As Samir pointed out in a comment on my last post, Pyaasa was one of the films (in fact, the only Hindi film) to find a place on Time Magazine’s all-time 100 best films list. That’s something Pyaasa shares in common with this film. Metropolis, a silent film made in Germany thirty years before Pyaasa, is also on the list. It was directed by Fritz Lang, who co-wrote the screenplay along with his wife Thea von Harbou. The result is a film like none other.
Metropolis is set (where else?) in the vast, machine-run, glittering and futuristic city of Metropolis, sometime in the future. Metropolis has a daunting cityscape of neon-lit buildings, overhead bridges jam-packed with cars, train lines and skyscrapers that soar high up into the sky (all supposedly inspired by Fritz Lang’s first sight of the New York skyline). Metropolis is powered and run by vast, towering machines that make the city what it is.
Deep under Metropolis, in the cavernous depths of the Earth, live those who power these machines. These are the workers, people who live in dark, gloomy and ramshackle hovels, their clothes ill-fitting and dirty, their faces furrowed with hunger and suffering – and their entire day taken up by the machines of Metropolis. These are the people who work at the machines, in ten-hour shifts that reduce each of them to a mere automaton, struggling to keep the machine going, so that Metropolis keeps going.
It’s a completely different world far, far above. Here live the elite of Metropolis: the wealthy and powerful. The master of Metropolis, Joh Fredersen (Alfred Abel), is the mightiest of them all, the man at whose command all of Metropolis works.
Joh Fredersen’s son, Freder (Gustav Fröhlich) is, like the rest of the sons of the moneyed, spoilt and utterly unaware of anything except the luxurious, carefree life he leads. Freder’s Metropolis is a place of gleaming theatres and stadiums, vast mansions and every comfort money can buy.
There is even, for Freder’s enjoyment, a choice of luscious young ladies eager to help him pass his time in the Eternal Gardens of Metropolis:
…until one day, when he’s cavorting with one of these, there’s a sudden, unexpected interruption:
This girl turns out to be Maria (Brigitte Helm). She is one of the working class and has brought with her, to the Eternal Gardens, a group of children. To them, she points out Freder and his cronies, telling the children that “these are your brothers!”
Freder is shocked – he has never known before that people so gaunt and dirty and obviously hard-up could exist. But he’s also fascinated by Maria. He therefore, somehow, follows her down, from the Eternal Gardens and the Metropolis familiar to him, and into the depths where the workers operate their machinery.
Here, Freder is witness to a ghastly example of exactly what is the fate of the workers. An old worker, tired and weak from constantly struggling against a hard-to-operate machine, ends up dead – the machine explodes, smashing him to bits.
Freder, suddenly painfully alive to the harsh reality of life for the workers of Metropolis, goes rushing back up to the surface. He goes to Joh Fredersen’s office, to tell his father all about what he, Freder, has just discovered.
To Freder’s bewilderment, Joh Fredersen does not seem at all perturbed. It’s obvious he does not care what happens to the workers – how they live or how they die.
His only reaction, instead, is to fire one of his assistants, Josaphat (Theodor Loos). The reason? It should have been Josaphat – who was responsible for keeping a close watch on the machinery at Metropolis – to have informed Joh Fredersen of the explosion. Now Josaphat has to pay for his mistake: not just by being thrown out of Joh Fredersen’s elite corps of assistants, but by being sent down to join the workers.
Once out of the office, a dejected Josaphat tries to kill himself, but is stopped by Freder. Freder proposes a plan: that Josaphat should work for him. Josaphat is relieved, of course, and grateful.
In the meantime, though, Joh Fredersen has been worrying that Freder appears to be drifting down the path of no good; this strange girl Maria’s revolutionary ideas of equality and whatnot are bound to cause trouble. So he appoints one of his men – the Thin Man (Fritz Rasp) to spy on Freder and to report periodically to Joh Fredersen.
Freder, now with Josaphat’s help, manages to make his way down to the machines, and is just in time to see a worker struggling to control a machine. The man is close to collapse; the machine will run riot and explode any moment. Freder jumps in and saves the man, #11811 (Erwin Biswanger) and takes over the operation of the machine.
When #11811 recovers a bit, Freder offers to switch identities with him: Freder will take his place at the machines, and #11811 can go on up, to experience the glories of Metropolis – the Eternal Garden, the ‘Club of Sons’ (with its theatres and stadiums), and the red-light district of Yoshiwara. #11811 is easily persuaded.
There is now a shift in setting. In the middle of Metropolis, in a forgotten old house (which looks rather like a very barebones gingerbread house) lives the genius inventor, Rotwang (Rudolf Klein-Rogge). Rotwang may be a genius, but he’s also more than a little mad: he still mourns Joh Fredersen’s long-dead wife Hel, whom Rotwang had also been in love with. Hel had chosen Fredersen, however, and ever since, Rotwang has held that against Fredersen. He hates Fredersen with all his being, and is intent on somehow seeing Fredersen and his massive city destroyed.
Fredersen now comes calling on Rotwang, trying to – for the nth time, it seems – persuade him to let go of his mad obsession with Hel. Rotwang isn’t easily put off, though. On the other hand, he drags Fredersen off to show him the latest manifestation of his, Rotwang’s, passion for Hel.
This is the ‘Machine-Man’. It’s a robot, a highly intelligent and sophisticated robot that Rotwang has created. He crows to Fredersen that he can even make the robot look and act exactly like a human being – so convincingly, in fact, that nobody will be able to say that the Machine-Man isn’t a normal human being.
They go on to talk about why Fredersen has called on Rotwang, and Fredersen shows Rotwang a couple of tattered old plans that they’ve been discovering in the pockets of workers. This has been going on for months now, and nobody on Fredersen’s staff has been able to guess what these plans are all about.
