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Film Review by Patrick Ward, September 2010
Director: Fritz Lang; Release date: 10 September
Metropolis, Fritz Lang's 1927 science fiction masterpiece, has for the first time been restored to the film the director wanted us to see. It tells the story of a futuristic city, with magnificent skyscrapers traversed by biplanes and monorails, with beautiful gardens and sports stadiums.
But this paradise of glass and steel is not for everyone. Hidden in the bowels of the city we see an image of hell, where workers toil endlessly at the giant machines that run the world above.
The city is controlled by the autocratic industrialist Joh Fredersen (Alfred Abel). As he works from his office in the New Tower of Babel, his spoilt son, Freder (Gustav Fröhlich), lives like a child in the city's Eternal Gardens.
But Freder is interrupted from this dream when the beautiful Maria (Brigitte Helm) ascends into the garden in a lift from the depths. She brings with her dozens of children, to whom she explains that the wealthy men they see are in fact their "brothers". They are removed by guards, but not before Freder has his heartstrings plucked by this vision.
So Freder descends to the city of the workers to see the misery in which they live and to work with Maria to bring peace between workers and managers.
Metropolis is a visually stunning film, even today. Seeing the "machine man" - used to sow discord between Maria and the workers - is as spooky now as it was when I first saw this film as a child.
When Metropolis was first released it bombed at the box office, having cost the studio 5 million marks (making it the most expensive silent film in history). As a result, when it was released in the US it was butchered not only for length, but also to create a new plot which avoided the touchy issue of class struggle. Most of the original film was thought lost forever. This two and a half hour version has only now been pieced together after 80 years, complete with the original score performed by full symphony orchestra.
But Metropolis has serious flaws. Its central message is that the mediator between workers and bosses - or hands and minds - must be the heart. This leads to a nonsensical plot whereby Freder becomes this "mediator", the only person capable of healing class antagonisms. The moral is not only against the greed of the rulers, but against workers being led into mindless revolution.
Thea von Harbou, Lang's wife with whom he wrote the script, went on to become a leading Nazi, and Metropolis won high praise from Joseph Goebbels. Lang fled Germany and subsequently explained his own dissatisfaction with Metropolis: "I was not so politically minded in those days as I am now. You cannot make a social-conscious picture in which you say that the intermediary between the hand and the brain is the heart. I mean, that's a fairy tale."
Despite this, Metropolis will hook you from start to finish - even though it's just a fairy tale.
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