I have seen Metropolis twice now. The first time I felt disappointed. The second time I was better prepared. It is still overall a disappointing experience but now I am better able to put words on it and also see the elements which are good.
In a way it is difficult to be critical about Metropolis. It is highly acclaimed and celebrated almost universally as a masterpiece. The high expectations which follow such a status are perhaps part of the explanation for my disappointment, but it is not just that.
Let me start with what works here.
It is hard to imagine science fiction without Metropolis. The traces are everywhere. The cityscape and androids of Bladerunner, the classical mad scientist and just check the similarity between the android Hel and C3PO of Star Wars. The Mench-Machine theme is recurrent in especially German culture but also holds a universal fascination. The sets are elaborate and outstanding and they fill the movie with a dystopic ambience that is seeping out of everything. The opening alone with the pounding pistons set the tone exactly right.
Metropolis is probably best known for its android. And it is spectacular! There is a clear resemblance between the quickening scene in Metropolis and the equivalent scene in Frankenstein, both in terms of process (It is electric energy that makes the artificial human come alive) and the motive (to resurrect a dead body), but I would say that Metropolis wins that round. It is both earlier and more spectacular. Birgitte Helm as the android in human shape is also really good although I am more thinking of an insect and a robot when I look at her.
Unfortunately Metropolis is a mess.
Hard as I try I just cannot figure it out. My first thought was a communist theme. The oppressed workers rebelling against their despotic masters and taking control. But that is not it. The point of the movie seems to be that there is a heart that ties the hand (the workers) and the head (the leaders) together to become a whole. So that is then a representative of the elite with some empathy for the lower class? Hmm… That sounds to me like compassionate conservatism and does not seem like such an improvement. Not really a system change. I mean Freder Fredersen does not exactly represent a welfare system.
Another thought is that Metropolis is a scary warning of things to come. That the city of Metropolis rests upon the labor of a prisoner class kept in a concentration camp underground. That could help explain something that kept bothering me. Metropolis seems to be a big city with tall buildings and traffic jams. Yet the triangular society structure with a large working class and a small elite would mean that if the workers are kept underground who would then inhabit all the buildings? It would either be a small city or a very empty one. We learn that to be fired by Joh Fredersen means a one way ticket to the underground city. Does that mean that Joh Fredersen is the only employer in town? Or does it mean that when fired you are also convicted and the sentence is carried out in the underground prison. It does make some sense. Give them some striped clothing and the march of the worker-prisoners could be taking place in Bergen-Belsen.
But that logic only carries so far. It is not anger against the overlord that drives the eventual rebellion, but a rage against the machines. Being prisoners I would imagine that they wanted freedom and to rid themselves of their oppressor, but they seem content with a mediator. The Führer is not so bad after all. Eh, did I miss something?
Joh Fredersen reacts to the impending insubordination by cooking up a cunning plan: To incite the workers so they destroy the heart machine, which will flood their city and kill their children. Nice plan. But exactly what is he trying to achieve besides a horrible atrocity? The thing that goes awfully wrong with his plan is not that the children will die or that the workers escape from their underground prison. Once they have reached the machine room it is relatively easy for them to get out. The thing that goes wrong is that his son is down there. I fail to see how that affects the rebellion from his point of view. Well, he might lose his son, but his son has little influence on the rebellion except saving the children. So in that sense that is just an unexpected high price to pay to get his way. Well, except that he is not achieving anything.
The worker-prisoners coming out of their underground prison thinking that their children are dead are not avenging themselves on their masters who engineered this, but on the agent, the machine who incited them. When faced with their nemesis they, as mentioned, are content to get a mediator.
A third thought I got is to look at the story as a Messiahs fable. That Freder is the Christ that will lead workers (Jews) out of slavery in Babylon. Then Maria becomes a prophet who foretells and paves the way for the savior. This story works part of the way but again only so far. Freders end purpose is to concile the workers with the slave masters and not to take them to the blessed land. Or again, maybe I am missing something.
Besides the inconsistencies of the plot I was not too happy about the acting either. I can cook it down to a single example: Whenever Freder runs, and he does that a lot, it looks like he is doing an Olympic 100 m sprint. It is rather comical, but that is probably not intended.
I do recognize the significance of Metropolis, but I really do not consider it a good movie.