Rating: 10 out of 10.

The plot may be meandering and the political message naive, but the thematic and visual influence of Austrian director Fritz Lang’s exciting 1927 masterpiece Metropolis is rivalled by few in science fiction and in film in general. A great, entertaining, sprawling epic in a future tower of Babylon. 10/10

Metropolis. 1927, Germany. Directed by Fritz Lang. Written by Thea von Harbou, Fritz Lang. Starring: Brigitte Helm, Gustav Fröhlig, Alfred Abel, Rudolf Klein-Rogge. Cinematography: Karl Freund, Günther Rittau. Produced by Erich Pommer for UFA. Tomatometer: 99 % IMDb score: 8.3 (#106) Metascore: 98/100.


Few films have been so much written about and analysed as Austrian director Fritz Lang’s stupendous epic Metropolis. Not only is this dystopian sci-fi classic with political and religious undertones one of the most influential sci-fi films of all time. It is also one of the films that has had the biggest influence, not only on the movies, but on art and even architecture and design, in history. Despite all this, Fritz Lang himself disowned the film nearly from the day it was released.

Metropolis has been considered the last German expressionist film, a genre that spread from art, literature and theatre to film during second decade of the twentieth century, parallel with the birth of the horror film, from Paul Wegener’s The Student of Prague (1913) through his film The Golem (1916) to Richard Oswald’s Unheimliche Geschichten (1919), culminating with Robert Wiene’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari in 1920. Expressionism wasn’t confined to Germany, but was an undercurrent in the art scene all over Europe, where it tied in with other subversive currents like modernism, cubism, dadaism, surrealism and even constructivism. I’m no art expert, but with my layman’s knowledge, I would describe expressionism as a reaction to the realism prevalent in art during the turn of the century. Of course, this wasn’t the first, or only, backlash against realism. Impressionists in the mid- to late 19th century, like Monet or Renoir, would paint their “impressions” of life, rather than snapshots of life, allowing light and movement to break up and distort outlines, colours and shapes. In a sense, their paintings described how a certain landscape or moment made them feel. The expressionists did the exact opposite. Instead of describing the impressions of a scene, they used the canvas as an expression of how they felt, often distorting reality to describe their emotions. Edvard Munch’s The Scream or Vincent van Gogh’s The Starry Night are some of the best known examples of this artistic school.

The massive miniature of Metropolis.

Expressionism was especially popular in Germany, in art, theatre, and later film. The style became increasingly adapted by filmmakers in the later years of WWI and in particular after the war, often employing metaphorical means to describe the horror and trauma of the war, as well as the isolation and national sense of both guilt and defeat after Germany was universally seen as the main culprit and indeed the loser of the war. The never before seen brutality and horror of the war, and its unfathomable human cost, the new machines of war, like the machine gun, the airplane, the tank and not least the deadly mustard gas, as well as the huge civilian casualties, showed war in all its naked terror, and finally removed any romantic notions that might previously have been attached to warfare.

Brigitte Helm as Maria.

But there are also explanations for the rise of German expressionism that are explicitly tied to the realities of the German film industry and the German economy. At the start of WWI, Germany was minor player in the international film market. Most films showed in German cinemas were foreign, and Germany produced only a few dozen films a year. With the outbreak of war, German audiences found that with the exception of Denmark, all the major film producing countries of the world; France, USA, UK, even Italy, were now the enemy, and their films thus naturally banned from cinemas. It is a historical fact that during times of crisis, cinema attendance increases, as the public seeks escape from harsh realities. Furthermore, the German government recognised films’ value as tools for propaganda. It was clear that Germany had to radically increase its movie production, and that the government needed to control what was produced. Neither of these goals were attainable within the fractured, small and cash-strapped commercial film scene of Germany. So the government decided that the German film industry needed to be nationalised, and all the small, independent film companies were sucked up into the newly-founded national film company Ufa. Despite war costs, Ufa poured money into the film industry, but the efforts were greatly helped by the rapidly rising inflation, that continued for a good five or six years after the war ended. Film production was cheap, tickets were cheap and after the war, films could be sold cheap abroad. Between 1914 and 1918 film production in Germany quadrupled. With little money to lose, filmmakers could afford to be bold and take artistic risks.

