Metropolis is old. Really old. It was made in 1927, would you believe. It’s not only a black and white film, but it’s a silent film. It has cards inserted into the edit so you have to read the dialogue. I’ve never seen a silent film before, and I found it astonishing, for several reasons. But I’ll get back to that.
First, what’s it all about? In the future, the poor blue collar workers operate vast machines and live underground while the rich white collar administrators run fast moving businesses and play in private gardens. One such man of the upper class is Freder, son of the wealthiest man in the city, all he does is frolick in the gardens with, for lack of a better word, concubines. Freder’s idyllic life is upset when he encounters Maria, a beautiful woman from the worker class that preaches peace and equality for all, and asks Freder to be the Mediator and bring about the peace before civil war breaks out. Complications bar their way though in the form of Rotwang and his Machine Man, built to impersonate Maria and cause havoc.
There’s a lot more that goes on of course, but I don’t want to get into spoilers. The central themes are class inequality, finding peace rather than war, love breaking down barriers and the dangers of uninformed action. That’s a lot going on, when very little is said. Being a silent movie, you can’t have a scene where two characters have a long conversation, as it would mean a great many cards for the audience to read. So the plot has to unfold with looks, gestures and over acting. You have to forgive a lot of the old style, but back then they were still inventing cinema.
One of the incredible things I found about the film was that despite the lack of dialogue, most of the characters were fleshed out. You knew who they were and what drove them. And if you didn’t know their history, you at least knew what their goal was. Freder seeks love, Maria wants peace, the robot wants chaos. Simple drives that keep the plot going.
Aside from the main characters, there are many, many extras in this film, and I need to talk about them for a minute. The film starts with a very interesting set piece, a shift change for the workers. The new shift is walking in, hundreds of men in ranks of six in lock step plodding along to elevators to take them up to the machines. They live underground remember. Meanwhile, the old shift is coming off the elevators to walk home, also in ranks of six, plodding in lock step. But the old shift is walking slower than the new shift. It’s a tiny touch to show that they’re exhausted after their days work, very subtly displaying the hardships they face daily.
The big controversy surrounding Metropolis is that it was heavily edited for its initial release and that scenes from it are lost forever. On the copy I watched there were replacement cards explaining what happens in the missing scenes. I have mixed views on these. Some of the cut scenes show necessary information about main or side characters, and the loss of the scenes left significant plot holes. But others were essentially meaningless, extra hurdles that characters quickly overcame or things that didn’t really matter. It’s a shame the footage was lost, but not all of it was needed in the first place.
All I’ve got left to say is that it’s a thoroughly good film and worth the watch. Forgive its flaws, and marvel at its genius.