January 14, 2006
Directed by: Fritz Lang
Written by: Fritz Lang (Script), Thea von Harbou (Novel, Script)
Degree of Cyberpunk Visuals: High
Correlation to Cyberpunk Themes: Very High
Key Cast Members:
- Maria (cyborg): Brigitte Helm
- Johhan ‘Joh’ Fredersen: Alfred Abel
- Freder Fredersen: Gustav Fröhlich
Rating: out of 10
Overview: Most people probably think cyberpunk started in US in the early 80s. I say it started in Germany in 1927. Metropolis all but disapeared after its initial release, but slowly gained a following in drops and drabs, and then with the early 80s restorations, it began to truly take hold in the minds of most as something special in movie making history. Is it a coincidence that Metropolis gained prominence right around the same time as the cyberpunk movement took hold? I think not. If you’re interested in seeing the first movie with replicants, use of computers, cybernetic body parts, full corporate control over society, a robust underground, and a massively negative impact of technology on society, look no further than Fritz Lang’s expressionist masterpiece, Metropolis. You think not? Hopefully my review will sway your opinion.
The Story: Metropolis takes place in an extreme dystopic future where a society is clearly divided into the workers and the elite. The elite live above ground in this truly wonderful city called Metropolis that has gardens, fascinating architectures, advanced transport systems and sinful night clubs. The workers live underground, in a dreary non-distinct, undifferentiated set of buildings. Their whole existence centers around keeping the machinery going that powers Metropolis.
Johhan Fredersen, the corporate CEO, does not see the workers as people, but instead sees them as no more than specialized parts in his grand, clockwork-like machinery. This point is struck home in that the workers life is organized in 10 hour shifts. They work 10 hours on, than have 10 hours off. In other words, their sense of time is not dictated by night and day as it is in metropolis - they live underground so they rarely if ever see the sun. Their time and life is fully guided by the needs of the machinery - the 20 hour days ensure they are fully disconnected from anything natural.
In this world, the son of the corporate CEO (Johhan), Freder, accidentally is exposed to and falls in love with Maria, a woman who has made it her mission to give hope to the working class. Freder takes the role as a working class member and pursues her down to the underground city and takes the role of working class member. While there, he works a grueling 10 hour shift in the factory, and begins to understand the inhumane way they are treated. He later attends a secret meeting in the catacombs where Maria is giving hope to the working class through spreading the word of peace and Christianity.
Unfortunately, Johhan finds out about this worker uniting, and wants to stop it. He does so by enlisting the aid of a mad scientist named C.A. Rotwang. Johhan asks Rotwang to create a replicant of Maria and schemes to replace her in order to incite the workers into revolt so that Johhan can crush the leaders. The story progresses from here, but the short of it involves betrayal, romance, action and suspense.
Futuristic Thoughts: While Metropolis was made prior to the computer age, its interesting that the idea of gauges and governors for machines, and a central machine that combines all the inputs and provides it to the executive is already envisioned. A never ending stream of information is sent to a control panel in Johhan’s wall that gives him a constant stock market-like update of the status of the machine. Additionally, Johhan has instant access to anywhere on the job floor by a videophone. In short, Johhan has instant access to the workings of his machine whenever he wants.
Cyberpunk Visualized: The Replicant C.A. Rotwang modifies to turn into Maria required that the real maria be captured so that her “essence” could be transferred to the robot. By a process unexplained, the robot then has its outside appearance modified to “become” a replicant of Maria. This, in essence, is the precursor to the storyline in Ghost in the Shell: Innocence, where real humans have their ghosts copied and transferred to android dolls. Because Maria’s “ghost” has been replicated into this android, the evil android Maria exudes sexual energy to the point that she instantly enchants the entire worker city and incites them to rebellion.
In this scene above, we see that energy and information are almost synonymous. Maria’s ghosted soul is being transferred into the evil Maria android. And here all this time, I mistakenly thought Frankenstein originated this look! Truly, C.A. Rotwang’s laboratory would have worked perfectly for Dr. Frankenstein.
C.A. Rotwang, the evil scientist, has a prosthetic hand that functions as a real hand. He has effectively merged his machinery with the human mind to allow it to function as a part of him. While the word cybernetic body part has not yet been invented yet, the implication is clear - in Metropolis, where machines dominate all aspects of life, it is indeed possible to replace body parts with cyborg limbs.
In short, Metropolis portrays a technology-driven culture that devalues and devolves the humanity of the workers, while at the same time, allows the elite to lead perverse and sinful lives. The technology strips us of our humanity both in removing us from a natural existence, integrating us as replaceable parts in a machine, and even allows us to replace people with Replicants!
The Bottom Line: So OK, fine, its possible to look at Metropolis as a cyberpunk film. So why watch it? Answer - because its a terrific movie! If you get the Kino version (you MUST!!! the other cheaper versions don’t follow Lang’s script), you will be viewing a masterpiece of early cinema. Metropolis has replaced Passion of Joan of Arc (Dreyer, 1928) as my favorite silent movie. And truly, its influence on the cyberpunk movie genre is surpassed by only one film. If you get this, you won’t be disapointed.