Metropolis (1927) ***

“I didn't like the picture,” Fritz Lang says of Metropolis in Peter Bogdanovich's book Who The Devil Made It? “I thought it was silly and stupid.”
Conceptually and thematically, he has a point: the film is an often risibly naïve parable of the struggle between capital and labour. On a technical level, however, the film is crowded with startling images and flashes of brilliant technique that transcend all other considerations and warrant its inclusion in any comprehensive list of screen classics.

In a tangled narrative muddled further by many cuts and existing in several versions of differing lengths and degrees of completeness, Lang posits a future where technology rules and an army of workers living underground slave on the orders of a small ruling elite. Into this hidden realm stumbles Freder, son of the city’s Master. Moved by the workers’ plight and the purity of Maria, a serenely beautiful young woman who ministers to them and cares for their children, he decides to improve their lot. Meanwhile Rotwang, a crazed inventor, has created a ‘Maschinenmensch’, an android slave capable of assuming human form. He kidnaps Maria and transforms the robot in her image before, for reasons of his own, using it to stir the workers to revolt. At the end, order is restored and Maria and Freder reconcile the two strata.
The older Lang dismissed the plot as “a fairytale, definitely”, and it seems clear that even at the time he paid little attention to it. The pictures are the thing: in a succession of beautifully composed images, Lang vividly depicts a dehumanising underworld in which identically dressed workers toil before and within vast banks of surely impractical art deco machinery, illuminated by billowing jets of smoke and electric sparks. These scenes have influenced countless subsequent sci-fi filmmakers, and now form part of the standard repository of images by which futuristic architecture is identified.
The film’s final quarter, in which the workers rise up and destroy the city, is unquestionably its highlight, combining mammoth sets with seamlessly integrated model shots, gallons of flooding water and a surging crowd comprised of many thousands of extras in an astounding feat of direction, construction, editing and special effects. Lang also makes impressive use of montage in a number of sequences, notably in Freder’s fevered vision of the fake Maria’s erotic dance before a crowd of leering men, with the screen at one point becoming a tangled mass of staring eyes.
The human element of Metropolis is as incidental to its importance as its narrative, but Brigitte Helm’s performance as both the saintly Maria and her bewitching, gyrating robot doppelganger has become justly iconic, and the latter in its gold-painted, pre-humanised incarnation remains the film’s defining visual signature.