Silent films are easily some of the most egregiously overlooked group of films by movie buffs. Many early films come off as archaic in many respects, whether due to the degradation of the image over time or the simplistic design and plain storytelling. But every now and again, there’s a silent films so impressive, amazing and overpowering that it’s undeniably one of the greatest cinematic achievements of all time.
Metropolis is such a film. It’s a film that branches into a wide array of rich, interesting and compelling narratives, themes, visualizations and ideas that it’s seeped in such a broad array of interesting, unusual and thought provoking concepts. It’s a sci-fi film that can put to shame a good number of modern science fiction films, sliding with ease between a plethora of ideological conflicts.
At the center of this is Maria (Brigitte Helm), a young woman who becomes a prophet to the underclass in a futuristic society built upon the back of the working man. While the rich enjoy all the luxuries of technology high atop skyscrapers, the poor shuffle down long, underground hallways to power the city of wonder.
Yet it’s also a film about a bridge between the rich and the poor. A young rich lad named Freder (Gustav Frohlich) falls in love with Maria, and begins attending her prophetic speeches while he tries to assimilate himself into their culture by becoming one of the cogs in the machine.
From there, it becomes a story deeply seeped in political struggles that arise from the ensuing imbalance of power. The way science fiction elements enter this story drive into some core ideas about identity and humanity that are still prevalent in the modern science fiction film.
The images still hold up today, especially with the recent restoration. The special effects are able to create the futuristic cityscape that practically defined how the sci-fi cityscape looked for years to come. Vehicles zip around the highest boughs of the towering city on an impressive scale, the visual illusion is superb.
And the images work beyond simple spectacle. Besides the necessity of conveying narrative information, they also help reinforce the ideas, conflicts and relationships of the film. There is just as much tension in the play of visual mood and space, as narrative as any modern film, perhaps even more due to its reliance on the image.
But what it all comes back to is the fantastic screenplay by Thea von Harbou. She’s crafted a story that has the kind of rich depth, complexity and nuance of the best sci-fi stories. It’s a story that fulfills on a number of levels, weaving in layer upon layer of nuance. Metropolis is yet another strong example of silent era cinema that is anything but archaic. It might lack the plazas, flash, hyper-editing and showiness of modern cinema, but it’s still a fantastically modern film.
© 2011 James Blake Ewing