The year 1927 witnessed the appearance in Germany of the most significant utopian film of the silent era – Metropolis. In the film, director Fritz Lang achieves the realization of his ideas about the possible future organization of society. The introductory sequences present this social organization in a very attractive light. In a magnificent, gigantic city with gleaming skyscrapers, suspension bridges, and bustling street, people live in comfort and plenty, with every possibility for intellectual and physical development. However, Metropolis is not a city of freedom and equality. Below ground, working for the chosen elite, are masses of nameless workers who have no more value within the social order than a cog in a machine or a tool or production. It is for this reason that the workers revolt and almost destroy the city; only then is there a reconciliation and an equalization of rights for the two strata, the elite and the workers. Lang honestly believed in this idea of reconciliation, and his attitude to a certain extent reflected the German reality, in which there were growing indications of stabilization and attempts to resolve social problems. But Lang's views on these questions, conveyed finally in the reconciliation of the two classes under the slogan "the heart must serve as intermediary between the brain and the hands," did not sound convincingly progressive, either when the film was made or in the years that followed. Lang himself acknowledged this when, after the Nazi Putsch, Propaganda Minister Goebbels had him summoned: "(Goebbels) told me that years before, he and Hitler had seen my film Metropolis in some small town and that at that time Hitler declared that he would like me to make Nazi films." (Siegfried Kracauer: From Caligari to Hitler: A Psychological History of the German Film.)
In the 1920s Lang was strongly influenced by Expressionist film, particularly its artistic forms. Originally an architect, Lang was a man of unusually sensitive visual perceptions. His films of those years show an expressionistic sense for the plastic and the lighting, which emphasized architectonic lines and conveyed a sense of geometric construction that not only extends to the sets and the depicted milieu but even influenced the positioning of the actors in individual shots. In Metropolis the artistic techniques of expressionism were more in evidence than in Lang's previous films, which were temporally closer to the greatest blossoming of that movement in the cinema. In keeping with the conventions of expressionism, the inhabitants of the subterranean city have no individuality, and the crowd represents a compact mass from which personality projects only as a stark exception and only in a definite rhythm. Extreme stylization is used in scenes depicting the alternation of work shifts. Lang also shapes space with the help of human bodies and uses light in accordance with the principles of expressionism. Sometimes he uses light so intensively that it takes the place of sound; for example, reflectors replace a siren with light functioning as an outcry. The pictorial formulation also reflects the antagonism between the ideas in the film. A salient example is the contrast between the supermodern metropolis of the future and the house of the scientist Rotwang, the spiritual creator of Metropolis. His dwelling in the shadows of the skyscrapers belongs more to the age when alchemists attempted to discover the philosophers' stone and the elixir of life, and the clay figure of the Golem roamed the streets. Also in his appearance and behavior, Rotwang does not fit the stereotype of a modern scientist, and there are indications that he may be in league with the devil.
Metropolis inaugurated a series of utopias on film that attempted to resolve the difficulties of the contemporary state of society by projecting them into a story with a futuristic setting. The film was preceded by a large public relations campaign which stressed the grandiose nature of what was at the time a super-production by detailing and enumerating all the costs of production and the individual components (how many costumes were used in the film, how many wigs, how many extras, etc.). The premiere took place in an atmosphere of great expectation. However, the reactions of contemporary critics and reviews show that the film was, to some extent, a disappointment. There were great reservations about the plot and content, and the script by Lang's wife, Thea von Harbou, came under sharp attack. H. G. Wells, the well-known English writer of science fiction novels, criticized the film in unusually harsh terms.
Despite the reservations about the film voiced by its contemporaries and by other generations, it cannot be denied that the story of Metropolis is told in refined cinematic language. On this point even some critics of the 1920s agree. With the passage of time it has become possible to ascertain the film's contribution and its influence on the development of filmmaking. The film contained a number of technical innovations and influenced, for example, the narrative Hollywood films of the 1930s and 1940s. From the standpoint of film as visual art, one could cite sequences which remain to the present day examples of the potential of the film image to generate meaning. Metropolis particularly influenced the development of the science fiction genre. German expressionism brought new codes of artistic expression to the whole current of fantasy – uneven lines, contrasts of light and dark, half-shadows and silhouettes – which serve to suggest mysterious and menacing actions, events, and emotions. Lang applied these techniques effectively and successfully to one of the varieties of the fantasy genre – the utopian work (in modern terminology, science fiction). Some of these elements were still used in the science fiction genre when the rest of the cinema was no longer influenced by expressionism. The amorphous mass or the nameless crowd, as depicted by Lang, found its continuation in anti-utopian films of the postwar years. The wondrous atmosphere of the scene in which Rotwang brings a robot to life is encountered in a number of subsequent science fiction films, especially those that border on horror, as in The Bride of Frankenstein. Of course, Lang's robot, with its glittering female body, stylized breasts and inhuman mask instead of a face, is unsurpassed in its artistic beauty. The personality of the scientist Rotwang belongs to one of the most interesting antagonists of the screen. The possibility of an ambivalent interpretation of is character – he is a scientist, but also something of a sorcerer allied with satanic forces – gives him greater complexity. This character type recurs in films of the 1930s and 1940s (Son of Frankenstein) and continues without major changes into the most recent science fiction films, as well as into numerous horror and fantasy films.
Diverse audience response to the film's premiere influenced its fate in later years. For its time, Metropolis was a lengthy work. Its partial failure resulted in its release often with modifications, cuts, and abridgements. In the 1970s the film archive of the German Democratic Republic in Berlin undertook a reconstruction of the film; the work was completed in 1981 with the collaboration of several member archives of the International Federation of Film Archives (F.I.A.F.) and other film collectors. The result was an approximation of Lang's original version.
Essay by B. Urgosíková
Release Date: 1927
Starring: Brigitte Helm, Alfred Abel, Gustav Fröhlich, Rudolf Klein-Rogge, Fritz Rasp, and Theodor Loos.
Director: Fritz Lang
Writers: Fritz Lang and Thea von Harbou
Source Citation: Urgosíková, B. "Metropolis." International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers. Ed. Sara Pendergast and Tom Pendergast. 4th ed. Vol. 1: Films. Detroit: St. James Press, 2000. 775-778.