Conrad Veidt and Werner Krauss in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.

Anti-German sentiments around the world softened in the early 1920s, and German films were again exported — films like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler and Nosferatu became international sensations. For a short period of time, Germany was the most exciting film country in the world, seemingly spewing out one masterpiece after the other: bold, experimental, subversive, dark and unsettling films, but also sprawling period dramas, most notably by Ernst Lubitsch, and in the mid-twenties neo-realistic films of the New Objectivity school, spearheaded by G.W. Pabst. But this golden age of German expressionism, and indeed German cinema as a whole, didn’t last much more than for 10 years. Export also opened the doors for import, and the US had taken a firm grip on the international film market after WWI, with Denmark’s film industry imploding under its own weight, and French, Italian and British film industries badly disrupted by the war (although one doesn’t need the excuse of the war for explaining the dire straits of the British film industry, which was very much on an amateur basis as compared to France and Italy). Hollywood movies flooded the German market and with the economy slowly stabilising, even mighty Ufa started feeling the strain. In order to reclaim their place on top, producer Erich Pommer and director Fritz Lang, along with Ufa’s top brass, decided to make the film to end all films, an extravaganza on a scale that even Hollywood could not match, the most expensive, daring and epic film in the history of cinema. Something no-one had ever seen before: Metropolis.

Brigitte Helm as Maria with the workers in the catacombs of Metropolis.

Metropolis was one of the first the first real sci-fi epics made at a grand scale. There were numerous precursors, though, mainly Danish and German, and the film was deeply rooted in German expressionism, both in terms of the look of the film, the acting style and the subject-matter. The theme of the greedy businessman destroying the world was popular at the time, both in sci-fi and elsewhere. It was one of the main themes of the Danish apocalyptic film End of the World (1916, review) and the main theme in the German epic Algol (1920, review), a film which probably served as inspiration for Metropolis. The bold, expressionist design was adapted from The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), but for a more industrial and grand setting, and was further added upon with Metropolis.

Like so many other expressionist films from Germany during the period, the movie approaches issues in contemporary politics and society without focusing on outside factors, but from a psychological and social viewpoint. This works well until the very end, where it takes a deeply human approach to problem-solving: with good will and understanding we can all get along and build the best of worlds. While this is an approach that tends to work well on an individual level, there are few instances of this actually panning out on a broader social plane, despite the well-meaning efforts. Lang and Harbou manage to turn their dystopia into utopia by changing the heart of the Scrooge, making the ending more like A Christmas Carol than 1984. At least during the silent era, endings were something of an Achilles heel for Lang. Despite his ruthless behaviour on set, he had a thing for happy endings. This can be seen as early as his script work for The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, which he was originally set to direct, until other work meant he had to pass the baton to Robert Wiene. It was purportedly Lang’s idea to have the film end at a mental institution — not so much in order to create a twist ending, but in his words, because the audience needed a return to normalcy after the unsettling horror of the film. In his mind, the audience would not like the film unless they could return home with a feeling that all’s well that ends well.

Workers changing shifts.

But now, let’s get to the film at hand: In the future city of Metropolis the population is divided into the workers and the owners. The owners live above ground in a splendid, sprawling art deco city filled with neon lights, skyscrapers, slick suspended rail traffic, etc. The sons of the elite wear white sport suits as they engage in healthy gymnastics at oversized Greek-styled stadiums, or frolic in ”The Garden of the Sons”, where they are entertained by a myriad of scantily clad women eager to please with role plays and games. Apparently without doing much work, the boys can return home to their fathers amid grand luxury.

Gustav Fröhlig as Freder Fredersen.

