Wealthy industrialists and magnates live in wonderful penthouses surrounded by gardens, while workers live in darkness and operate the machinery that powers the city. According to Fritz Lang, the film was born from his first sight of the skyscrapers in New York in October 1924. Even though it was conceived as a futuristic dystopia, Metropolis (1927) tells the story of class differences that have been present since the very beginnings of human societies.
In Metropolis, Freder (Gustav Fröhlich), the city master’s son, is spending his time in wonderful gardens used for leisure and sports. Suddenly he sees Maria (Brigitte Helm), a young woman who brought the worker’s children to see how rich people lead a thoroughly different life. When she’s ushered out, he’s desperate to find her again in the depths of the city. There he witnesses an explosion of a machine that kills a number of workers, hurries to tell his father about the accident, only to find total disinterest and lack of empathy. That’s when Freder’s quest to make things right starts. He meets with Rotwang (Rudolf Klein-Rogge), an inventor, who was in love with Freder’s mother and has thus created a robot (which inspired the look for C-3PO!) in her image. However, Freder’s father captures the robot and orders Rotwang to give Maria’s likeness to it, so he can deceive people into thinking that Maria, now the leader of a rebellion, is the one to blame for the chaos to come.
Joh Frederson: What were you doing in the machine halls, Freder?
Freder: I wanted to look into the faces of the people whose little children are my brothers, my sisters…
Co-written with his then-wife Thea von Harbou, the film’s plot drew inspiration from German dramas and works of H. G. Wells and Mary Shelley. Lang, dubbed as the “Master of Darkness” by the British Film Institute, was not only a precursor of noir (cf M (1931)) but also a precursor of fantasy (Die Nibelungen (1924)) and science fiction. Having grown up in the era of German expressionism, its influence can be seen in Metropolis as well. Such plots often dealt with intellectual topics, human emotions and psychology, as opposed to action films or love stories of that time. A film doesn’t need to reflect reality, it can create its own. A camera can peek into the human mind, it can twist reality, and turn it back again. It was the era of discovering strange forces guiding our material world. A decade earlier, the general theory of relativity has been confirmed, dealing with peculiarities of gravity, space and time, and two decades earlier, special theory of relativity told us the story of the power of an observer. And at the same time, on the other side of physics, dealing with the minute world, the story of quantum mechanics has unfolded. Strange forces are driving all the particles in existence, and expressionist cinema at the same time – and under the same zeitgeist – is picturing such an unknown, shadowed world. Dark and moody scenes, shadows and lighting, elaborate set designs – modern cinematography still owns a tremendous debt to German expressionism. The cinema also seems tied to the architecture of that time, demonstrating sharp angles and great heights.
I’ve seen high-budget Netflix Sci-Fi films with worse special effects and cinematography than this precious gem, which is almost a hundred years old. One of the most important figures in this film was its cinematographer Eugen Schüfftan. Elaborate sets of city miniatures were created for futuristic dystopian urban scenes, but he also created the eponymous Schüfftan process, in which mirrors are used so the actors can be inserted into miniature sets. A large mirror was placed at a 45-degree angle to reflect either the miniature or the painted artwork, and the live footage of actors was projected in reverse. The actors were positioned several meters away from the mirrors, so they would appear the right size when projected. The silvering on the back of the mirror had to be strategically and carefully scraped off for each scene.
Lang was also a perfectionist in directing. For the Tower of Babel sequence, he required hundreds of bald extras. Since the scenes were shot in the hot sun, lots of people who recently shaved their heads got sunburns. On the other hand, the Moloch scene was filmed in the middle of a cold winter, while the extras had to walk naked into Moloch’s mount. The flood scene took weeks to shoot, which made a lot of actors sick as well, being in cold water for hours at a time. For the explosion scene, the extras were thrown into smoke while harnessed, and Lang insisted that they should show pain, which wasn’t difficult since they already were in pain. Seeing how realistic the scenes were, it all seems worthwhile. And even though it’s a silent film, you can hear every scream, feel every emotion and sometimes cover your ears because the silence might even be too loud.
Ever since 1927, the masterpiece survived only in shortened and edited versions. It was the clever thinking of a film historian and collector Fernando Martín Peña that made the original full-length print available again. In 2008, film operators that they had screened a version over two hours long decades earlier. The original version was 153 minutes long, while the restoration is 148 minutes long, which means we might wonder if there is a single soul alive who had seen the complete version of this masterpiece. But after almost a century, the film is now again almost whole again and awaits you to join it. But in times like this, the fear of the unknown is still all around us, after all.
- Fujiwara, Chris (2010). A Tale of Two Cities: Metropolis lives! Film Comment.
- Jensen, Paul M. (1969). The Cinema of Fritz Lang. A. S. Barnes.
- Kracauer, Siegfried (1947). From Caligari to Hitler: A Psychological History of German Film. Princeton.
- Minden, Michael; Bachmann, Holger (2002). Fritz Lang’s Metropolis: Cinematic Visions of Technology and Fear. Camden House.
I love this movie! Such a powerful message. Thanks to TCM for showing this movie.