Ranking: 2#111

Director: Fritz Lang (Germany)

Genre: Science Fiction/Fantasy

Given André Bazin’s understanding that the essence of cinema is “spectacle”, it’s probably not so surprising that the two greatest films in this all-time list of works of cinematic genius are in the genre of science fiction. In this genre, the sets and the stories are only be restricted by the limits of the imagination. The trick in this genre, though, is to get the three S’s in alignment – setting, story and significance. It’s no good having imaginative sets and storylines when there are no thematic ideas of interest or consequence. In an article published in 1926 “The Future of the Feature Film in Germany”, the legendary German director Fritz Lang wrote, “To bestow upon film the double gift of ideas and soul is the task that lies before us”.

Certainly, Metropolis, as an allegory about the nature of the modern city, has everything in alignment, having ideas and soul aplenty. Yet, its main ideas are finely realised through both a strong narrative and its poetic, evocative visual imagery.

And given its complexity and imaginative scale, it isn’t surprising that the filming took over seventeen months to complete, with production going three times over its original budget in the process. It has been estimated that about 40,000 people, including 37,000 hired extras, took part in production. The long hours of filming made huge demands on the cast and Lang was afterwards accused by some of being a bully on the set. By the end of filming, Brigitte Helm, who was marvellous as Maria and the Robot-Maria, was physically and mentally exhausted. There was no shortage of ambition or willpower in the conception, pre-production or production of this movie.

Metropolis is a prescient, futuristic fable with a profound message about the dangers of a society based on monopolistic greed. In Lang’s metropolis, the city is divided sharply into haves and have-nots, into the owners of the means of production and the working classes. It’s about the twentieth century’s most important economic reality – the battle between capital and labour.

The script was based on Thea von Harbou’s novel of the same name, which, in turn, drew inspiration from the science fiction works of H.G. Wells and Mary Shelley and from the Biblical story of the Tower of Babel. Lang’s wife at the time, Von Harbou deserves much credit for the ideas and characters which provide the narrative with its power, with its “soul”.

Almost a hundred years later, many advanced economies today still wrestle with problems associated with a widening gap between rich and poor, so the scenario sketched in the screenplay would still resonate with contemporary audiences. By no means, can we claim to have solved this issue of social inequality in metropolitan societies.

This gap between haves and have nots is visually embodied in Metropolis with the wealthy elites and industrialists ruling over the city from atop their towering skyscrapers, complete with a pleasure garden, while workers live underground and labour in the engine rooms of industry to keep the machines which power the city operating. The contrast is glaring between the pleasure garden and the catacombs underground where the workers hold their secret meetings.

It is the artist’s job to visualise and represent social and human truths. Lang and Von Harbou have excelled in embodying their ideas in a visually appealing story for modern times. As a director, Lang’s aesthetic style in the film is moderately expressionistic, as one would expect for an imaginary science fiction fantasy about a dystopian future, with highly stylised sets, costumes and expressive acting. Yet, for the most part, he has reigned in the melodrama by subordinating everything to one style and one overall vision, making the whole greater than the sum of all its parts. Everything in the film is directed towards conveying a vision, shared by this husband-and-wife team, of a more humane, fairer future for modern cities.

The story is based on a love affair which cuts across society’s class divisions. Freder, the rich son of the city’s master planner, Joh Fredersen, falls in love with Maria, a saint-like leader of the workers. In quasi-religious tones, she believes one day a saviour will bridge the gap between rich and the marginalised poor. One of the main messages of the film is: “The mediator between the head and the hands must be the heart”.

When Freder witnesses a machine breaking down and exploding, injuring and killing some workers, he is upset and hallucinates that the machine is a temple to Moloch, with workers being fed to it. But when he pleads for fairer working conditions, his father won’t listen, remaining indifferent to the plight of his workers. Freder decides to rebel and to side with the workers. 

Secret maps are found on the dead workers and taken to Fredersen. They reveal a network of two thousand years old catacombs beneath Metropolis. He shows the maps to the inventor, Rotwang, to find out their meaning. It turns out that Rotwang was once in love with Freder’s mother, Hel, who died giving birth to her son. Hel had left Rotwang to marry Fredersen.

While he is talking to the two-faced inventor, Fredersen is shown a robot Rotwang has built to “resurrect” Hel. The image of this Maschinenmensch (Machine-Person) has become iconic in film history and a replica is now on display at the Robot Hall of Fame in the Carnegie Science Center in Pittsburgh, USA. Having a Machine-Person in a film made back in 1927, decades before the Age of Robots even began, has added immeasurably to the movie’s enduring futuristic look and feel.

Fredersen and Rotwang decide to investigate the catacombs they’ve discovered in the secret maps. There, they come across a meeting of the workers, including Freder himself. The depersonalised, exhausted workers look like dead souls. Maria gives a rousing sermon about the Tower of Babel. She explains that the hands need a heart to connect them to the head. She predicts that a saviour will come to reconcile the working and ruling classes and to end class conflict in society. Freder then declares his love for Maria and insists that he could fulfil that role of peacemaker.

