A pioneering experience in the world of cinema, the 1927 release ‘Metropolis’ bravely played with the concept of a dystopian era and exposed the world to a whole new dimension of science-fiction films. Written by Thea von Harbou and directed by husband Fritz Lang, Metropolis entered the silent film market as a German expressionist movie with one of the biggest budgets at the time, backed by an equally massive number of cast hires. Designed to show people a world outrageously similar to their own yet eccentric enough to be remembered years later as a work of art, the movie is revered as a source of inspiration for numerous films that followed it. It boasts of action uniquely different from the standard we might set today, scripted in a manner that relies on the actors rather than sound bites and special effects.
Set in a world with a poor labour force that works to keep the city of the rich running, the movie follows the inevitable path to rebellion as the characters begin to come to terms with reality and the roles they play as a part of it. From Maria’s beauty and delicate air to Freder’s frantic need for action, the tale of social revolution is relevant even today as the ageless power struggle lives on. A significant portion of the credit for the success of the film rests in the hands of the actors who brought these characters to life. Brigitte Helm as Maria and Gustav Fröhlich as Freder are supported wonderfully by Rudolf Klein-Rogge, the mad scientist who plays the grief-bound antagonist.
Despite the limited range of colour, the movie uses the concept of contrast to its advantage, with cramped tiny spaces for the numerous workers moving in line as opposed to the spirited citizens of Metropolis running wild, making the most of the open skies and wide expanse of land. Juxtaposition being of great importance to Lang, the movie’s technique of large buildings contrasted by small people, the glitter of the wealthy contrasted by the overalls of the poor, and the surface contrasted by the catacombs of the underground allows the constant dissimilarity to shine forth as a dominant feature of the film.
Filled with unusual images and shapes, complimented by magnificent towering structures that were uncommon at the time, Lang works to create a world that defied their reality architecturally and through the uses of costumes as well. From the very first image of the unmanned machines, gears, and gauges, the relevance of smooth-running machinery of the film is apparent, setting the tone for a well-oiled narrative of disarray as the machinery falls apart, followed by their crumbling society.
With a still camera recording wide shots through most of the movie, the arresting magnitude of movement emphasises the creativity that went into framing each shot, the sudden shift into close-ups providing a renewed intensity to the film at irregular intervals. Synchronised motion of the masses cleverly foreshadows the disharmony that arrives later in the film. Metropolis stands as a movie that had mastered the filming techniques available at the time, its special effects primitive to those we see today yet awe-inspiring in its entirety. With flying vehicles and picture telephones, the film prophesies a future much like the world we live in, turning into a significant commentary on the polarised society humanity constructs for itself. Focusing on the plot of social freedom intertwined with separate storylines of love and revenge, Metropolis takes a simple idea and turns it into a more intricate narrative that justifies the lengthy, often criticised, runtime of 2 hours and 33 minutes. Comparing old with the new along with elements of history such as references to the bible and explanations of the tower of Babel, the film uses the past to redefine what could be perceived of the future. The film willingly lends itself to dissection and as a result, belongs in the list of classics that define what we understand of films today.