In a dystopian vision of a futuristic state of planet earth is situated the bustling city of Metropolis where the towers rise ridiculously high into the air. Meanwhile, down below those skyscrapers occupied by the wealthy elite are the ghastly machines running on 24 hour schedules that keep the city going and the elite safely separated from the horrors of which they know little. Metropolis is governed by John Frederson, a combination of businessman and politician whose daily routine is defined by his dictation of orders to underlings.
Also occupying the lavish comfort of the towers of Metropolis is Freder Frederson, son of the overseer of the city. While the story may take place in a not-too-distant future (roughly a century from when it is viewed), it quickly become clear that some things never change. Children of the entitled are still defined by their ability to loaf and waste: Freder spends his time engaging in expensive sporting activities or lolling the hours away by gardens on the roofs of the towers while ogling girls wearing significantly less clothing than the boys.
On this day, however, the verdant little rooftop garden is suddenly overrun by a gang of hardscrabble kids straight out of Hell’s Kitchen and their nurse who appears straight out of heaven. At least that is how she appears to young Freder whose reaction to nurse Maria’s odd assertion that the ragamuffins are the brothers of those entitled young scions of society is not instant dismissal from the mind that would be expected once she and the tykes are curtly forced back into their place behind the enormous door meant to separate the rich from the riffraff.
Freder goes to his father to ask him questions about the existence of Maria, the children and the working class eking a much different sort of life in the bowels beneath the city. Daddykins is just a tad too busy running the city to address such unimportant queries. John proves to be peculiarly hesitant in his lack of forthcoming with necessary information for Freder so the son does what any rebellious child of a powerful man would do: he uses his influence to convince one of dad’s aides to gain him access to where Maria works far below the high rise security of comfort in which he lives.
In a moment of Marxian epiphany, Freder’s trip to the underworld is marked by recognition that the distance between the working class and the ruling class is far greater than he ever imagined. In fact, there seems little difference between the anonymous homogeneity of the workers and the anonymous homogeneity of the machines. With one exception, of course: the machines seemed to be endowed with a monstrous capacity for inducing fear in Freder that the workers utterly lack in their zombified sameness. The labor is repetitive, mind-numbing and dangerous. The danger is revealed when a control gauge fails in its function and results in an explosion.
In the aftermath of the explosion, Freder comes across a worker whose job is merely to attend to a ticking dial. The man collapses and Freder takes over the job which essentially consists of becoming a simulation of the clock-like hands moving this way and that. The working class is revealed to be little more than cogs in a technological fantasia gone mad. Freder is himself pushed to the point of collapse and almost stimulates another breakdown in the machine that causes an explosion.
After being rescued from this state, Freder finally manages to locate Maria. She is preaching socialist revolution in an underground church of the workers’ rights. Her sermon swings back and forth from economic stimulation of the mind to the story of the confusion caused by the Tower of Babel. The workers are being stoked to become the fire of insurrection, but there is a secret they do not know. They are being watched; always watched. The ever-present eye of John Frederson and his minister of science and technology, Rotwang, are the eye in the sky, keeping tabs on the festering danger of revolt.
Frederson challenges Rotwang to destroy Maria and through her the growing restlessness among the workers carrying the potential for revolution. Rotwang, in love with technology, conjures an unnecessarily complicated, but elegantly appropriate means of achieving this task: since the progress of industrialization has managed to transform men into machines, why not completely the process by making machines out of men? Or, in this particular case, women. Even more specifically: one woman.
Rotwang thus creates an android in the image of Maria. With its external covering of synthesized flesh, the robot version of Maria is an erotic dream come true: she performs a highly suggestive and sexual dance that incites the fiery emotions of the deadened workers. The plan is sinister is its competence: use the robot to incite the workers to riot and then use the riot as an excuse to bring in the troops to crush the insurrection and then enslave the working class to make them even better than machines. The plan is executed according to the template: the workers riot, but in the process they flood the underwork of Metropolis.
And then things go horrifically off track for the elder Frederson and Rotwang. The captured live flesh and bone Maria escapes, saves the lives of the children threatened by the deluge and meets up with Freder. Through Maria, Freder becomes convinced to join in the people’s revolt and sets out to convince his father than the only hope for all of Metropolis is cooperation and accommodation between the working classes below and the ruling classes above.
The film ends with a happy negotiated settlement between the haves and have-nots, thus holding out the promise that while it may take until some indefinite point in the future for equitable distribution of rights and privileges to exists between the owners of the means of production and those workers without whom no profit is possible to be realized, such a resolution of conflict must be considered possible. At the same time, the film ends with the unspoken but inarguable sense that what has just taken place may possibly have been nothing but a cruelly ironic joke encapsulated within its obviously flimsy moral that “the heart must mediate between the brain and the hands.”