The most pampered of all the sons is Freder Fredersen (journalist-turned-actor Gustav Fröhlig), son of the creator and ruler of Metropolis, the ruthless Joh Fredersen (seasoned actor Alfred Abel). But one day during his merrymaking in the Garden, the angel-faced Maria (a 19-year old Brigitte Helm in her first film role) turns up with a host of dirty working-class children in rags. ”Freder Fredersen”, she demands, ”look at the children of those who are your brothers”. Then she is quickly ushered away. The interest of Freder is piqued, though, and he later follows her trail down to the underworld of Metropolis, known as the Workers’ City. Far beneath the ground lies a city far removed from his own, inhabited by the workers, whose lives consist purely of routines demanded by the 10-hour clock devised for them by Fredersen to increase effectiveness. Like the machines they handle, the workers walk like robots in straight lines on and off duty by the minute, working gruelling hours with monotonous, physical and dangerous labour. One of the worst jobs is apparently one where a worker has to manoeuvre the dials of what looks like a giant clock to match blinking lights. As Freder watches, the worker doing this shift collapses. Freder, appalled by what he sees, offers not only to pick up the rest of the shift, but to switch lives with the worker for a week. Thus he continues the horrendous routine, later replicated in hilarious fashion by Charlie Chaplin in Modern Times (1936).

Gustav Fröhlig beaten by the clock.

While at work Freder hallucinates from the sheer horror of it all, seeing the great stairs of the factory as a grotesque demon’s mouth — Moloch! –, devouring its slaves, and witnesses an accident which takes the lives of several workers, without anyone seeming to care. When confronting his father with this, his father is mostly angered that his assistant Josaphat (Theodor Loos) has not told him about the accident earlier, not so much over the loss of lives. The workers’ foreman Grot (Heinrich George) informs Joh that yet another set of mysterious maps have been found on the bodies of the dead workers. Josaphat is fired by Joh, and is ready to take his own life at this dismissal, when Freder offers to hire him as his assistant. Freder is now determined to delve deeper into the mysteries of how Metropolis is actually run. Joh is alarmed by Freder’s unusual behavior and dispatches his hitman The Thin Man (Fritz Rasp) to keep track of him.

Fritz Rasp as The Thin Man and Alfred Abel as Joh Fredersen.

Joh visits his old friend, a mad scientist with whom he is presently on uneasy terms, Rotwang (beautifully played by Rudolf Klein-Rogge in a character-defining role), to find out what the mysterious maps mean. It seems they show the catacombs of the old city that Metropolis was built upon, lying beneath the worker’s city. In the process we also learn that Freder’s mother died while giving birth to him, and that she was initially Rotwang’s girlfriend. In his grief Rotwang has created a ”machine human”, a robot, a “Maschinenmensch”, who he intends to give the features of his beloved woman, Joh’s dead wife.

Together they explore the catacombs, and find Maria holding a religious vigil, a saintly figure bathed in light in front of a huge cross and altar in Gothic style, telling the story of Babylon, and of how the workers of the city will unite in a struggle, but will find it futile until the mediator can step in and reconcile the rulers and the workers. He must be the heart that brings together the hands (the workers) and the head (the rulers) of the city, goes her prophesy.

Rudolf Klein-Rogge as Rotwang.

Rotwang, entranced, botches the idea of giving the Maschinenmensch his old girlfriend’s features, and instead decides to have to have the beautiful Maria captured, in order to make the robot in her image. And so he does, with the help of Joh Fredersen, and takes her down to his lab. In the film’s most iconic scene, Maria is strapped to a metal table with electrodes attached to her head, and in a beautiful display of special effects, the robot takes on her features.

Keeping the real Maria imprisoned, Rotwang then initiates a sneaky double-con. To Joh Fredersen he says that he will send the Fake Maria back to the catacombs in order to betray the workers’ secret meetings and planned reform attempts. But in reality he plans to topple Joh Fredersen and bring about the destruction of the entire Metropolis.

Alfred Abel, Rudolf Klein-Rogge and Brigitte Helm in the suit.

