The newly restored print of Metropolis, Fritz Lang's gorgeous, disturbing, and sometimes absurd silent masterpiece is a revelation. (It's due out on DVD and Blu-ray later this year.) Part Romeo-and-Juliet love story and part science fiction, it's also about class warfare, alienation, and exploitation in the capitalist Machine Age—but that's the muddled part of the story.
It's not one of my favorite movies, yet its iconic, beautifully composed images, and almost laughably intense expressionistic acting suck me in every time I come across it on late-night TV. The plot and message strike me as incoherent and fascistic, but some people find it profound. Maybe its lack of clarity is part of its power, since it leaves the movie open to interpretation.
Metropolis is a huge city created and ruled by one man, Joh Fredersen (played by Alfred Abel, whose restrained, naturalistic performance sits like a rock in the middle of a fast-flowing river of emoting). Fredersen is a grim control freak, but his son, Freder (Gustav Fröhlich), is a softie, an idealist who wants to befriend the workers who live and toil in a whole separate underground city beneath the glamorous one where the ruling class lives. When Freder catches a glimpse of Maria (Brigitte Helm), a demure blond goddess from the workers' world who has emerged for a moment into his, he's a goner. Like Theseus and his friend in pursuit of Persephone, he runs after Maria and gets all tangled up, trying to protect Maria as she's threatened by personal vendettas and political upheaval.