This review used to begin with a paragraph talking about how much I loved Kanopy, which I used to watch this film. Sadly, the NYPL recently ended offering the service to cardholders. RIP Kanopy, at least for me and other New York cinephiles.
Most movies from the 1920s are watched by film lovers as artifacts. We may love these movies; we may even draw their lessons and apply them to today’s world. But few play as if they were made IN today’s world. Metropolis is one of the few.
It’s a 2 and a half hour whirlwind, a German fever dream of what the year 2026 should look like. The greatest part of this all is how not antiquated this future looks. The machines look like a steampunk’s dream today and the city seems to be denser and containing more transit than the average large American city can dream of. If only a working class employee could simply walk to work in New York City today. Alas, we’re stuck to ride the same tracks that existed when this movie was released. But I digress.
The cut I watched is the most complete ever, a 149-minute version with restored scenes and shots thought lost until found by the Museo Cine in Argentina. However, the print was badly damaged and it shows. You can tell which scenes and shots are only in the film because of their recovery, as they have a markedly different quality from the original German print. And honestly, the large majority of the scenes found……are unnecessary.
My biggest complaint is how long it is. Maybe it’s just my warped not-quite-Millenial-but-not-Gen Z brain that can’t sit and pay attention for a 2 and a half hour silent film. But I swear, when the Prelude ended and I saw we were HALFWAY THROUGH and just hit the intermezzo…Lord I almost gave up. But I’m glad I kept going. The final third is some of the most thrilling, edge of your seat storytelling of the silent era.
The first third of the movie is full of so many long establishing shots, almost as if Lang is showing “look what I did!” instead of allowing one to be amazed by his (admittedly impressive) set. And given the acting work put out by Brigitte Helm in the rest of the movie, it isn’t needed.
She plays so many primary and tertiary characters and gives each of them the full bodied characterization needed to pull it off. Her facial expressions as the Machine Man give her a distinctiveness necessary for the Jekyll and Hyde roles she’s playing between the Machine Man and Maria. It’s a performance that should be hailed as legendary, a performance that should be required viewing for any and all aspiring actresses. But that’s not the film’s legacy. Indeed, the visuals of the film are the longstanding triumph of the movie.
Going into this, I knew many of the shots that I’d see. The worker’s city, the Tower of Babel sequence, and most of all the creation of Maria into the Machine Man are enduring images of all of film history. Janelle Monae, a singer, actress, and idol of mine, created a whole EP named after the film with an even better debut album inspired by it. I was unsure if the film would meet my expectations. I mean it’s almost 100 years old, it can’t look THAT good, can it?
But it does. The collages in some of the more horror filled scenes in the second half still dizzy. The perfect synchrony in which the workers move, both during the shift change and as they march and dance during the destruction of the Heart Machine, requires a direction of brutal precision. And rumors are that the filming was brutal abound. It paid off, surely, but at what cost? I don’t want to defend a sadistic dictator of a director, those are too common still today. But the looks of the movie show how his demands for perfection paid off. The flooding of the workers city is a harrowing sight, as abandoned children pour out of the buildings. The burning of the witch is a gorgeous display of revenge, a therapeutic moment of comeuppance for this villain. But knowing how terrible this shoot was for Brigitte Helm and all of the poor children hired by Lang, it makes one feel guilty for enjoying it. One is no better than Joh Fredersen, luxuriating in the beauty at the suffering of others.
But the past is the past. And however this movie was filmed, its visual legacy is enduring. It should be showed in architecture classes as the peak of Art Deco and shown to politics classes about the role of power and labor and their relation to each other.
As a political organizer, I often find myself fascinated by the first two decades of the 20th Century. So much that we take for granted, such as the 40 hour work week, child labor laws, and the holiday we just celebrated known as Labor Day stemmed from the type of workers depicted in the film. Yet, for as much as labor has advanced since then, it’s incredible how it has remained the same. This movie could be remade today. In fact, it almost has. The relationship between Joh Fredersen and the workers is not much different between the often terse relations between Jeff Bezos and the thousands of workers who ensure that the e-commerce giant can continue its Prime promises. That relationship is brilliantly shown in Sorry To Bother You. Surely, Armie Hammer’s Steve Lift and his WorryFree act as both a metaphor for Amazon and as the spirtual successor of Metropolis’ pro-worker message.
I just wish that today, the ending message could be the most defining image. Beyond a display of technical film prowess, Metropolis is a rebuke of Germany’s post World War I industrial transformation. It’s a movie for the common worker, a dystopian future which is almost here. In 2026, will we celebrate the year of Metropolis with protests of our own? Or will the relationship between the head and the hands still be missing its heart? I fear the latter. I hope our own mediator shows up soon, but until then, Metropolis remains a relevant social commentary.