Laura: All these machines, it’s like…
Computer: Metropolis, directed by Fritz Lang, UFA Studios, Berlin 1926. The great mass of inferior humans becomes slave workers dominated by superior machines.
Steele: Bet you can’t name the actors.
Computer: Alfred Abel, Gustav Fröhlich, Rudolf Klein-Rogge.
Steele: Not bad for a computer.
When we think of silent films now, we think almost exclusively of Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton. Very few movies were so good, so monumental, so epic, that they survived the massive paradigm shift from the silent era into the “talkies”. Of these, Metropolis must surely be the most famous, the most enduring. It is certainly the most influential – you’ve probably never seen a science fiction city that wasn’t Metropolis first.
However, the standard for appreciating a film can only be partially about its historical significance: there must be an immediate appeal, an ongoing appeal, if a film is to survive, and Metropolis has faced several substantial challenges in this regard.
You simply cannot over-state the importance of the paradigm shift from silent to talking films. A silent film actor has only their physical presence to convey a tale, and consequently every facial expression and iota of body language is at full volume. Not only is this method of acting unfamiliar, it is often unintentionally comical – there were plenty of sniggers at key moments in the film, provoked by this style. To process the film at all, I tend to find myself withdrawing from the easy human connection of the televisual close-up, and regarding the characters far more like archetypes or ciphers through which a story is being parsed.
Partially as a consequence of the limitations on dialogue, these films tend to move at a glacial pace. The causal chain for the events in Metropolis are sketchy at best by modern standards, and even the total number of plot points must be relatively low.
It would be tempting to try and apply the same kind of narrative logic to silent films as I recently discussed for The American, but that would not be all that fruitful. Silent films are absolutely bustling with activity, but they are like a tiny creature caught in amber: they cannot proceed at the pace they desire. They, and specifically Metropolis are not contemplative in that manner.
Instead, I think the approach to Silent Films must be to regard it as essentially a kind of visual poetry. In poetry, words are not exactly straightforward: they are metaphorical, synecdochic and metonymic*. The same is true of the images and dialogue fragments we’re presented with in silent film. The mind of the observer must use those elements to cohere a meaning.
Which leads us around to where we began, and the biggest problem with engaging with Metropolis on its own terms, at least for someone like me: it is the birth-moment of what would eventually grow into CyberPunk and is the original and defining icon of the end-point of industrialization. Moreover, the ideas which pervade its text are all well explored by now in numerous other works to the point where there is nothing, absolutely nothing, to be extracted uniquely from Metropolis rather than its derivatives.
You are left, I think, with a work that feels familiar even when you watch it for the first time, whose stylistic paradigm creates a real barrier to enjoyment, and where the characters are at best one-dimensional archetypes impossible to empathise with or care about. But, if you can get past all that and enjoy the symbolism of the work, you will quickly appreciate why it became such an enduring juggernaut, and just how visionary it is in historical terms.
* I completely realize that these words do not exist in this form, but they really should.