Ninety-six years ago today, the film Metropolis at the UFA-Palast am Zoo in Berlin. There are conflicting accounts as to how it was received from spontaneous applause during the special effects sequences to boos and hisses. Several years ago, I was able to see a restored version accompanied by a live pipe organ at a restored movie house from the same era. It recreated the total experience as close as possible. Mesmerizing. I cannot offer that to you, but I did find the full version of the film accompanied with the 1984 Giorgio Moroder soundtrack featuring Freddie Mercury, Pat Benatar, Loverboy, Billy Squier, and Adam Ant. You have to watch this film.
Directed by: Fritz Lang
Produced by: Erich Pommer
Screenplay by: Thea von Harbou, Fritz Lang (uncredited)
Based on: Metropolis by Thea von Harbou
Starring: Alfred Abel, Brigitte Helm, Gustav Fröhlich, Rudolf Klein-Rogge
Music by: Gottfried Huppertz
Cinematography: Karl Freund, Günther Rittau
Production Company: UFA
Distributed by: Parufamet
Release date: 10 January 1927
Running time: 153 minutes (original), 116 minutes (1927 edit), 105–107 minutes (1927 US), 128 minutes (1927 UK), 118 minutes (August 1927), 91 minutes (1936), 83 minutes (1984), 124 minutes (2001), 148 minutes (2010)
Language: Silent film, German intertitles
Budget: 5.3 million Reichsmarks (estimated) (equivalent to €38 million 2017)
Box office: 75,000 Reichsmarks
In the future, in the Million-acre city of Metropolis, wealthy industrialists and business magnates and their top employees reign from 50 to 1,000-story skyscrapers, while underground-dwelling workers toil to operate the great machines that power the city. Joh Fredersen is the city’s master. His son, Freder, idles away his time at sports and in a pleasure garden, but is interrupted by the arrival of a young woman named Maria, who has brought a group of workers’ children to witness the lifestyle of their rich “brothers”. Maria and the children are ushered away, but Freder, fascinated, goes to the lower levels to find her. On the machine levels, he witnesses the explosion of a huge machine that kills and injures numerous workers. Freder has a hallucination that the machine is a temple of Moloch and the workers are being fed to it. When the hallucination ends and he sees the dead workers being carried away on stretchers, he hurries to tell his father about the accident. Fredersen asks his assistant, Josaphat, why he learned of the explosion from his son, and not from him.
Grot, foreman of the Heart Machine, brings Fredersen secret maps found on the dead workers. Fredersen again asks Josaphat why he did not learn of the maps from him, and fires him. After seeing his father’s cold indifference towards the harsh conditions they face, Freder secretly rebels against him by deciding to help the workers. He enlists Josaphat’s assistance and returns to the machine halls, where he trades places with a worker.
Fredersen takes the maps to the inventor Rotwang to learn their meaning. Rotwang had been in love with a woman named Hel, who left him to marry Fredersen and later died giving birth to Freder. Rotwang shows Fredersen a robot he has built to “resurrect” Hel. The maps show a network of catacombs beneath Metropolis, and the two men go to investigate. They eavesdrop on a gathering of workers, including Freder. Maria addresses them, prophesying the arrival of a mediator who can bring the working and ruling classes together. Freder believes he could fill the role and declares his love for Maria. Fredersen orders Rotwang to give Maria’s likeness to the robot so that it can ruin her reputation among the workers to prevent any rebellion. Fredersen is unaware that Rotwang plans to use the robot to kill Freder and take over Metropolis. Rotwang kidnaps Maria, transfers her likeness to the robot and sends her to Fredersen. Freder finds the two embracing and, believing it is the real Maria, falls into a prolonged delirium. Intercut with his hallucinations, the false Maria unleashes chaos throughout Metropolis, driving men to murder and stirring dissent among the workers.
Freder recovers and returns to the catacombs. Finding the false Maria urging the workers to rise up and destroy the machines, Freder accuses her of not being the real Maria. The workers follow the false Maria from their city to the machine rooms, leaving their children behind. They destroy the Heart Machine, which causes the workers’ city below to flood. The real Maria, having escaped from Rotwang’s house, rescues the children with Freder’s and Josaphat’s help. Grot berates the celebrating workers for abandoning their children in the flooded city. Believing their children to be dead, the hysterical workers capture the false Maria and burn her at the stake. A horrified Freder watches, not understanding the deception until the fire reveals her to be a robot. Rotwang is delusional, seeing the real Maria as his lost Hel, and chases her to the roof of the cathedral, pursued by Freder. The two men fight as Fredersen and the workers watch from the street. Rotwang falls to his death. Freder fulfills his role as mediator by linking the hands of Fredersen and Grot to bring them together.