Meanwhile, Freder returns to the workers’ city and swaps places with one of the laborers. As Maria tells the workers that a “Mediator” will essentially be the savior and establish balance between the planners and the laborers, Freder believes that he is to be the Mediator. Fredersen convinces inventor/scientist Rotwang (Rudolf Klein-Rogge) to make his Maschinenmensch (“machine-man”) in the likeness of Maria, to instill doubt among the workers’ faith in the woman. Rotwang, however, has a sinister purpose, as he and Fredersen were once in love with the same woman, who married Fredersen and died giving birth to Freder. Rotwang sends the Maria-machine to spark a revolution among the laborers, hoping to destroy Metropolis and murder Fredersen’s son.
One of the most significant qualities of Fritz Lang’s 1927 silent film, Metropolis, is a bleak view of capitalism. It is doubtless from the beginning that the extravagant metropolis could not exist without the work of the men below. These are not men who go into work each day, heads held high. In fact, they literally hang their heads and hide their faces, a slow march to and from work. The movie opens with a shift change, and the audience follows the men unto what looks to be a freight elevator and leisurely descends into the depths of the city. The workers appear to be on their way to prison, which, in many respects, they are. After one of Fredersen’s men is fired, Freder rushes to the man’s side and stops him from putting a bullet into his head. Such an act implies that, without employment, however burdensome, death is the only viable option.
A common fear that is frequently expressed in sci-fi films (e.g., James Cameron’s Terminator series) is a general uneasiness of machines taking over the world. Metropolis makes such a somber concept even darker with a man who intentionally creates a machine to destroy his own kind. And in the end, potential destruction is not at the hands of the machines, but the hands of the men, as the Maschinenmensch is instructed to coerce the workers into destroying themselves. This coincides with an image Freder has following the accident, one of Moloch, a machine to which the laborers are sacrificed. It’s a frightening idea not just because of the implication of men working to their deaths, but, in Freder’s vision, the men willingly walk up the steps into the mouth of Moloch.
There are men vs. machine comparisons throughout Metropolis. In addition to the Maria and Maschinenmensch duality, the men, in the process of labor, are staged and choreographed to look like machines. Their movements are sharp and precise and, most notably, monotonous, to the point where, if watched long enough, the men will truly resemble machinery. This goes back to an appraisal of capitalism, in that the political ideal is not a construction of equality, but a hierarchy, with the wealthy high in the sky and the laborers nothing more than cogs in the machinery.
Klein-Rogge is the titular doctor of Lang’s Dr. Mabuse films (1922 and 1933), the first film which also featured his Metropolis co-star, Abel. Although she is completely unrecognizable, actress Helm was actually playing the part of the Maschinenmensch. There are various prints of Metropolis with multiple running times. This is partly due to some of the footage reportedly being lost after its premiere in Germany, but also from the speed of the frame rate (or frames per second), long a source of debate among film historians and enthusiasts.
Metropolis is a much loved sci-fi classic, and deservedly so. When the film was released in 1927, the year of the movie’s setting, 2026, was nearly a century away. Now, in 2010, we are much closer to the time of Metropolis, and the film’s impact has not diminished in the slightest. It’s an expression of societal classes that can be applied to what is happening in the present, as well as a fear that may still lurk in our hearts today.