In order to ensnare the upper-class men of Metropolis, he has Fake Maria perform as an exotic dancer in Metropolis’ seedy mens’ club, in a dance sequence that would never have passed the American sensors after the infamous Hays Code was enforced in 1934. Lang fills the screen with drooling, lust filled men’s faces, and creates an expressionistic collage of watery eyes watching the woman. Riots break out when horny rich men fight over this new Maria.

Brigitte Helm wearing very little.

And below the surface the timid peace-preaching Maria is replaced by a fiery revolutionary that advocates violent uprising and death to the usurpers. ”That is not Maria!” Freder shouts, but is fought off by the angry mob, that then takes to the streets, while Freder goes in search for the kidnapped real Maria, whom he finds in Rotwang’s strange, archaic house. He ultimately frees her, while the workers make their way to the surface, where they demand that the machines be destroyed. ”No, are you crazy?” demands Grot, ”the whole worker’s city will be flooded”. But Fake Maria urges them on, and they smash the machinery. Meanwhile the real Maria has now become trapped below, where she discovers that all the workers’ children are also trapped, and the water is now flooding in. She gathers them all in the square, where she sounds the alarm gong, drawing Josaphat and Freder who have come to their rescue.

Learning about the trapped children, the workers turn on Fake Maria, and chase her through the streets, where they have her burned at a stake, and ultimately it leads to a dramatic showdown between Freder and Rotwang at the roof of a cathedral. Rotwang is killed, but seeing his son in mortal peril, Joh Fredersen realises his folly. With Maria’s help, Freder then becomes the mediator (the heart) between Joh Fredersen and Grot, resulting in a diplomatic handshake and a promise of co-operation.

That is — in some sort of very large nutshell — the plot of Metropolis.

The streets of Metropolis flooding.

Where does all this start then? It all really starts with Fritz Lang and his then-wife, writer Thea von Harbou. The couple had an idea of a futuristic science fiction epic set against the backdrop of the class struggle permeating Europe (and indeed other places) at the time. While popular myth states that the film was inspired by Lang’s visit to New York in 1924, the couple already had a first script draft done by that time. In the first draft the film was even more epic, as it ended with Maria and Freder taking off into space in a rocket. This was ultimately dropped, and saved for the couple’s next film, The Woman in the Moon (1929, review). Lang himself was fascinated with the novels of H.G. Wells, and especially the 1895 book The Time Machine. In the novel the protagonist builds said machine, which takes him forward in time to an age when the class divide has affected evolution, branching humanity into two distinct species — the brutal working class Morlocks living underground, tending to machines and the pampered, beautiful Eloi living in the gardens above.

Fritz Lang and Thea von Harbou in their apartment.

Much points to the fact that Lang and Harbou originally intended to give Metropolis an even broader historical scope, reminiscent of that which Wells himself employed in his 1933 novel The Shape of Things to Come, which he himself adapted into the script for the film Things to Come (1936, review). Wells did see Metropolis, and professed to having hated it. To be fair, he did only see the badly mangled version approved by the American distributor. But it’s also difficult, when watching Things to Come, to imagine that Metropolis didn’t influence him. The script also drew heavily on Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Auguste Villiers d’Isle-Adam’s The Future Eve and, naturally, Goethe. Another prominent element is the biblical story of the Tower of Babel, including the story of the Whore of Babel. It was von Harbou that was the writer of the pair, and while they were compiling the script, she simultaneously wrote the story as a novel, to be released alongside the film.

Brigitte Helm working the great gong to try and save the workers from drowning.

Without doubt Lang and Harbou were also inspired by the Soviet sci-fi epic Aelita (1924, review), since there are certainly many similarities, such as the underground slave workers, the female revolutionary leader that turns on her flock, the ruthless dictator, the ambivalence concerning popular uprisings and not least the futuristic/alien design. Neither Lang nor Harbou ever cited Aelita as an influence, but with so much in common, it can hardly be a coincidence.