Sensing that a revolution is brewing, the two men decide to make the robot the inventor has built look like Maria so that they can discredit her among the workers.

However, Rotwang, out for revenge, never having got over the loss of Hel, plans to use the robot to destroy the city of Metropolis and to ruin his rival Fredersen.

Rotwang then kidnaps Maria and transfers her likeness to the robot. This idea looks ahead to the era of humanoid robots we have now entered. The inventor then sends the Maschinenmensch to Fredersen. When Freder comes across the couple embracing he believes Maria is betraying him and he becomes delirious. The robot goes on to wreak havoc in Metropolis. Chaos erupts. Lang is foreshadowing the potential conflict between humans and machines, a futuristic theme which Kubrick picks up so brilliantly in 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Once he recovers, Freder goes down to the catacombs. There, he finds the false Robot-Maria urging the workers to revolt and to destroy the machines. The workers follow the robot and obey her, wrecking the machines. An underground flood is triggered, as the reservoirs burst.

Interestingly, for this scene when the workers’ city is flooded, 500 children from the poorer districts of Berlin were hired to work over a fortnight in a pool of cold water as the demanding director did numerous retakes until he was satisfied with the scenes. And, indeed, the flood scenes are credible and dramatic. Lang was well-known for his rigorous style of directing.

Meanwhile, the real Maria has escaped from Rotwang’s house. She and Freder are reunited and try to rescue the children.

However, the workers, believing that their children have died in the flood, turn against the robot and burn her at the stake. The scene of the burning of Robot-Maria at the stake is very dramatic. On the set, it was an extremely difficult scene for Helm because Lang insisted on having real flames.

At first, Freder thinks it is the real Maria, until the fire reveals it is really the robot.

After Rotwang falls to his death during a fight at the roof of the cathedral, Freder is able to fulfil his role as a mediator, bringing his father together with a leader of the workers in a symbolic gesture of peace as the old man Fredersen finally repents of his cold-hearted reign over the city.

As a science fiction allegory, or fable, about the future of mankind in an industrial civilisation, Metropolis is also an epic of human redemption. It is far from being just an entertaining fantasy.

When you watch the movie, you can see that Lang, like Antonioni, studied architecture before becoming a filmmaker. In fact, the idea for the film came to him when he first saw the towering skyscrapers of New York and Manhattan in 1924 from the deck of the ship S.S. Deutschland. There was something hypnotic and intoxicating about the skyline. He had seen a city of the future. Now he had to create a work of cinematic art to embody that vision. With its incredible futuristic cityscape, as the foundational image of the movie, and with its massive, imaginative, soaring sets and its expansive sense of geometric space, Metropolis just looks architectonic. And it is visually stupendous.

The city is not just a visual backdrop, because the film is about the city as a living being with head (its planners, elites and managers), hands (its workers) and heart (its values). Fredersen represents the head, while Maria and Freder represent the heart. It took great artistry to portray Metropolis both as a living city, and as a city of the future. The special effects which Eugen Schüfftan and the set design team designed are of the highest order. They had to satisfy the architect in Lang! Schüfftan even pioneered a method for creating the illusion that the actors were really occupying the miniature city he’d created. It is called the Schüfftan process and involves placing mirrors to cover part of the camera’s view, after which images are assembled from multiple shots.

After the Metropolis itself, the Maschinenmensch is perhaps the main character of this film. Next to the skyline of the cityscape, the robot is the most futuristic part of the visuals. It was made by sculptor Walter Schulze-Mittendorff, who took a whole-body plaster cast of actress Brigitte Helm, who played Maria, and then constructed the costume, designed to look metallic, around the cast. Cameraman Günther Rittau then added the effects of the concentric rings of light encircling the robot. The fact that Metropolis was made decades before the invention of computers, software and Artificial Intelligence and yet shows a robot being programmed by its inventor, is incredibly prescient. The movie thus foreshadows the whole Age of Computers and Robots. And the fact that the Maschinenmensch was trained to serve evil, rather than good, foreshadows the computer Hal in Kubrick’s 1968 science fiction masterpiece, 2001: A Space Odyssey.

By marshalling and maximising all the available elements of cinema into a unity in which form and content dance together in a seemingly effortless union, Metropolis proved to the world that science fiction films could become works of art. Significant themes have been communicated through a magnificent visualisation, being prophetic in content and poetic in form. Isn’t that the essence of art?

Now it’s almost 2026, the year in which the story was set one hundred years into the future as production was coming to a close. And, yet, the film’s imagery still looks incredible today.

Metropolis has rightly been described as a visual symphony.  Even the 1927 movie poster has remained iconic.