The modern high-rise, impersonal megapolis has been created by dominant capitalist Fredersen (Alfred Abel) along with his evil inventor Rotwang (Klein-Rogge). The capitalist and his “court” live up high, in a place of godlike, Olympian imagery.
Literally underneath the city live the workers, regimented like drones.
The theme is announced right up front: “head and hands need a mediator.”
Maria, a young woman (teenaged Brigitte Helm) has emerged as a kind of priestess for the workers. The Capitalist’s Son, Freder (Gustav Fröhlich) spots her and is smitten. He undergoes a quest that leads to placing him finally in a position such that he could become the needed mediator: if he will take it.
In the meantime, the evil inventor has, like Dr. Frankenstein, created a synthetic “man” (actually, a woman). He seizes Maria and transposes her body to the mechanical creature; but the saintly, virginal Maria transposed becomes “red Maria,” a lusty, chaos-producing femme fatale. The way each of the female types inspires either reconciling or destructive forces in people, along with the confusion of identity that naturally follows from the continual swicheroo, set the stage for most of the subsequent action.
There are two reasons to see this film: (1) because film critics list it as one of the most important films of all time; (2) because there are fascinating themes and images. Only (2) is important, but (1) may provide the additional motivation needed to go out and rent it.
It is regarded as the last German expressionist movie. One can easily see how the graphic, curvaceous forms and leering characters made their stamp on subsequent cinematography for decades to come. The cameraman, Karl Freund, later came to America and did Dracula, Key Largo and I Love Lucy.
And the images are in fact riveting. Watch for the man-consuming Moloch-machine. It is worth the price of the movie. The impersonal, car-train-and-airplane linked high-rise city is also wonderful. (Is it my imagination, or is the “Babel” building [e.g. at 17:00] an owl?)
The film is silent, but the sound track is almost Wagnerian, including leit-motifs. And it is quite affecting, though of course not up to Wagner’s level. The final percussive chord-repetition is a typical weakness.
Also the story itself has Wagnerian echoes. Rotwang resonates as an Alberich; Freder as the estranged son is a kind of Siegfried figure; though here, he must learn to be courageous rather than having it by circumstance of birth. Maria functions as a kind of Brunhilde; the destruction of the Machine is like Götterdämerung, although the pyrrhic aspect is inspired by her evil alter-ego: there are certainly differences.
The movie is overloaded with symbols. A defect is the use of Christian and witch symbolism; ironically, by tying it too closely to our world, the archetypes and thus also the worldly relevance are weakened. Moreover, the Christian, and specifically (e.g. the Maria figure, candles, crosses, the personified seven-deadly-vice-characters) popish thematizing, opens it to the charge of heresy: the (capitalist) father becoming reconciled with “humanity” by the “mediation” of the son. (I suppose Brian Godawa would seize on this aspect as the key to the movie’s greatness.) It may be that a papist is more apt than a Prussian Protestant to create richly-symboled art; but then, his strength is also his weakness.
The wasted potential of the movie is that it could have become an agrarian critique of industrialism. Think of the 10-hour clock, just to name one of a multitude of images. Instead, industrialism is embraced, provided only loving reconciliation of the parties is achieved. It is thus an excessively feminine, uninterpreted (or to say the same thing: over-interpreted) critique finally.
In the secondary discussion, the political question is constantly raised. There were elements that both the fascists and the communists could identify with, and elements that made both nervous. Then, it is pointed out that producer Lang fled Germany while screen-writer/wife Thea von Harbou (after divorce) joined the National Socialist Party. Perhaps this “debate” indicates that we need to take the whole analysis to a more mature level.