It is a German science fiction fantasy set in the future. There are three classes of people. The worker class toils at machines deep underground. The middle class lives above ground and clogs the roads and trains with their traffic. The elite upper class leads a life of frivolous pleasure.
The society is autocratically controlled by aging Joh Frederson (Alfred Abel). Joh's only tie to humanity are his love for innocent but grown son Freder (Gustav Fröhlich). Joh and Freder independently learn that a young female prophet, Josaphat (Theodor Loos), has united the workers in her ministry.
Freder falls in love with Josaphat, and promises her that he will intercede on the workers' behalf with his father. Joh instead seeks to destroy Josaphat's influence over the workers. Joh sends his favorite creepy spy (Fritz Rasp) to tail Josaphat, and conspires with mad scientist Rotwang (Rudolf Klein-Rogge) to kidnap Josaphat and replace her with a robot made in her likeness.
Joh expects the robot to merely confuse and divide the workers. But since Rotwang is mad, he makes the robot evil. The robot Josaphat incites the workers to riot, and they destroy the machines against the protestations of foreman Grot (Heinrich George). Not only is the economy ruined, but the underground city soon floods, endangering the children of the workers who have been left behind while the workers rampage.
How others will see it. In 2010 dollars, Metropolis cost 200 million to make. It could not possibly have been profitable for producer Erich Pommer, but the career of director Fritz Lang continued to blossom. He made the early talkie classic M (1931), then escaped the new Nazi government to make films in Hollywood. These were of varied quality, although he briefly hit his stride between 1944 and 1945 with three fine efforts in a row: Ministry of Fear, The Woman in the Window, and Scarlet Street.
As for Metropolis, it has always been well known, and is generally considered a masterpiece. The film's lasting influence is unquestioned. For example, the Star Wars robot C-3PO looks much like the Machine Man before it acquired the form of Josaphat.
The relatively few naysayers argued that the film didn't make much sense, partly due to rough edits by distributors seeking a shorter running time.
Now largely restored (some scenes remain missing, such as an altercation between Joh and Rotwang), most are convinced that Metropolis is a masterwork. At imdb.com, the movie is currently in the Top 250 at #91, a remarkable achievement for a silent, subtitled, black and white, mono, 2-D film that must compete with heavily marketed modern efforts.
Only a single demographic is unsure of its greatness: women over 45, who award it only 6.6 out of 10. Perhaps they agree with me that the film is too campy (more on that later). Most likely, though, they simply want to see conventional romance. Compare with The Big Parade, which garners a 9.5 rating from women over 45.
How I felt about it. With its huge sets, lengthy running time, and an enormous number of extras, Metropolis is visually impressive. It is also allegorical. Ostensibly, the film's message is that the heart unites hands and mindpower. But what exactly do these three elements represent? The "hands" are labor and the working class. Thus, the other two elements must also be economic stand-ins. The "brain" is the managerial or upper class.
What, then, is the heart? Is it private charity, or perhaps, conscripted charity in the form of taxation by a democratic government? Methinks that the Salvation Army would never melt the icy visage of Joh. The "heart" must, then, be a balanced government that takes into account the needs and interests of both capital and labor.
While the meaning of Metropolis is worthy of examination, it does not excuse the exaggerations of the characters, story, and direction. Freder is in his twenties, but is as naive as a child, and despite his spoiled upbringing, is ready to sacrifice his life on the altar of saving both Labor and Josaphat. The spy, billed as The Thin Man, is a sinister right-hand-man stereotype.
The evil and holy Josaphats are such polar opposites that is unbelievable that any one person could confuse them, let alone an entire crowd. Would all of the children be left alone in the tenements? Are there no policemen in the underground city? No bodyguards to defend the machines? Would the young men of the aboveground city really go mad with desire from the dancing of the evil version of Josaphat? Could Rotwang build such a convincing robot, by himself? How does Rotwang know what the workers are up to in the distant underground city?
On the dramatic night, the workers riot, dance wildly, then riot again with unlikely unity. It seems impossible that within all the chaos, Josaphat would escape, Freder would find Josaphat, Rotwang would find Josaphat, and the workers would find the good Josaphat, followed by finding the bad Josaphat.
Also, why would Joh instruct Grot to open the gates to allow the workers to destroy the heart machine? And if Joh physically attacks Rotwang, why leave him alive and free to commit further mischief?
In truth, the movie only works in allegorical terms. Otherwise, it is a strange mess regardless of its running length. Even a strange mess can have a measure of artistic merit, but it cannot meet the expectations of greatness demanded by its reputation and influence.