While certainly epic, the story itself isn’t really that original, neither is the world-building (except on a visual level). The future described by the film is really the dystopian circle described by Marxism: the workers will be oppressed by the capitalist class to the point of revolution — only Lang and Harbou stop short of evolution and insert a Wrightean social democracy in between. As mentioned, this socialist narrative was almost old hat by 1927, having already been explored by filmmakers like Sergei Eisenstein and Vsevolod Pudovkin in previous years. Even science fiction films had dabbled in the matter, such as the afore-mentioned The End of the World, Aelita and not least Algol.

Brigitte Helm having her likeness sucked out of her for the robot.

The subplot of Maria and Maschinenmensch is in part classic damsel in distress material, with Maria captured and rescued, and part romantic subplot. But it’s also an example of a trope that was surprisingly popular, especially in German cinema, during the silent era, as well as in Russian ditto, namely the doppelgänger theme. This perhaps stems back to the fact that these two film scenes, more so than any other, mined classic literature for inspiration, and especially German expressionist cinema liked to explore the the nature of the human psyche.

Maschinenmensch becoming Fake Maria.

While it is as old as literature itself, the doppelgänger theme came into its own with the birth of the Gothic novel in the late 18th century, and the German word was coined in Johann Paul Friedrich Richter’s 1796 novel SiebenkäsWhile not physically alike, Frankenstein and his creature in Mary Shelley’s influential 1818 novel are each other’s mirror images, exploring the morality of man. The doppelgänger was a popular trope for German writer E.T.A. Hoffmann — the best known example is probably from his story The Sandman (1814), where a sinister optics salesman is a doppelgänger to the protagonist’s childhood monster, an evil alchemist whom he calls the Sandman. Lord Byron, Percy Shelley, Edgar Allan Poe, Charles Dickens and Fyodor Dostoyevsky all used the trope in some of their most famous works. Of course, two of our most beloved doppelgänger stories came at the back end of the 19th century: Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson and The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde.

In early science fiction films, the doppelgänger theme can be found in Russian films like Aelita and The Death Ray (1925, review), and even more prominently in German movies. We find it in The Tales of Hoffmann (1916, review), Homunculus (1916, review), Algol and The Hands of Orlac (1924, review), all of which in some way or the other served to inspire Metropolis. An interesting observation is that German films often combined the doppelgänger motif with that of the Mephistophelean trickster or puppet master. Both in Homunculus and Algol we have a character that works as a sort of double agent to serve his own needs. Like Fake Maria, both the characters Algol and Homunculus at some point in the films take on different personalities to excite both the upper-class and the working-class to attack the other, either for their own gain or simply in order to create chaos and destruction. In this sense, Maschinenmensch is a direct descendant of these to characters, rather than an original idea created by Lang. Fake Maria with the workers is in essence a carbon copy of Aelita, leading the workers into revolt under false pretenses.

Virgin Maria.

If one so wished, one could also make interesting notes about Lang’s and Harbou’s view of women and their place in society from analysing the dichotomy between Maria and Maschinenmensch, and indeed the two sides of Fake Maria. I think that Fake Maria as the socialist agitator falls outside the gender analysis, as this seems more like a story necessity than a choice. But of course in pitting the real Maria against the sex object, Fake Maria, displayed in her dance as the Whore of Babylon riding upon the seven-headed beast, Lang and Harbou conjure up the image of the holy virgin (she is named Maria, after all) against the unholy whore. And while Maria doesn’t actually give birth to Freder, she is responsible for his “rebirth”, and sets him up as the savior of Metropolis, begging parallels to Jesus Christ. It’s probably no coincidence that Maria’s prophesy for the salvation of the city involves a sort of holy trinity: the head, the hand and the heart. So while Metropolis is in part a retelling of the story of Babylon, it’s also a metaphor for the New Testament — even if Freder escapes crucifixion.

The Whore of Babylon on the seven-headed beast.

