Set in a futuristic dystopia the film explores the relationship between the oppressed Workers, who live in a vast underground complex and run the machines that power Metropolis, and the pampered Managers, who live in luxury in skyscrapers on the surface. One day, whilst relaxing in the Eternal Garden, Freder Fredersen – son of Joh Fredersen the creator of Metropolis – encounters a beautiful young woman from the worker city, enchanted by her he follows her into the depths where he witnesses a terrible industrial accident. He returns to his father telling him of the plight of the workers, not knowing that his father already knows, before returning to the worker city where he persuades a worker called #11811, Georgy, to trade places. After a hellish 10 hour shift Freder follows the workers to an underground cavern where he finds the young woman he met earlier, Maria, preaching a message of peace and patience in waiting for the Mediator to arrive to unite the Head (the Managers) and the Hands (the Workers). Freder realises that he is the Mediator and reveals himself to Maria at the end of the sermon when the other Workers have left.
Whilst this is happening Joh visits Rotwang, the mad scientist, about some maps that have been handed to him by Grot, a foreman for the Workers. The two were friends but were rivals for the love of a woman, Hel, who eventually married Joh and died giving birth to their son Freder. Rotwang reveals his creation, The Machine Man which he plans to give the likeness of Hel, to Joh and explains that the maps are of the catacombs below the Worker city. Leading Joh through subterranean tunnels they secretly observe Maria’s sermon, not realising that Freder is in the crowd, and Joh commands Rotwang to use The Machine Man to clone Maria and incite the Workers to riot so that he can use force to bring them back in line. Rotwang kidnaps Maria and holds her hostage whilst her clone goes about her work.
Considered by many to be one of the greatest sci-fi movies ever made Metropolis features brilliant cinematography, set design, and special effects that are stunning considering the technology of the time. The architecture portrayed in the film is based on Modernism and Art Deco, a new style in Europe which had not achieved mass production and as such was considered a symbol of the upper classes. The effects expert, Eugen Schüfftan, created effects that were widely acclaimed for many years most notably The Schüfftan Process, which utilised mirrors to ‘place’ actors into miniature sets, and has been used by many other film makers over the years including Alfred Hitchcock in Blackmail (1929) and The 39 Steps (1935) and as recently as 2003 when Peter Jackson used the technique when filming The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King.
Metropolis has influenced modern cinema through both it’s imagery and storyline and without it we wouldn’t have films like Blade Runner and The Fifth Element, both of which borrow their visions of a future earth from Lang’s. In addition the film’s imagery has been paid homage in various music videos such as Queen’s Radio Ga Ga (the majority of which uses clips from the film) and Madonna’s Express Yourself (which ends with the closing quote from Metropolis – “Without the Heart, there can be no understanding between the Hand and the Mind”) and was even, loosely, adapted to an anime by Osamu Tezuka in 2001.