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From Under A Rock: Metropolis

December 2, 2017 | Posted by Michael Ornelas
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From Under A Rock: Metropolis  


This week’s pick is a big one, because in a way it was the birth of on-screen science fiction. I (Michael) watched this for the first time a couple years back and it has stuck with me how beautifully constructed this movie is from start to finish.

You only get one first time, and for some people, it comes later than it does for others. This particular column is about documenting the first viewing of a “classic” movie or TV show determined at the discretion of Aaron Hubbard and Michael Ornelas in alternation.

Last week Aaron chose Watchmen. This week Michael takes Aaron out from under the proverbial rock to show him Metropolis.

Released: March 13th, 1927
Directed by: Fritz Lang
Written by: Thea von Harbou
Gustav Fröhlich as Freder
Brigitte Helm as Maria and her robot double
Alfred Abel as Joh Fredersen
Rudolf Klein-Rogge as Rotwang

Michael Ornelas: I’m not big into older movies usually as they don’t hold my attention. This week’s pick not only first held my attention, but I was enthralled which is rare for me, especially considering it’s silent.

Aaron Hubbard: This was definitely one of the most visually commanding movies I’ve seen in awhile. The scope of the film’s production was mindblowing.
Film as a Visual Medium
Michael: Something I noticed upon first viewing, and reaffirmed on this rewatch was the shot composition. You could pause this movie at any moment and the frame would be like a masterfully captured photograph. It’s art, pure and simple. I love the visual of the heart machine, especially when Freder sees Moloch. The skyscrapers and futurist construction of the city is a sight to behold. The tower of Babel is breathtaking. All these mesmerizing visual ideas come to fruition and it’s amazing they were executed this well 90 years ago.

Aaron: A lot of the frames are works of art. It’s easy to see that most of the wider city shots are background paintings. But each of them is beautiful and it’s a great use of the tools Fritz Lang had at his disposal. But then there’s incredible sets like the factory or the Seven Deadly Sins statues, or shots with hundreds and maybe thousands of people. The amount of work that went in is astonishing even today.

Michael: Beyond the set pieces, models, and paintings used to construct this aesthetic, there’s also the costuming, most notably when Maria’s double does her seductive (if you can call it that) dance, as well as the robot itself. These visuals are incredible and only add to an already stunning.
Seven Deadly Sins
Religion and Politics
Aaron: Hey, these are always fun. But the messages of Metropolis are hardly subtle. He writes it down for us before we ever see anything else. The basic plot is about an abused under class on the verge of revolt against the creator of the city, and how they are manipulated by various figureheads. Joh Fredersen is clearly a stand-in for the concept of God, while his son Freder is all too happy to step into the role of prophesized mediator between him and the people. Birgitte Holm plays Maria (again, hardly subtle), who serves as a prophet for the people, and later a false prophet when Rotwang disguises his automaton as Maria to lead the people to doom. Maria’s name is an obvious nod to Jesus’ mother, who is an intermediary between God and man in Catholic faith. But as the main voice of “the message” of the coming mediator and of non-violent solution, she could be interpreted as also representing the Holy Spirit. Rotwang the scientist is clearly meant to be the Devil; his robot tricks the people to giving into their base desires of revolt, which will kill their children in the process. Most Antichrist ideas revolve around the Devil using religion to appear benevolent while ultimately being destructive, so that’s pretty straightforward. Freder and Maria save the children and eventually tie the gap between God and man. So this is basically a Passion Play in a sci-fi setting, though Lang doesn’t go quite so far as killing Freder and making him a 1-to-1 Jesus allegory. With a little bit of Revelation thrown in. This was certainly an interesting aspect of the film for me, since films usually try to avoid being so on the nose today.

Michael: My favorite piece of that puzzle was Rotwang, the scientist, and his motives in the invention of the false Maria. He managed to use Joh’s wishes against him due to losing out to him in trying to win over the heart of his deceased wife Hel. He uses Maria’s likeness for the robot to destroy Maria’s reputation, as requested by Joh, but also in the process has her lead the people to destroy the machines the power Fredersen’s city. It paints Fredersen as negligent and imperfect (and petty), although that may be contextual, watching it in 2017 where I don’t view him as benevolent just for providing all these people a place to work (because they still live in poor conditions).

Aaron: Ah, well here is where things get tricky with using metaphors, since Fritz is obviously trying to send a political message as well. It’s about bridging the gap between heartless politicians or dictators and the oppressed people. It condemns authorial negligence and violent revolt, proposing instead that the only viable solution is a peaceful discussion, with what amounts to the Church as mediator. I don’t subscribe to any of that, and casting science as Satan rubs me the wrong way, but it is a viable viewpoint and Fritz Lang presented his argument in a really compelling way. I do think it’s interesting that the film was beloved by Adolf Hitler, who probably saw some of the film as a blueprint for making his empire workable. In that sense, perhaps Metropolis never stops being about a dystopia.
The Reach of Influence
Michael: It’s not often that you get to watch a film that has had such a profound impact on what has come after it. From Star Wars, (just look at Rotwang’s robot — it’s a clear influence on C-3PO) to Blade Runner, and even just the idea of what a “future city” would look like in art and animation, Metropolis’ influence is far-reaching.

Aaron: This is one reason I love going back through old films to discover movies like this. Fritz Lang’s M similarly defines the murder mystery format that set the blueprint for film noir. King Kong and its special effects, The Wizard of Oz with its color… those landmark films deserve to stay in our collective conscience. But what this film most reminded me of was The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, another 1920’s film with insanely creative and striking visuals that stand out almost a century later.

Michael: I’d go so far as to say without The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, we wouldn’t have had The Babadook, which is my favorite movie of the past 5 years. But Metropolis’ influence may be the greatest of those mentioned just because it had such a specific vision that has been copied or replicated countless times, whereas The Wizard of Oz was the first to color, but that was always going to happen regardless.

Aaron: This movie is both fascinating and phenomenal. It captivated me with its visuals, gave me a lot of ideas to chew on, and set the groundwork for science fiction in film. It’s a masterpiece well worth going out of your way to see.


Michael: Any movie this beautiful deserves perfect marks, and it excels in every aspect. Visually, it’s a masterpiece, but the allegories and plot execution have secured its place among the true classics.


Aaron: This is probably the most fascinated I’ve been with one of our picks since Seven Samurai. Thank you for picking it.

Michael: You know, sometimes I have a sophisticated pallette…

What’s your favorite influential film?

Next week:

Aaron: You know, I don’t usually do “guilty pleasure” picks. We’re overdue.
Knight's Tale
Michael: I’m not super excited, but I like Heath Ledger, so maybe I’ll be pleasantly surprised.

Aaron: Heath is fun but it’s Paul Bettany who steals this movie.

What’s one of your favorite movies that doesn’t really have merit outside of being fun?

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The final score: review Virtually Perfect
The 411
Metropolis is a landmark movie that influenced science fiction in film to an almost unfathomable degree. But it's also as visually arresting and thematically rich a film as any we've covered on this column. Almost a century later, the film still holds up as a masterpiece.