So while Lang’s New York trip wasn’t the instigator or primary inspiration for the film, as it is sometimes portrayed as, it was still an important step toward Metropolis. Before the 1924 trip Lang already had strong ideas about the look of the movie, especially the architecture, which was a sort of blend between art deco and functionalist modernism. There were several German architects whose works, most of them still only on paper, he used for reference. But it was the breathtaking skyline as he arrived by ship, as well as the height of the city’s skyscrapers, that gave him the scale and scope of the movie. He later wrote that “the buildings seemed to be a vertical sail, scintillating and very light, a luxurious backdrop, suspended in the dark sky to dazzle, distract and hypnotise”, adding: “The sight of Neuyork [sic] alone should be enough to turn this beacon of beauty into the centre of a film.”

Left: the temple of Moloch in the Italian 1913 film Cabiria. Right: Freder’s hallucination of the Moloch machine in Metropolis.

As stated, New York wasn’t the only inspiration for the visuals of Metropolis. One of the major inspirations were the Italian blockbuster movies from 1912-1914, which were really the first ones to show how movies could be done, not just as cramped, stagey fairy-tales in the style of Georges Méliès nor with a documentary feel. Enrico Guazzone’s Quo Vadis (1913) recreated ancient Rome and employed over 5000 extras. The even bigger Cabiria (1914) by Giovanne Pastrone not only gave birth to the Italian sword-and-sandal hero Maciste, but was the biggest, boldest and most epic film the world had ever seen, in a way a Metropolis for its day, with both innovative photography, huge sets and impressive stunts. The film reportedly inspired D.W. Griffith to beef up a half-hour movie he was working on and make it into The Birth of a Nation (1915). One of the centrepieces of the film is the great temple of the god Moloch, where virgins are sacrificed in his honour. It is certainly no coincidence that the big machine gobbling workers in Metropolis is called the Moloch machine, and when Freder hallucinates it as a great monster eating his fellow men, the image is clearly inspired by Cabiria (see above).

Other clear inspirations for the design were, as stated, contemporary German architects and expressionist designers. It’s hard not to see the influence by the 1920 film Algol on the design of the upper-class regions of Metropolis, and Lang must have seen Aelita, as the underground scenes have such an eerie resemblance.

The epic skyline of Metropolis.

The trip wasn’t important just for visual reference, but also crucial for financing reasons. With Lang on the journey was producer Erich Pommer, who was just as taken aback as Lang. The two decided then and there, that if they would be able to capture the magnificence of New York on screen in their futuristic epic, then they would truly make a film no-one had ever seen before. Both agreed, though, that this would require a whole new level of funding, and Pommer went on to fight for Metropolis becoming the most expensive film in movie history up to that time, with the cost finally climbing to six million marks.

This was a bold move. As stated, German films were losing ground domestically due to the influx of foreign, mainly American movies, and the economic situation was stabilising, making it more expensive both to produce films and to export them. Ufa’s economy was already strained, and to salvage their situation, a contract was made with Paramount and MGM. These two companies agreed to distribute Ufa’s films in the US, but on the other hand Ufa committed to reserving a whopping quota of 75 percent of all the screenings in its cinemas for Paramount’s and MGM’s pictures. This didn’t directly affect the production of Metropolis, but had ramifications for both the film and the company later, which we will get to further down.

Fritz Lang directing his extras.

Fritz Lang was one of Germany’s most celebrated directors at the time, having created the popular adventure films Die Spinnen I and II (The Spiders, 1919-1920), the horror film The Weary Death, (Der Müde Tod, 1921), the acclaimed Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler (1922) and the hugely popular five hour epic Die Nibelungen (1924) in two parts. With Metropolis the film company UFA gave him completely free reins and a more or less unlimited budget.

The impressive art deco sets were the largest built in Germany at the time, incorporating gigantic buildings and whole city blocks, big, moving elevators, stadiums, gardens and a large square that was completely flooded. The miniature work was some of the best, if not the best, that had been put on screen at this time. Each and every frame of the film was meticulously worked out by Lang, and he was exacting to a degree as how they were to be filmed, often without regard for how many retakes it required.

Rudolf Klein-Rogge getting ready to transform Brigitte Helm.

