Year: 1926

Production: UFA

Director: Fritz Lang

Starring: Brigitte Helm, Alfred Abel, Gustav Frohlich, Rudolf Klein-Rogge, Heinrich George, Fritz Rasp

Screenwriter: Fritz Lang, Thea von Harbou

Novelization (1926) by Thea von Harbou

1984 reconstruction and adaptation by Giorgio Moroder is 83 minutes, B/W

Set in a vast city of the future whose society is divided into downtrodden workers and a ruling elite, Metropolis focuses on Freder (Frohlich), who falls in love with Maria (Helm), saintly protector of the workers' children and informal spiritual leader to the masses. But Freder's jealous father Fredersen (Abel), the industrialist master of the city, has a robot duplicate of Maria built for him by malign scientist Rotwang (Klein-Rogge), which he uses to incite the workers to self-destructive revolt (for reasons which are never entirely made clear). The damage to the city's machinery caused by the rioting floods the lower levels, threatening the lives of the children, but they are saved by the real Maria. The film ends with the city's ruler being presuaded to shake hands with the worker's spokesman and promising that things will be better from now on.

Though often described as the first sf epic of the cinema, this famous German film - of which no complete version now exists - has just as much in common with the cinema of the Gothic. Though set in a future visually emphasized by towering buildings and vast, brooding machines, the city of Metropolis has an underworld dark and medieval in atmosphere. One might almost say that the film's metaphor is to keep the very spectacular sf for the elite above, while the Gothic grub gnaws at the city's roots. The bridging figure is Rotwang, both scientist and sorcerer, one hand clean, the other deformed and gloved, accomplishing gleaming miracles of science while living in a bizarre house with a pentagram inscribed over the door. The story of Metropolis is trite and its politics ludicrously simplistic; but these flaws cannot detract from the sheer visual power of the film - a combination of the high Expressionistic sets (the work of art directors Otto Hunte, Erich Kettelhut and Karl Vollbrecht) and Lang's direction, particularly in the sequences involving the vast crowds which he uses as a kind of living clay with which to create giant fluid sculptures. Individual images, as when the apparently living Maria is burned to reveal the gleaming robot beneath, have been so well remembered as now to seem archetypes, alive still in the consciousness of filmgoers everywhere.

Metropolis, which was extremely expensive and not a financial success, almost bankrupted the studio that made it (UFA). The film was cut almost as soon as it was released, and - still in the 1920s - shortened yet more radically in the UK and the USA. Even recently restored archival versions are half an hour shorter than the original.

The 1984 US adaptation by Italian composer and producer Giorgio Moroder can be seen as a successful homage, the new tinted print cleverly recut to match the fierce rock music to which Moroder sets it. But the editing, for all its meticulousness, makes of Metropolis something rather different from Lang's (presumptive) version; now the love story is central, and the hesitant Freder appears much more devisive, while much of the obliqueness and some of the ambiguity is gone. Yet Metropolis is still a very strong film indeed, vividly renewed for a new generation.

The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction

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