Fritz Lang’s 1927 film Metropolis was ground breaking in many ways. At the time, it was the most expensive German film ever made, costing over 5 million reichsmarks and taking 17 months to film, nearly financially capsizing the production studio, UFA. As one of the first feature length science fiction films ever made, Metropolis is an expansive story that is renowned even today for its extravagant scenery, art direction, cinematography and utilisation of German expressionist techniques. At its original run time of 153 minutes, it was one of the longest films made, contributing to its initial financial failure, as it required over four kilometres of film to run it, a weighty investment for any theatre. With the science fiction genre as we know it today still largely being defined in this era (Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, often considered the first work of science fiction, was published in 1818), it was a difficult film to categorise and advertise. Indeed, an advertisement from New Zealand reads ‘See it! Try to describe it!’ Nonetheless, it has since become recognised as a highly influential film, becoming the first film to be inscribed on UNESCO’s Memory of the World Register in 2001, and is widely studied in schools today for both its historical context as part of the Weimar Republic, an example of early science fiction, German Expressionism and the utilisation of the silent film genre.
The film was accompanied by a novelisation, published in 1925 by director Fritz Lang’s then-wife and credited screenwriter, Thea von Harbou. However, it was the film that really made an impact, with many praising its technical prowess whilst simultaneously lambasting it as being overlong and overwrought. Mordaunt Hall of the New York Times called it “a technical marvel with feet of clay”, whilst renowned sci-fi author H.G Wells criticised the film as being rampant with “foolishness, cliché, platitude and muddlement about mechanical progress and progress in general.” Regardless of these criticisms, Metropolis has undoubtedly had an impact upon contemporary science fiction, with as film critic Roger Ebert stated “from this film in various ways, descended not only ‘Dark City’, but ‘Blade Runner’, ‘The Fifth Element’, ‘Alphaville’, Escape From L.A’, ‘Gattaca’ and Batman’s Gotham City… Rotwang created the visual look of mad scientists for decades to come, especially after it was mirrored in ‘The Bride of Frankenstein’… the device of the ‘false Maria’… inspired the ‘Replicants’ of ‘Blade Runner.’” It was one of the first examples of the dystopia / utopia theme in science fiction, something that has continued to be explored (e.g.: 1984, Brave New World, Never Let Me Go, The Matrix, etc.) and has seen a resurgence in recent years.
The film’s most famous quote, “the mediator between head and hands must be the heart” reverberates throughout the entire film, with Metropolis demonstrating a schism between the upper and lower classes. In this case it is literal, with the lower classes living underground and the upper classes living amongst the sprawling excess of the city, overshadowed by their monolithic buildings, which are a combination of the grandeur of Greco-Roman architecture and luxe, geometric (harking back to the streamlined appearance of machines) Art Deco. Indeed, the sets appear to dwarf the actors, with the machines and the structures taking visual precedence. This is exemplified when Freder imagines one of the machines as Moloch, a Canaanite god / idol that required child sacrifice that is referenced in Leviticus. This precedence of machines is rectified by the end of the film, but this also highlights Lang’s propensity for biblical allusions throughout the film- the tower of Babel, the idolatress of Babylon and the beast with seven heads, Maria as a virtuous Mary figure preaching to the workers, Freder as a Christlike mediator between above and below, the gardens as a reference to Eden, etc. This lends the story gravity and also helped in creating a grounding point for the audience, references that they were familiar with amongst the fantastical landscape Lang presented.
Metropolis was released during the ‘golden era’ of the Weimar Republic, a brief period of stability and prosperity in Germany, prior to World War II. With a permanent currency implemented in 1923 and the Dawes Plan in 1924, it sparked a cultural renaissance, born in the wake of World War I, the immense hyperinflation and the influence of the cultural development in the Soviet Union. Innovations in German cinema, literature, architecture (particularly Bauhaus), film, art and theatre came to the forefront, with a fascination with the ‘ultramodern’ in addition to the mediums of cabaret and jazz and an overall differentiation from more traditional German values- an influence that is certainly explored in Metropolis. There was a certain contention between the pull of traditional values versus the influence of globalisation and the influx of other cultures, particularly America (via American films and fashion), with Americanisation progressing largely due to the Dawes Plan.
German Expressionism was at its peak during this time, with Metropolis being a prime example. It was more concerned with the evocation of a particular mood and aimed to show a highly subjective view of the world, as compared to the strict realism and somewhat detached perspective of art and film previously. This internal perspective was highly effective and necessary in silent film, given the absence of audible dialogue. This was characterised by evocative lighting (particularly via chiaroscuro, obviously highlighting certain objects / characters and casting others in shadow) and utilising different camera angles and perspectives. In the post World War I environment, there was an increased fascination with the human psyche, madness and the question of identity, as life as most people knew it had been irrevocably shifted.
Metropolis is a highly influential film that is broadly studied today. Whether you are exclusively studying the film or the Weimar Republic, 20th century Germany, the development of silent film or the consolidation of the science fiction genre, it is an important piece of culture that is still highly relevant.
Here’s a list of TV4Education resources in relation to this subject. If you use the SmartSuite version of TV4Education, just search for the titles below on your site:
Metropolis (Movie 1927)
German Expressionism: Crash Course Film History #7
Fritz Lang Interviewed by William Friedkin (1974)
The Silent Era: Crash Course Film History #9
The History of Cinema- Silent Era
BBC Paul Mertons Weird and Wonderful World of Early Cinema
Generation War (Part One)
Ten Minute History- The Weimar Republic and Nazi Germany (Short Documentary)
The Great Depression: Crash Course US History #33