The actors involved unanimously described the experience as a nightmare. Best known is the scene where Lang had Brigitte Helm and hundreds of poor children standing for days on end in water that he deliberately kept at a low temperature. He insisted on using real fire for the burning of the fake Maria at the stake – causing Helm’s helms to catch fire. A simple shot of Freder collapsing at Maria’s feet took two days to film, and Fröhlig was reportedly completely drained afterwards. This was the film when Lang ultimately established himself as a demon director caring little for the comfort of his actors. One commentator has described Stanley Kubrick as a teddy bear compared to Lang.

The dreary worker’s quarters.

Whatever the human cost, the end result is staggering. As mentioned before, each and every scene of the film is absolutely iconic, stunning – from the hand held cameras used in the catacomb chase scene, to the science fiction classic of Maschinenmensch coming to life, to the mechanical routines of the workers or the impressive mass scenes that are featured in abundance. Every single shot is perfectly framed, lit, constructed and choreographed. And the plight of the actors definitely turn into realistic performances.

Eugen Schüfftan.

The special effects were groundbreaking. Special effects expert Eugen Schüfftan came up with a new method of shooting miniatures and/or matte paintings and combining them with live-action footage, later labelled the Schüfftan process. An ingenious way of filming through mirrors made it possible to place live actors inside miniatures or paintings. Several methods had been developed during the thirty years of cinema history in order to combine two or more images for special effects purposes. During the black-and-white era many of them were so-called in-camera mattes which relied on keeping a portion of the negative unexposed using either cutout cards or black backgrounds, so that the film could be reeled back, the previously exposed part of the film blocked out with reversed cutout cards and the previously unexposed film now exposed to new images. The main problem with this process was that due to the mechanical nature of the film camera and the flimsy medium of film, no two images were exposed with the exact same alignment on the film, resulting in an inevitable shakiness, where the two images wouldn’t line up exactly. While the image may only have been off by a fracture of a millimeter, the effect was exaggerated when blown up on a large screen. Furthermore, it was a time-consuming and risky business with ever-present risk of light leaks and over- and underexposure. Because of the shakiness of the picture it was also almost impossible to use as a way of dropping actors into a realistic surrounding, as the shaky background would give the illusion away.

A trick shot showing a miniature of Metropolis behind a window.

A quicker, more stable solution was the glass shot, which became the preferred method for expanding surroundings and backgrounds. A pane of transparent glass would be set up closely in front of the camera, onto which an artist painted a surrounding: say a forest, a castle or a city, which aligned perfectly with the sets of the live-action scene, leaving the portions of the image where the actors were supposed to move unpainted. In essence, the artist created a painted frame in front of the camera, and the actors and sets in the “background” would fill in the rest of the image. The problems with this process is that 1. a painting is always a painting, two-dimensional and made with paint and brushes. This could, of course, be amended by using a photograph, although in most cases this would make it more difficult to align the glass image with the sets, as the sets would have to be build to match the image, rather than the other way around. And 2. A glass painting was static, and couldn’t capture, for example, banners flying in a breeze, moving clouds, light changes, cities burning, cars on streets, and so forth. What Eugen Schüfftan did was find a way to combine two live-action images, one of a miniature and one of the actors, at the same time using a mirror.

Stop-motion animated streets.

Schüfftan placed a mirror at a 45 degree angle in front of the camera. He placed a miniature to the side of the camera, so that the reflection was sent to the camera via the mirror. Further away he placed his actors, in front of a background with clearly defined edges. Replacing the mirror with a sheet of glass, he could trace the outline of the background that the actors were standing in front of. He then transferred the outline to the mirror, and took out the reflective material of the mirror to match the area in which the actors would be moving, thus creating a “window” in the mirror. After this, he would catch both the miniature, closer to mirror, looking huge, against the actors further away, through the window, dropping them into the miniature like Lilliputians. Granted that both the camera and the mirror were stable, this process eliminated the shakiness of the in-camera matte effect and allowed for movement and light changes in both images. While new techniques developed in the twenties, like the bipack process, made it possible to do extremely detailed travelling mattes, and the emergence of bluescreen photography in the thirties, the Schüfftan process remained popular all the way up to the digital age. It’s even used today by directors like Peter Jackson and Martin Scorsese, but perhaps more as a novelty than as a necessity.

