by Frank Olson
There has never been (and will never again be) a science fiction film as influential as Metropolis. It isn’t the first film in the genre—a great deal of Georges Méliès’ movies, including his signature piece A Trip to the Moon, qualify. But where Méliès’ early 1900s shorts are charmingly quaint, Fritz Lang’s unwieldy 1927 epic still feels staggeringly modern in many respects, and its DNA is all over dystopian fantasies as different as Blade Runner and Brazil. Regardless of how technologically advanced the special effects in the later films have become, no cinematic visions of the future have been able to fully hide Metropolis’ inspiration. With the possible exception of George Orwell’s novel Nineteen Eighty-Four (which was itself likely inspired by Lang’s film) there is no piece of pop culture that has inspired humanity’s collective vision of the future as strongly as Metropolis has.
Director: Fritz Lang
Producer: Erich Pommer
Writer: Thea von Harbou
Cinematographers: Karl Freund, Günther Rittau, Walter Ruttmann
Music: Gottfried Huppertz (original score)
Cast: Alfred Abel, Gustav Fröhlich, Rudolf Klein-Rogge, Fritz Rasp, Theodor Loos, Erwin Biswanger, Heinrich George, Brigitte Helm
US Theatrical Release: March 13, 1927
US Distributor: Paramount Pictures
The film’s cultural impact is profound enough that aspects of its set design and story may seem familiar even to first-time viewers, and yet it remains a highly peculiar work with a point of view that’s impossible to pin down. Yes, the film’s repeated mantra (“the mediator between head and hands must be the heart”) is dopey and simplistic, but its overall ideological makeup is a wild blend of ideas taken from Christianity, Communism, Industrial Age Capitalism, Greek mythology, and German Expressionism. Joseph Goebbels was a big fan, but Metropolis isn’t remotely coherent enough to be an effective propaganda tool for anyone’s political or social agenda, dangerous or otherwise. In some respects the film’s confused morality limits its effectiveness, but the eclectic jumble of half-formed ideas is also oddly appropriate for a film that’s all about the pleasures and terrors of the modern, noisy city. Metropolis was reportedly very heavily influenced by Lang’s visit to New York City, and in some ways the film’s assault of half-digested ideas resembles the experience of moving through a downtown area and being surrounded by distracting, contradictory stimuli.
Metropolis’ patchwork aesthetic extends to its narrative as well, with tropes that would later become sci-fi clichés rubbing up against elements taken from detective stories, religious parables, fantasy and melodrama. The city is bluntly divided between an upper class that dwells in enormous high-rises, and a working class that toils endlessly in underground factories filled with inexplicable machines (one of which turns into a fire-breathing monster that swallows its maintenance people whole). Freder (Gustav Fröhlich), son of the city’s ruler Joh (Alfred Abel), is exposed to the workers’ plight when he visits one of these factories in search of Maria (Brigitte Helm), a mysterious prophet who seeks to bridge the class divide. Concerned that he is losing his control over his son and his city, Joh enlists the mad scientist Rotwang (Rudolf Klein-Rogge) to create a robot in Maria’s likeness to destroy her reputation with the workers. But Rotwang, spurned by the loss of his lover to Joh, secretly plots to use the robot Maria to foster a violent uprising against the city that Joh has built.
As with many modern blockbusters, the story of Metropolis is ultimately less memorable than the elaborate set pieces that it supports. Lang’s film (along with F.W. Murnau’s equally lavish 1926 production of Faust) nearly bankrupted the mighty UFA studio, and it is clear at all times that no expense was spared in bringing his vision to the screen. More than 500 extras were put in a giant pool of water for the climactic flood sequence, bringing a palpable sense of chaos to the scene that couldn’t be achieved in a modern film where the extras and the water would be primarily computer generated. Indeed, Metropolis’ in-camera special effects, and the model work and matte painting that create the look of the cityscape, are far more impressive, distinctive and eccentric than the more technologically advanced CGI work of today’s blockbusters.
Despite Lang’s unquestionable formal mastery, Metropolis was not initially a commercial or critical success, and the detractors were not entirely off base. As previously mentioned, the film’s ideology is a mess, and the story feels largely like an excuse to string together exciting set pieces. Fröhlich is almost unbearably hammy in the lead performance, never missing a chance to over-emote. The film is overlong and somewhat awkwardly plotted, as if Lang and his screenwriter (and wife) Thea von Harbou couldn’t decide what to throw away from her first draft. Lang’s best films (Destiny, Die Niebelungen, M, The Testament of Dr. Mabuse, Fury, Scarlet Street) are marked by an obsessive, sustained intensity that Metropolis is too scatterbrained to achieve.
Still, these flaws are largely forgettable in light of Metropolis’ towering importance in cinema history and in the sheer entertainment value of its countless memorable scenes. Who can forget the initial views of the city’s skyline, Freder’s traumatic first trip to the factory, the illustrated parable of the Tower of Babylon, the creation of the robot Maria, robot Maria’s erotic dance, or the enormous riot and flood sequence? The flimsiness of the narrative and thematic framework seems almost beside the point when it can support so many classic moments of virtuosic big-budget filmmaking.