It’s a familiar story.
Boy meets girl. Boy falls in love with girl. Girl gets kidnapped and replaced by a sexy robot duplicate in a bid to bring down society. Boy saves girl and chucks kidnapper off a cathedral roof. And they all lived happily ever after.
Let’s be honest, we’ve all been there.
When I heard last year that Metropolis was to be remade as a US miniseries, my heart didn’t so much sink as plummet Titanic-like to the bottom of the Atlantic. Even the announcement of its showrunner being Sam Esmail, the man responsible for Mr Robot – perhaps the most subversive drama on mainstream US telly – didn’t quite ease my concern.
Part of it is proprietorial. The first time I saw Metropolis would have been in the early 1990s. It was a Sci-Fi night on Channel 4, during which the Enno Patalas-restored version was given a late-night run out.
It was one of those films I’d heard of, plenty of times. I’d definitely seen clips of it on other things. The opening titles of Tomorrow’s World featured the famous shot of the Maschinenmensch being transformed, surrounded by circles of light rising up and down its seated form. But seeing it in full (or as near to full as it gets with Metropolis) I was hooked.
What fascinated me as I learned more about its history was the behind the scenes stuff as much as the real film. Coming from a background of Doctor Who fandom, the idea of a piece of media being lost, and the great hunt to restore it to the archives, wasn’t new. This was around the time of the Silurians being coloured and Tomb of the Cybermen being found in Hong Kong.
But the other aspect was how you turn a two and a half hour silent movie into a six-hour-plus US miniseries? Yes, we exist now in a world where the similarly dystopian Westworld can be turned from movie to miniseries with great acclaim, but Metropolis’ place in the world is somewhat different.
Not least because so much of its imagery and storytelling has been borrowed, influential on or just outright purloined by later productions that the impact of watching it feels somewhat undermined.
And that makes it easy to take for granted quite how much Metropolis shaped science fiction cinema for generations to come.
The fight to the top of, then fall from the roof of, the cathedral at the end has been referenced in a dozen films, most obviously in TIm Burton’s Batman – which thieves liberally, even down to using the cathedral bell.
Meanwhile the actual look of Metropolis itself, the skyscrapers and neon lights — itself drawn from Lang and Von Harbou’s first glimpse of the New York skyline — is at the heart of pretty much every futuristic city design to hit film and television over the next 90 years, from Blade Runner to Stargate SG1 (which directly references it by putting the new tower of Babel in the background of a shot).
Ralph McQuarrie’s artwork for C3PO couldn’t have been more obviously drawn from the Maschinenmensch if it had a picture of Brigitte Helm’s face stapled to it.
Politically, it’s also an interesting film, not least because of how it’s central message — the need for the classes to come together and unite in order to protect and strengthen society — comes in the middle of the Weimar Republic, and a country undergoing massive cultural, architectural and societal growth following the hyperinflation earlier in the decade.
Within five years of the film’s release, however, the great depression had taken effect, the country was in the grip of another crisis and the Nazis had been elected to power.
Lang would end up largely disowning Metropolis, not least because of the end of his marriage to its writer Thea Von Harbou, who joined the Nazis in 1933 and would end up writing several propaganda films for them). The Jewish-born Lang fled, unsurprisingly, to the USA, and would continue to be troubled by the Nazis’ fascination with Metropolis itself.
That breaking down of societal boundaries for the greater good can obviously be interpreted in many ways. The workers’ revolution forces change, but in doing so it puts the lives of innocents — the workers’ children — at risk and it takes the intervention of the higher social strata (Freder and Josephat, representing the upper and middle classes) to save them.
In the wake of the Russian Revolution those messages take a certain meaning — and viewed through the prism of what was to come in Germany, and Von Harbou’s political leanings, perhaps take on another.
It could be interpreted as socialism or fascism, idealism or dystopia, depending on your point of view.
But read today, in the era of the 1% and the ever widening gap between the haves and have-nots, the idea of something being done to bring society together feels as timely as ever — just as the idea of agitators being used to widen the gap and spark mob outrage.
The Maschinenmensch Maria, whose whole role is basically to infiltrate and disrupt the status quo for the worse, stirring up the mob into a frenzy of destruction — she’s basically a Twitter storm, or Putin’s operation to disrupt the US elections. Fredersen and Rotwang’s respective plans to bring down society involves, basically, absolutely trashing the reputation of a young woman purely because her ideology and friendships don’t match with his own.
Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?
In a world of Trump and the alt-right, and especially with the events in Charlottesville as I write this, the themes of Metropolis feel no longer broad and distant, but brutally relevant to today.
If science fiction is a reflection of society at that point in history through an interpretation of its future, then it doesn’t say a lot about us as a culture that things don’t seem to have moved on much in 90 years.
But what I love about Metropolis most is, at its heart, it’s a cracking story. For all Lang disowned the film, and especially his ex-wife’s script, it strips out much of the redundancies of the novel — and in particular the slightly weird supernatural overtones — to tell a really straightforward, exciting story.
The first third of the film is world-building, setting up this society with its haves at the literal top of the world, inhabiting the utopian gardens atop the skyscrapers while the underclasses toil to keep the city working deep below them.
The centre of the film, from Freder’s taking 11811’s place at the machine onwards, unspools the plot. Fredersen wants to use Rotwang’s robot to crush the rebellion by the workers, led by Maria. Rotwang wants revenge on Fredersen by using the robot to disrupt all society enough that the city is destroyed.
His motivation isn’t political — it is pure spite, because the woman he loved chose Fredersen then died in childbirth. The robot’s appearance, as the love of Fredersen’s child’s life, just makes that revenge better. He’s pretty much the archetypal mad scientist too – even down to the missing hand and the lab full of things that clearly just light up or bubble for the sake of science.
And then there’s Freder, who falls for Maria not just physically but for her belief that the two worlds — above and below ground — can exist together rather than so heavily apart. His emotional and political awakening is the core of the film, going from spoiled rich kid to hero.
But it’s the last third where it kicks in. Once the final act begins, the film is a breathtaking race full of epic visuals, as Maria, Freder and Josephat rescue children from the flooded underworld, climb to safety, then face down the mob before Freder’s climactic fight with the insane Rotwang atop the cathedral. It hits most of the beats of a modern action film, with a constant sense of peril.
It also has an astonishing performance by Brigitte Helm, just 18 years old and in her first acting role, portraying the real Maria, the actual robot (it’s poor Helm inside the costume) and the Maschinenmensch Maria – all sexuality and snarling.
Watching Metropolis now, what’s amazing is that 90 years on it all still feels current. The structure and the climax feel like a superhero origin story. The scale is huge. The direction at times kinetic in its approach. And with all that to play with, Esmail’s remake suddenly feels less like a terrible idea, because the template to work from is already so relevant.
Metropolis has existed as a film then as half a film, butchered and bastardised. It’s been rebuilt and reinterpreted, as musical, manga and pop promo. It’s been rediscovered and reinterpreted, in the way any great piece of literature has been. As such it is, for my money anyway, the definitive 20th century piece of literature.
May it’s new incarnations in the 21st century be just as robust.