Contemporary film culture often ignores silent-movie masterpieces. Shamefully, the recent American Film Institute poll of the 100 best movies included only three. The Vatican's list is better. Among the silents it recommends is the 1926 science-fiction classic, Metropolis.
The film's breath-taking futuristic vision of a machine-dominated, authoritarian society has been imitated many times. Tall, geometric skyscrapers tower over tiny human beings who pointlessly scurry about in ant-sized airplanes, cars, and elevated railways. Inside the buildings, muscular workers in matching, drab uniforms and caps toil with almost military precision although it's never revealed what products are being manufactured. Their souls belong to their machines, and they seem to have no will beyond obedience to their masters.
Director Fritz Lang (M) and screenwriter Thea Von Harbou have constructed a dysutopian fantasy that isn't a literal prediction of what modern cities have become. But its images and story have often been interpreted as prophetic of the totalitarian nightmares of Nazism and communism. Recent borrowers of the film's style include last year's sci-fi extravaganza, The Fifth Element, and a much praised, MTV-promoted music video by Janet Jackson.
Metropolis is set in the year 2000 when society has been divided into two distinct classes: the laboring force, which lives and works beneath the city; and the rulers who reign in hedonistic luxury above. Master of all is Jon Fredersen (Alfred Abel) who issues orders from a huge, high-ceilinged, artdeco office.
His son, the spoiled Freder (Gustav Froelich), indulges himself in idleness until he encounters the charismatic Maria (Brigitte Helm), a worker's daughter. She has broken all Metropolis' laws and taken a group of poor children up to the rulers' dwellings.
“Look at them,” she tells Freder. “These are your brothers.”
Overwhelmed by her beauty and moral intensity, the young playboy is determined to find out more about her. For the first time in his life, he descends into the world of the machines, and when he sees workers being pushed to the breaking point, he has a vision of Moloch, the god of the Phoenicians and the Ammonites in the Old Testament, devouring human sacrifices. This is the beginning of a series of religious images used by the filmmakers to comment on the struggle between good and evil within the city.
One of the workers passes out at his machine, and Freder takes his place. Meanwhile, his father visits the inventor of Metropolis' machines, Rotwang (Rudolf Klein-Rogge), who has on his door a pentagram, often a sign of the devil.
The elder Frederson has two purposes. First, he wants to check on the progress of the robot Rotwang is building to replace all the human workers. Second, maps of an unknown, underground location have been discovered on workers believed to be planning a revolt. Rotwang identifies the place as the ancient Christian catacombs upon which the city was built, and he leads Frederson through them to where a workers' meeting is in progress.
Against a background of crosses and burning candles that looks like an altar, Maria is preaching a Christian message of non-violence, not armed revolt. She compares their situation to the building of the biblical Tower of Babel. Among her listeners is young Frederson.
His father orders Rotwang to create the robot in the image of Maria and program it to incite revolutionary violence so he can crush the workers. His stratagem succeeds, and the laborers begin to tear down their underground city. The elder Frederson celebrates “the world going to the devil.”
His son sets out to rescue the real Maria who has been kidnapped. He hopes she can persuade the workers to change their destructive ways. The filmmakers bring to life sculptures illustrating the Seven Deadly Sins to help interpret the action.
Metropolis's cautionary tale may seem more relevant to early 20th-century industrialism than to today's computer age, and its melodramatic devices sometimes seem dated. Nevertheless, the movie's expressionistic images and Christian symbolism give it a timeless meaning. With greater force than almost any other film, it communicates the horrors of a society where the production of material goods is more important than the human spirit.
Next week: Jean Renoir's La Grande Illusion.
Arts & Culture correspondent John Prizer writes from Los Angeles.