An Appreciation – Metropolis
The “heart” that brings the two worlds together is not represented by one person, but by two. The first is the main character, Freder (Gustav Frohlich). The son of the city’s leader and creator, Joh (Alfred Abel), Freder starts out as a carefree citizen of the utopian society. Things change when he discovers the mechanical factories and the slave-like labor used to keep the city alive. Partially out of guilt, Freder decides to integrate himself with the workers, to stand alongside them and find some way for the upper and lower levels to live side by side. Some of the recently added footage includes Freder swapping places with worker 11811 (Erwin Biswanger), and their attempts to adjust to their new surroundings. The interesting thing about Freder is his relationship with his father. Joh is one of the few members of the upper class who knows about the underground; in fact, he established the system they live in. Their clash sets up a lot of tension, as they both care for the other, but view the social hierarchy differently. Also included in the new footage is the development of the mysterious Thin Man (Fritz Rasp), whom Joh hires to spy on Freder’s movements in the underground.
Gustav Frohlich may have played the main character, but Brigitte Helm was the star. She had the burden of tackling double duty, playing two entirely different characters. One half is the innocent Maria, a citizen of the lower levels who believes a great mediator will one day come down and bring the two groups together. Maria acts as a prophet to the workers, equating the story of Babylon to their predicament. While the workers listen to her sermons intently, their patience wears thin as desperation begins to mount. The second role Helm takes on is that of the robot, built by the mad scientist Rotwang (Rudolf Klein-Rogge) as a tribute to Hel, the woman he lost to Joh, and Freder’s biological mother (who died giving birth to him). At Joh’s request, Rotwang kidnaps Maria and uses her likeness as a disguise for the robot. But instead of using her appearance to ease tensions amongst the workers, Rotwang uses the machine as a device to rile them up and push them toward violence against the upper class.
Helm is impressive in the way she plays two characters on opposite ends of the moral spectrum. Maria is the angelic persona, hopeful for a better tomorrow. She sneaks a group of children above ground, is found by Freder, and triggers the major events into a domino effect. However, her performance as the robot is different, from facial expressions to physical movement and body gestures. With that character she is dark and seductive, getting a job in a nightclub and calling attention to herself with her provocative dance routines. The level of commitment by Helm rivals anything you see today. She did nearly everything asked of her, often accompanying much physical distress. In the scene where Rotwang reveals the robot to Joh, it is actually Helm inside of the suit (one famous behind the scenes photograph shows her taking a sip of a drink while wearing it). Reports state the suit was extremely uncomfortable to wear, often cutting and bruising her body, but she soldiered on through Lang’s insistence. And if that wasn’t evidence enough of her dedication to the work, during the climactic moment where Maria is nearly burned at the stake, Lang used real flames. Helm’s performance is a brave and demanding one, and what she ended up putting on screen should be endlessly commended.
Was Fritz Lang a bit of a mad genius himself, with the obsessive way he controlled his crew and the grand vision he tried to capture? Just look at how much went into this production. The massive sets, the visual effects, the numerous locations and props. Nearly 37,000 extras were hired, miniatures were created, and a giant flood took place. Extras often had to wait while soaking wet as the next shot was prepped. Shooting took nearly two years to complete. It was one of the most expensive movies ever made at the time, and its initial box office failure caused the funding studio to dive into bankruptcy. No question, the act of making this film was a grueling and arduous task. However, Lang’s grandiosity help propel filmmaking to new heights. The epic scope was something new and exciting. The way the world looked—the elevated bridges, the sparkling lights, the massive structures, and its comparison to the deep, dark recesses of the underground—set a new bar for filmmakers to strive for. Without the use of an optical printing system, innovations were created using intricately placed mirrors to create images similar to a matte effect, known as the “Schufftan Process.” The intricately designed set pieces allowed the camera to capture large groups of people, amplifying the intensity of the mob scenes. All of this is held together by a story full of action, romance, suspense, and even social commentary.
The resulting effect is one of largest undertakings of the silent era, and to think circumstances threatened to take that away is mind numbing. The film was this close from disappearing forever, and despite the added footage, there are still segments and scenes missing. That’s what makes Metropolis such an important work, and why it needs to be preserved for decades to come. Yes, the process that made it is outdated and no longer in use, but it acts as an artifact detailing where film language came from, and where it could possibly go. Lang and his colleagues achieved something using creativity, ingenuity, and a willingness to step beyond certain boundaries. And now their work is celebrated, generations later. It makes you wonder what other treasures are out there, hidden away in a vault in some far off country, ready to be discovered and shared with the world once again.