Death To The Machines! Fritz Lang’s ‘Metropolis’ (1927)


While not conventionally a horror movie, Fritz Lang’s ‘Metropolis’ (1927) nods in a horror direction, while pairing social critique with science fiction.

It highlights the horrors of cruel, machine-like factory life, and has some special effects and tricks that were very advanced for its time.

This was pretty intense in 1927. (Photo: UFA)

The movie was, and probably still is, criticized as “communistic”. The plot involves industrialists living in high-rises, while workers live underground and operate machines that run the city. The industrialist puppet master, Joh Fredersen (Alfred Abel), is depicted as a ruthless and selfish man — obviously symbolic of the rich in general.  And yes, his name is apparently “Joh,” and not “John”.

Joh’s son, Freder (Gustav Fröhlich), on the other hand, is very different, and is essentially the heart of the story (and of the Metropolis). When a lady named Maria (Brigitte Helm) arrives from underground to show children how the wealthy live, Freder is instantly drawn to her.

However, while looking for her in a machine room, Freder witnesses an accidental explosion which kills workers and broadens his mission in life. His father’s indifference to the dead workers further inspires rebellious change in Freder. Understanding the plight of the workers, Freder goes to an underground labor meeting and offers himself as mediator between the classes.

One of the images from Metropolis. (Photo: UFA)

Meanwhile, a mad scientist-type named Rotwang (Rudolf Klein-Rogge) is consulted by Joh Frederson. A plot is hatched to kidnap Maria and replace her with a robot lookalike, intended to mislead the workers. Rotwang has even harsher plans involving killing workers. He’s framing Maria for it, and ultimately destroying Metropolis due to a grudge he holds against Joh Frederson.

Rotwang is a villain in the truest sense of the word, even if he’s not a gigantic, unstoppable slasher or supernatural monster. His conniving and sleazy nature are plain for all to see, and ultimately make one hell of a classic film. Also notable is the striking visual aspect of Maria’s robot double, which has no doubt been influencing science fiction ever since.

There are some weird aspects to the film’s history, such as who liked it and who didn’t. H. G. Wells didn’t like Metropolis at all, and neither did director Fritz Lang himself. This may have partly been because, incredibly, Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels was a fan of the movie. It was even a hit among some Nazis. The supreme irony is that Lang himself was Jewish. Had Lang not fled Germany, he surely would have been in danger.

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In any case, Metropolis can be appreciated by people who are not convoluted Nazis, and the message and style still resonate in today’s world. The movie is not simply a communist diatribe, being ultimately somewhat conformist. It’s not as simple or as boring as some suggest (at least to me). It is a silent, visually striking film that speaks loudly with compassion, and reveals the potential horrors of industrialism, jealousy and deceit.