It’s difficult to see Metropolis (1927) in the 21 Century and not to be in awe of its stunning originality; a vision of a Futurist city, and its ground-breaking representation of a robot. This is, after all, a silent film released in the late 1920s — getting on close to a century ago — a document of its time, stylistically theatrical, and incorporating the visual language of the Symbolists, Romantics, as well as the Modernists.
Split into three acts, much like a theatrical play — a ‘Prelude’, ‘Intermezzo’, and ‘Furioso’ — the film feels both Modern and ‘Gothic’. Dress-wise the chief architect wouldn’t look out of place in the 1950s, or indeed as the Architect from High Rise (2015) , but the ‘Inventor’ (a scientist, alchemist and magician), and the ‘Spy’ (a corporate security officer) look straight out of the 19th Century, and the Gothic horror look of Nosferatu (1922).
With hindsight Metropolis might appear more Modernist to us now, than a contemporary audience, whom may have viewed it as a continuation of Symbolist and Romantic language, more like the paranormal world of Nosferatu. The vampire in Nosferatu resembles a human, albeit a slightly strange looking one, but he is a super-natural being, a creature that transgresses the boundaries between life and death — exploring the same creative area as Frankenstein’s monster. Like Frankenstein’s monster, the robot Maria in Metropolis has also been created through the wonder of technology, the transformation is incredible, almost beyond ‘science’: magical alchemy. None of these beings possesses a soul in the traditional Christian sense. They are abominations, condemned to play the role of the ‘other’: the freakish undead vampire (a monster of nature); the corpse brought back to life (a monster of science); or a heartless robot designed to manipulate and deceive the masses (a monster of technology). The replication of the workers’ spiritual leader, Maria, into her robot version fuses science with magic, so much so that the workers eventually burn her at the stake (like a medieval ‘witch’). Android Maria has a dazzling mechanical-look — a shell resembling later robots like C-3PO in Star Wars (1977) — but when fully transformed she becomes a near perfect human copy, like a ‘replicant’ from Blade Runner (1982). Thematically she falls into the category of a puppet, doing the bidding of the city’s ‘Master’, like the ‘replicants’ or the robot Policemen in THX 1138 (1971): a weapon of the state to control the population. And likewise, THX 1138 also uses the theme of a future in which workers pay an enormous price for maintaining state productivity.
Class and hierarchy are central to the story in Metropolis; it’s a classic dystopian city with exaggerated divisions between the wealthy elite and the poor. The ‘head’ of the city, the ‘Master’, the designer and chief architect, lives in a luxurious penthouse at the top of a tower. The children of the ruling elite are decadent, idling their time away playing in fantastic gardens. The makers are the so-called ‘hand’, the workers who toil in the underground city, their caps emblazoned with identification numbers — they are responsible for running the vast machinery which maintains the city. The designer’s son is the ‘heart’, a semi-messianic character destined to mediate between the ‘head’ and the ‘hand’. The inventor, with his prosthetic hand (echoed in Dr No 1962), is the dark side of the now classic modern scientist character (a kind of reinvented Merlin the magician), the evil genius, the flip side to the comic genius Doc in Back to the Future (1985). These characters make the ‘What if...?’ scenario possible, and symbolically represent the darker or lighter sides of the theme.
The message of Metropolis is that the city of the future needs am intellectual elite to design the vision and figure out the planning. The workers are necessary to build the dream — but the city needs a third kind of person, a ‘mediator’, to ensure social harmony. The story of Metropolis contains a warning about the pitfalls of mass social manipulation by the elite, and the dangers of centralised power. The ‘Master’ is the paternal father character, unable to see beyond the certainty of his vision, but changed by the events in the story, has his eyes opened.
Metropolis ends on a celebratory note: a tragedy in the underground city is averted, the workers’ children are saved, the miserable plight of the workers is exposed, the ‘Master’ (isolated in his ivory tower) sees the error of his ways and is raked with guilt; the manipulative robot-Maria is destroyed, and the ‘Master’s’ son finds love with the real Maria (a member of the underclass, a teacher and spiritual leader).
Metropolis takes the issues of the contemporary Weimar Republic — class division: the wealthy industrialists, and decadent, bohemian lifestyles at the top; in contrast to the poverty and drudgery of the underclass. It offers a conciliatory solution which sets the city on course for a brighter, more balanced future — unlike the Weimar Republic itself.