Fritz Lang’s vision for this film is one of a desolate and divided future. A future devoid of empathy and compassion. Given its age, even today it is relatable on deeply personal level. It portrays a world where the gap between those who have, and those who have not, is not just wide, but a chasm that cannot easily be crossed. It’s sad to think that a future dreamed about almost a century ago has actually in no small measure, actually come to pass.
The basic plot revolves around two characters, Gustav Frohlich who plays Freder (the son of the magnate who both designed and runs the futuristic city with an iron fist), and the ever present (but not always onscreen) love interest Maria, played by Brigitte Helm.
In the world building phase of the movie, we’re greeted with an image of both sides of the same dirty coin. On one side, we have the upper echelons of society. Those who have the money to burn, and seem to want for nothing. Love is fleeting, and the world revolves around the acquiring of material goods to satisfy ones own greed. A warning to us all no doubt.
On the other side of this proverbial coin are the ones who make the world above possible. The workers, the laborers, the untouchables. These people live to serve only a single purpose, to continue to maintain the world of the more affluent in society.
Freder is confronted with his own failings by Maria in what seems to be their only true meeting. While at play with the guys and girls of his peer group, Maria is exposing the children of the undercity to the world of those above. Interestingly, instead of pointing out the gap in status between them, she tells the children that these people are their brothers. A nod to the peerage of humanity, rather than social status.
During this fateful meeting, Freder feels a pang of intrigue for Maria and her plight. This could be mistaken for romantic interest or compassion, but at this stage of the movie, it’s more likely to be the former. Maria’s stoic and intense stares garner far too much attention, and her and the children are unceremoniously ushered away out of sight. Fascinated by Maria, Freder decides to search out this woman, and decends to the lower world filled with the machines that make his life possible.
While down in the dirt with the workers, Freder discovers that the social divide is massive, and that the workers are merely a means to keep the machines running. They’re born, they work, they die. This realization comes as a shock to Freder, who runs to his father to decry the inequity he has witnessed.
Fredersen (Frefers father, masterfully played by Alfred Abel) is mostly indifferent to the situation, and this spurs Freder into rebellion.
The science fiction aspect of the film takes a back seat to the central plot, and though it’s there and was a technical marvel for the time, it is not as important to the plot as the overarching theme.
Looking at this movie through the lense of contemporary films, it is a hard watch. I cannot stress enough, how difficult it is to watch this film.
The characters are believable, but heavily over acted to compensate for the lack of voice, as was the modus operandi in that period. From today’s perspective, it would be seen as slapping you in the face with it’s obvious and blatant bias toward socialism, and it’s decrying of all things capitalist. However, these things can all be forgiven due to the era of filming.
The score is definitely the star of the show, enabling the conveyance of emotion and empathy for the characters and their respective plights. It’s sweeping over arching theme can be warm in the major keys, as well as cold and distant in the minors.
Love of one’s neighbor is central to the plot, and for good or ill, it is pushed on you frequently.
If this is to be summed up in a single word, I would choose “bleak”. It’s a damning narration on our future, and the disparities between the classes.
This film is difficult to follow, as its narrative is somewhat different to the standard “Obstacle => Obstacle => Obstacle => Climax => Obstacle” that we’re used too in movies today. The obstacles are more varied in scope, some big, some small. There also seems to be far more of them.
Ultimately, it’s not a simple movie to watch, and should be relegated to film buff collections. Being a silent film, the director made a fine showing of portraying the characters emotions and motivations, but trying to decipher the laws of this world with only visual and musical queues can be exhausting, especially considering its 2+ hour run time.
Should you watch it? Definitely.
Will you enjoy it? Probably.
Is it worth it? Not really.
While it does give you a real sense of Cinema in a traditional sense, and it does give you a deep understanding of the rigors of the movie world work ethic, it does little to actually boost your understanding of today’s more contemporary film going experiences.
Pull it out of the Blu-Ray box one Sunday afternoon, when you have about 3 hours to kill, where you can truly concentrate on it. Take frequent breaks to mull over the content, and you will walk away from it at the end, feeling like you’ve been hit by a black and white silent truck.
It has character in spades, and delivers on its promise of being one of, if not the first science fiction films ever released to mass market.