Quick switch now, and we’re back to the depths of Metropolis, where a haggard and exhausted Freder is trying hard to control the machine he’s now in charge of. As he’s going about his work, a plan – old and tattered – falls out of his pant pocket (remember, these were, till a few hours back, the pants of #11811). A passing worker, seeing Freder retrieving the plan, whispers to him that “At two… At the end of the shift! She has summoned us again!”
So, when the shift ends and the workers start plodding back home, some workers – Freder among them – follow the map shown on the plan and go down, past the machines and into the ancient catacombs that lie below.
Here, in the depths, is a gathering of workers. Tall crucifixes stand, leaning here and there at mad angles, behind a platform on which tall candles burn – and Maria stands in front.
Freder is soon mesmerised by what this girl is saying. She’s talking about how the workers are the ‘hands’, while the rulers – Fredersen and his class – are the ‘head’ of Metropolis. Maria uses the analogy of the Tower of Babel to show that those who dreamed up the concept of the tower, and those who laboured to build it, were at cross-purposes. Neither side knew how to deal with the other, and so what resulted was chaos.
This is what will happen, says Maria, if the situation in Metropolis continues. The ‘head’ and the ‘hands’, she says, must come together – there must be a mediator between them, and that mediator must be the heart.
Maria’s speech moves all her listeners, and Freder at least is completely on her side by the end of it. He’s also very much in love with her – and she reciprocates.
Unknown to them, Rotwang and Fredersen are spying on them. Rotwang, examining the plans Fredersen had shown him, had guessed that these pertained to the catacombs, and the two men have heard Maria’s sermon and seen the passionate embrace between Maria and Freder. Now Fredersen is worried that he will lose Freder to the workers and to Maria; and that, equally terrible, Metropolis will collapse if Maria is allowed to influence the workers any longer.
…so Fredersen gives Rotwang an assignment: to kidnap and imprison Maria, and to then use her face, her hands, her personality – to be imparted to the Machine-Man. But the Machine-Man’s mind will be controlled by Fredersen himself. The plan is that the Machine-Man, disguised as Maria, will spread havoc among the workers and undo all that Maria has managed to achieve.
And so poor Maria finds herself caught and bound in the insane Rotwang’s lab, where her features and figure and all her external attributes are transferred to the Machine-Man. And in Metropolis, a new evil arises: a woman who sits “upon a scarlet coloured beast, full of names of blasphemy, having seven heads and ten horns. And the woman was arrayed in purple and scarlet colour, and decked with gold and precious stones and pearls, having a golden cup in her hand full of abominations and filthiness of her fornication”.
What will happen to Metropolis? Will it survive? Will Freder and Maria live to see a better day? What of Fredersen and his sworn enemy, Rotwang? What of the workers who continue to toil and die, while the rich of Metropolis live in comfort?
I have to admit (and this is quite a confession!) that I generally approach silent films with a little trepidation. I tend to find many of them tedious, the acting theatrical – and sometimes the sheer lack of dialogue that my generation has so got used to, is wearying. Not that I haven’t seen silent films which are not merely good, but superb (Bronenosets Potyomkin is an example, as are a fair number of Chaplin’s films). But.
This one, I am glad to say, left behind impressions stronger than most films, silent or talkies, English or Hindi or any other language. Metropolis is a film that stayed with me for long after I watched it – I couldn’t sleep that first night after I saw it, the images were so deeply entrenched in my mind.
A must, must watch.
What I liked about this film:
The sheer visual power of the film. Metropolis was made at a cost of approximately US$200 million (adjusted in 2007 for inflation), which makes it the second most expensive non-English language film ever made. And it shows. The shots of the Metropolis cityscape may seem a little contrived and obviously set-like to eyes accustomed to CGI, but there’s no denying that they must have been quite a feat back in 1927. The climax, the shots of the machinery, the huge cast – there are memorable frames of the Tower of Babel being built, or the workers at the Metropolis machines changing shifts, one lot shuffling off while another moves in – everything is larger than life.
Equally (and to me, even more memorable) was the way the entire film had been shot. There were the exaggerated expressions of the actors (especially in the cases of Rotwang and Maria). There were fantastic close-ups, dark kohl-rimmed eyes and heavily lipsticked mouths filling the screen. There were some brilliantly choreographed sequences (best of all: the Machine-Man, in Maria’s form, dancing crazily in a wisp of shimmering clothing) – even the movements of the workers on the machines, moving as if they were clockwork toys, not human beings.
(For those who like to collect trivia: here’s a titbit. The Machine-Man was the inspiration for C3PO in the Star Wars series).
Lastly, I was intrigued by the inspirations Lang and von Harbou seem to have drawn upon for their screenplay. The exploitation of workers reaching the breaking point, at which they rise up against a privileged elite brought to my mind the Russian Revolution, which would have been just a decade ago at the time Metropolis was made. At the same time, there are numerous (and obvious) references to Christianity – the ‘brotherhood of man’, the tale of the Tower of Babel, and the ‘evil woman’ avatar of the Machine-Man are all based on the Bible. (That description of the woman – enacted so eerily by Brigitte Helm – is from the Book of Revelation, chapter 17).
Plus, there are references to the seven deadly sins, and the grim reaper who comes sweeping through with his scythe. There is also the catacombs scene – possibly a nod at the oft-held theory (now supposedly disproved) that the catacombs of Rome were used by early Christians as a place of refuge and to hold prayer meetings in the time of persecution.
What I didn’t like:
The end – just a little too simplistic for my liking. But for a film that has so much to recommend it, I’d call that forgivable.
Watch Metropolis; it’s unforgettable.