The plot of Metropolis, a synopsis: The film is set in the year 2026, and the fictional city/state of Metropolis and its inhabitants are divided into two distinct classes: the elite that live in splendor above ground, and the oppressed class below the city, in virtual enslavement. Maria and Freder, able to go between the societal division, seek to bring about freedom to the oppressed, but not without opposition from Freder’s father, Joh, the leader of the elite class, who employs a Mad Scientist, A.C. Rotwang, to thwart Maria and Freder’s involvement with each other and among the workers . Rotwang agrees to create a replica of Maria, to do Joh’s bidding, but with her, devises his own plan for revenge.
Fritz Lang’s masterpiece of German Expressionism, Metropolis, a milestone in film and the general science fiction genre, turns 80 this year. Originally premiering in Berlin January 10, 1927, the film can now be seen as a prototype, birthing several key elements central to the modern sci-fi film, including the cyborg, the Futuristic City, and the Mad Scientist.
Its social contribution is not lost either; its division of society into two distinct classes is perhaps not only commentary of the obvious political ideological binarism of its time–capitalist/communist (or fascist), but profound in that its message can be aptly applied and interpreted across the board politically. This separation of humankind into two classes may be more than politically insightful or meaningful, however. It may be prophetic. This past year, evolutionary theorist Dr. Oliver Curry of the London School of Economics publicly put forth his theory of humankind’s evolution into two subclasses: a genetically elite upper class and lower, dim-witted underclass. Although the class system of Metropolis is divided not by physical discrepancies, as the Eloi and Morlocks in H.G. Wells’ “The Time Machine”, but financial and social ones, the division remains germane. Dr. Curry further theorizes that down the road technology will be the undoing of us; as our reliance grows, our physical and mental abilities suffer. One unaddressed question that seems to be lost in this scenario however, whose answer may be the most ominous force in the whole plot: Who continues to produce the advanced technology on which us dimwits are so reliant? Does this not at least hint at a conspiracy of a Metropolis-like world, in which an elite ruling class (the “thinkers”) crush the inferior, powerless working class? One obvious conclusion in viewing Metropolis is that it is a response to the budding modern industrial revolution of its time. The gigantic, complex, and infernal machines that provide power to the elite class are manned by the oppressed lower class. In using Dr. Curry’s paradigm, the manning of gadgets and technology provided by an assumed thinking, elite class to the masses, dumbs them down so far so that they are essentially intellectually and politically powerless.
Metropolis is a versatile, Russian nesting doll of allegory, meaning, and icons. Its highly stylized, art deco envisioning of the Future City is certainly the standard in film, and has become an archetype. “Bladerunner”, “Star Trek TNG”, “Babe: Pig in the City”, “Dark City”, “The Fifth Element”, “The Wizard of Oz”, and many, many others take more than a cue in their renderings of the City, from the outwardly and upwardly expansive, gothic template of Metropolis.
The so-called False Maria, or Robot Maria, that the mad scientist Rotwang creates is lauded as the first fully realized cyborg in film. The cyborg, with its influence and meaning in modern literature, film, social and feminist postmodern philosophies, science and medicine, is unparalleled as a character. The False Maria is the Blessed Mother of the Six Million Dollar Man, Star Trek’s Borg, The Terminator, Robocop, and a myriad of others. Another prophetic offering from Metropolis, the reality of the cyborg has essentially been underway for decades, with pacemakers and prosthetic devices, but a declaration in 2002 of “The First Human Cyborg”, that is, Professor Kevin Warwick, who has had surgeries that enable his nervous system to be linked to a computer, ushers the cyborg from myth to reality.
This 80th year of Metropolis is a splendid time for revisiting this influential and important piece of film history. In 2002, an authorized, restored version was released, and is considered to be the ultimate and most authentic version of the original cut, and uses the original score. This version is entitled Metropolis (Restored Authorized Version) from Kino Video. It is available for purchase amazon.com. or to rent from Netlflix.