It is the future and in this city state there is tremendous injustice and inequality between those who have - the top tier of society who spend their days at leisure - and those who have not: the working class who toil for hours at a time keeping the city running. This is just the way the leader, Joh Fredersen (Alfred Abel) likes it, not realising his beloved son Freder (Gustav Fröhlich) has had his head turned by a pretty face when Maria (Brigitte Helm) arrives with her schoolchildren charges to visit the upper classes' playing grounds. But as he finds out more about her, Freder is intrigued...
Science fiction on the big and small screen owes a lot to Fritz Lang's exquisitely designed Metropolis, yet in spite of its classic status not everyone is as quite enamoured of it as perhaps a movie held in such esteem would bring out in their audiences. That was down to two reasons, the first being that the complete version of the film had not really been seen since its initial release, with some offering the excuses they found it hard to judge the movie's finer qualities beyond the sheer spectacle such a mammoth production would undeniably engender. So over the years there were many alternate versions including Giorgio Moroder's version which he rescored and shortened to fit his electropop.
Some do genuinely like that incarnation, seeing it as a sleek paring down of an already bloated work, but for most the consensus would be that you had to see the longest version, and as luck would have it every so often more and more of the film was uncovered, giving a better idea of what Lang had in mind for his epic. But that takes us to the other reason some viewers found it uneasy to judge, and that was the supposed Nazi influence on the film. Although it was shooting for a couple of years in the Germany of the nineteen-twenties, by the time the fascists came to power during the following decade Metropolis had a reputation as one of their favourite films, possibly because it illustrated a way in which German art could compete on the world stage: it was the biggest effort the famed Ufa studio had ever made - it nearly bankrupted them in the process.
Complicating matters was that a number of Nazis responded to the film's revolutionary politics, which seeing as how Lang's wife Thea von Harbou was an enthusiastic supporter of the fascists has offered the reading of this that it was a fascist tract in itself. That in spite of the guiding hand behind it being Lang's, who unlike his wife hated the idea of the company she was keeping and the extreme right wing views she was extolling, so you could just as easily see Metropolis as the opposite, a plea for a more humanistic and less totalitarian approach to government. Certainly it's a mark of some kind of quality that the film could be regarded in a way that allied itself to either side of the political spectrum, along with a few points in the middle, but could this be because its message was something of a mishmash?
The plot sees Maria leading a new movement towards compassion and fairness towards the workers, but Federsen doesn't like that, so teams up with his old colleague and rival in love Rottwang (Rudolf Klein-Rogge) who happens to be one of the screen's first, and therefore definitive, mad scientists. He is creating a robot which Federsen believes will be the ideal stand-in for Maria, yup, the ancient sci-fi cliché of evil doubles was popularised here as well. So it is that after we have established Feder and his new love have a connection that could unite the classes, his father tries to nip that in the bud by proving that one charismatic leader could just as easily turn the masses to evil and destruction as they can to sweetness and light, and Robot Maria is that figurehead - you can tell the difference as the bad variation wears too much mascara. With its iconic imagery - the creation of the double, the workers toiling at unexplained machinery, the flood through the vast spaces that might metaphorically wash away the nightmare - Metropolis continues to fascinate, for all the deceptive ambiguity of its themes, however troubling or uplifting they may be.
Tyrannical, monocle-sporting, Austrian-born director who first became established in Germany, significantly due to his second wife Thea von Harbou who wrote many of his scripts for him including famous silents Dr Mabuse the Gambler, the two-part Die Niebelungen, revolutionary sci-fi Metropolis, Spione and Lang's first sound effort, the celebrated M (which catapulted Peter Lorre to fame).
He had caught the interest of the Nazis by this time, so after another couple of Dr Mabuse films he decided to flee the country rather than work for them (von Harbou stayed behind), and arrived in America. There he was quickly snapped up by Hollywood producers to create a string of memorable thrillers, such as Fury, You Only Live Once, Man Hunt, and the World War II-themed Hangmen Also Die, which fed into a talent for film noir he took advantage of in the forties. Some of these were Ministry of Fear, Scarlet Street, The Woman in the Window and Secret Behind the Door, noirish Western Rancho Notorious and The Big Heat. After the fifties and one final Mabuse film, Lang had difficulty getting work due to his bad-tempered reputation and increasing blindness, but stayed a personality in the movie world right up to his death.