s also aged in an interesting manner.
The film is set in the titular city of Metropolis, a city with very literal class stratification. The working class, who toils on machines that keep the city running through unclear means, lives in a truly underground city. Meanwhile, the elites who control the lives of the working class, live in the overcity, where they actually get to see sunlight, and have beautiful palatial gardens.
Freder (Gustav Fröhlich) is the son of the city’s ruler – Joh Fredersen (Alfred Abel), and consequently lives a life of luxury. Freder falls in love with Maria (Brigitte Helm), a woman from the undercity, when she brings a group of children to the gardens of the overcity. He follows her and sees the plight of the people of the undercity, including an industrial accident that leaves many dead, but is apparently commonplace. He goes to his father with what he’s seen, but his concerns are dismissed by his father. Further, this gets Freder’s friend, Josaphat (Theodor Loos), fired. Freder promises to help.
To better get the grasp of the workers’ plight, Freder swaps places with another worker – Georgy (Erwin Biswanger), so he can properly serve as an advocate. Freder is lead to a secret sermon by the workers where he hears Maria preach to the workers about the need for the workers to have someone to hear their plight in the overcity, giving the film’s thesis (repeated three times) “The mediator between the heart and brain must be the heart!” Freder volunteers to be that mediator.
However, maps to this sermon are found on the body of the dead workers, leading Joh and the mad scientist Rotwang (Rudolf Klein-Rogge) to use Rotwang’s new invention, the “Machine Man”, to create a duplicate of Maria as an agent provocateur to rile up the workers so in turn they can be brutally put down.
I bring up this level of spoilers here because Metropolis is a film that most people know for its imagery, but that’s pretty much it. They don’t know of it as a political film, and if they do, it is in part because the film was – against the director’s stringent objections – co-opted by the Nazis.
The thing is, the film is very much anti-fascist. Joh is effectively a totalitarian dictator who seeks to play the workers and the elites against each other to maintain his own control, and he does this by creating a demagogue, who subverts the workers legitimate grievances in an attempt to make them ultimately against their interests, something which has become more poignant over the course of the last year.
Director Lang would later say that the film’s ultimate thesis is… over simplistic, and I think he’s part right. The film doesn’t do much to expand on the point, merely stating that compassion serves as the fulcrum between cold calculating decisions and action. However, I think that considering this is also a silent film, there’s less room to have that discussion in the film – to talk about how the workers and managers should work together instead of merely saying that they should.
Silent film, as a medium, puts an economy on dialog, as you’re limited by what you can put in the on-screen title cards, and in turn places a lot of narrative weight on mime, set design, and on-screen action. Again, this works when you’re doing something that functions in broad strokes. However, the more complex the concept you’re trying to describe, you end up needing the narrative weight of spoken dialog.
To put things another way – Birth of a Nation‘s message of hateful and vile racist bigotry is simple and easy to convey in broad strokes, and so is easily conveyed in silent film. Concepts of systemic societal oppression, on the other hand, don’t get across the same way – the conservation of storytelling in silent film means that the nuance that’s needed gets missed. Consequently, if you tried to do the equivalent of Do the Right Thing as a silent period piece, I think some of the nuance would be lost, and the weight of the message it’s trying to convey would also fall through the cracks. I’d love to be proven wrong though.
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