The Silent Titan: Fritz Lang’s Metropolis

The quintessential silent film, one that profoundly demonstrates the power of the medium, utilising only the capabilities and tools of its period, managing to create a story that resonates within modern society, and a crafting a visual imagery that evoke pure in its symbolism and a palpable influence that is felt throughout cinematic history, a feat that only adds to Metropolis’ stature. A film could only truly be timeless when its emotions and ideas would remain relevant when enough time have passed since its initial release, and Metropolis is certainly an excellent example of a timeless piece, gaining more appreciation now since a newer and restored cut is released, one that brings audiences a step closer to the filmmaker’s intended vision, a potential achievement that could further solidify its future appeal, as historical landmarks of the film are being made as we speak; and through rich history, more texture is given to our perceptions of the film.

It is the setting of Metropolis that initially struck me, found myself in awe and immersed in its avant-garde landscape; filled with towering skyscrapers, and glossy lights that is soon contrasted with earthy tenements that hold the city’s foundations and uniformly filled with blue collar workers that maintain the function of the titular city. It is a world divided by class, unable to provide a solid middle ground that would bridge the gap and create a true sense of a community. The residents of above are showered in wealth and sophistication, the ambitious thinkers that would determine and shape the direction of the mighty city; whilst the community within the depths are valuable in their labour, but fails to be acknowledged and is required to tirelessly endure lengthy shifts and constant concentration, as one small period of rest could cause havoc to the system, affecting both the turning machines and the consuming towers above, hence great lengths have been ensured that these labourers are being monitored and are aware of the consequences to maintain a sense of discipline.

Fritz Lang has always been known as an ambitious filmmaker; just take a look at his earlier works, in Dr. Mabuse: The Gambler he takes a tale of a singular man and expand it in a third-person sense where we see multiple aspects of its narrative thread, a drama that is enriched by its abundance of pieces and achieves an expansive scope through pushing its dramatic elements to a form of melodrama that remains worthy of our engagement. His next film, Die Nibelungen would be a split fantasy epic that finds itself changing protagonist midway through, but remains cohesive in its flow as a singular narrative, taking the audiences to awe-inspiring environments and distinctive cultures, an effort that has undoubtedly influenced the epic fantasies of modern cinema. Metropolis would do the same for the genre for Science-Fiction, taking on a concept that may be slightly exaggerated at the time, but nevertheless familiar, and through the similar conditions today, the experience feels more intelligent as it constantly simulates our perception of society and technology, whether parallel to reality or simply in a hypothetical sense.

Unlike his previous films, his symbolism becomes more apparent in this film, fuelling his figures and settings with ideas and themes that almost strip them from any sort of naturalism. Even the film’s most humanistic concepts like love become buried beneath, but remains palpable, in much of the film’s scenes, our attention constantly remains with the ideas of the film; Lang could have easily taken a more sentimental approach, a method that is commonly practiced in modern cinema, capitalising on the romanticism between protagonist Freder and Maria, but in doing so would result in his audience being constantly distracted, dampening the film’s social, political, and moral essence that made it the timeless classic it is considered today. However, Lang has not forgotten those who seek a strong narrative, as the journey that is taken by Freder would lead audiences into moments of thrills and tension, and to such grand scale mind you, that it is easy to find one lost into the danger that surrounds its scenery. Throughout mystery, gripping visuals, romance, drama, and musical grandeur are present to capture one’s precious attention; it doesn’t hold onto a singular genre or approach in its storytelling, with each passing moment and with each repeated viewing there is always something new to hold onto, slightly refining or shifting one’s perspective of a scene or a character, one that becomes more and more profound and rewarding.

Freder is the film’s driving and central figure, his motivations came from a sudden appearance of Maria into his life, developing an unspoken connection that would lead him closer to her; but along the way in his search, he stumbles upon knowledge, awareness of the circumstances that fuel his beloved city, a city that would be inherited to him once his father the creator would pass away, shocked by the conditions that is found in the workers; dressed in monotonous uniform and march in uniformity with their heads down as they walk out from their shift in an exhausted state, and head down with a state of depression as they enter it. The only thing that keeps their spirits up are the prophetic words of Maria, who speaks of a mediator that would bridge the gap between the two divided communities, hoping that conditions would change for the tired working class. Freder endures an epiphany of his own, almost as if spiritually realising that he himself is the mediator that these people have been searching for; one who shows deep sympathy and value for the hardworking labourers, and displays a deep seeded affection for Metropolis’ future.

Unfortunately, egos collide and villains emerge, causing the entire city to be in mayhem, a violent revolution uprises with only Freder who could reveal to them without bias, the necessities and compromise that must be addressed and undertaken for the benefit of Metropolis and its future; a theme that is persistently pressed by Lang as shots of children are constantly in display, providing their presence with a hefty sense of weight that resonates heavily consciously and sub-consciously within the narrative. I am unaware of the conditions of Germany during this time, possibly parallel inspirations were made in Lang and Thea von Harbou’s development of the screenplay, similar to the construction of Dr. Mabuse: The Gambler, which at the time of my initial viewing, I failed to realise. The mayhem in this film, however, is not caused by a clear cut antagonistic force, complexity seeps into the character that shows positive intentions behind their actions; it is their flaw of cynicism that crumbles their surroundings and their most prized possessions, their children. It is easy for a film to take on Freder’s father as a pure villain, one who carries such delusion over his own creation that his actions is the only source of destruction, and the rest would be seen as purely victims, but in doing so would remove the human quality of it all, and instead view them like figures of an old relic.

A pinnacle of a man’s creative peak, Metropolis is the defining feature of Fritz Lang; a thoughtful epic that innovates the chosen genre and speak truths of reality through the power of symbolic imagery. Although some would prefer Lang’s intimate efforts of his first sound film, M, I for one would remain loyal with this towering epic, to the point where it may seem like a sinful obsession or devotion.


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