The transformation.

The most spectacular special effect of the film is naturally the transformation of the robot, Maschinenmensch, into the form of Maria, through an extremely elaborate dissolve shot. I have read somewhere that the same piece of negative was exposed something like 40 times to achieve the effect, first by filming the actress Brigitte Helm inside the robot costume, then removing her and filming only the chair, then filming her without the costume. What makes the shot so special are the rings of “electricity” passing up and down around the robot’s body, seemingly unaffected by the dissolve — this makes seasoned filmmakers even today scratch their heads in disbelief. According to set designer Erich Kettelhut, the effect was achieved by using a matte cutout of the robot, over which they passed rings of neon light up and down multiple times. The wires were made invisible and the lights fuzzy because they were filmed through a greased glass plate, creating the eerie effect.

Brigitte Helm endured long days in the uncomfortable suit.

The robot, the Maschinenmensch, was built around a full body cast of Brigitte Helm, and the influential suit was sculpted by Walter Schulze-Mittendorff, thus defining for all times what an android looks like. The iconic suit was more or less resurrected in 1977 for the character of C-3PO in Star Wars: A New Hope, but the sleek android look had been around for decades in pulp. The inspiration for the look actually came from abstract sculptures, such as Rudolf Belling’s Sculpture 23 and Oskar Schlemmer’s Abstrakte Figur, both distorted figures of humans created in brass.

The actual suit was meant to be brass or copper, but that would have been impossible for the slight Brigitte Helm to act in. Schulze-Mittendorff instead found a new material, the newly created wood putty — in essence wood wood dust with a binding glue that hardened when exposed to air. The material is used to cover cracks and holes in wood surfaces. When hardened, the material, for all intents and purposes, has the same feel as actual wood, which meant that the suit that Brigitte Helm wore might as well have been made from planks. It was reportedly super-uncomfortable, chafing and scratching Helm, even though the props technicians did their best to file down all sharp corners. And because the body mould was made with Helm standing up, the suit was very difficult to sit in, and for most of the time she wore she actually had to sit down. The crew on set felt so bad for her that they would slip coins down slots in the suits, which the 19-year old Helm would use to buy chocolate in the canteen. Because of Lang’s perfectionism, the scene where the Maschinenmensch is unveiled took a whole eight days to film. Helm, exhausted, asked Lang why she had to be in the suit the whole time, as nobody would know of it was her behind the mask or not. To which Lang replied: “I would”.

Left: Walter Shulze-Mittendorff’s Mascinenmensch suit. Middle: Ralph McQuarrie’s original concept art for C-3PO. Right: Anthony Daniels in the finalised C-3PO suit in Star Wars: A New Hope.

Too much praise cannot be heaped upon the master cinematographer Karl Freund and his team, combining huge wide shots with narrow, shaky camera movements, impressive pans, moving cameras, skewed angles, intimate close-ups and remarkable framing. Freund later went on to bring expressionist horror to Hollywood with Dracula (1931) and The Mummy (which he directed, 1932), who won two Oscars, and was considered one of the true technical (one of his Oscars was for inventing a new light meter) and artistic innovators of American cinema.

An epic shot by Karl Freund.

Much of the sets of Metropolis were actually built inside the legendary Babelsberg studios, from the luxurious gardens to the dreadful Moloch machine and the underground city of the workers. But due to the immense scope of the film, they couldn’t build to the height required by Lang’s vision, so they filled in the top parts of the screen miniatures, employing the afore-mentioned Schüfftan process or traditional glass shots. But many other techniques were also used to film the impressive cityscapes. Huge miniature blocks with towering skyscrapers were built. Stop-motion animation was then used to give life to the city, with endless streams of cars, trains or aerial rails and airplanes cutting through the skies. A surprising amount of old-fashioned animation was also used, such as the opening shot of the nightly Metropolis with neon billboards and flickering and apartment windows lighting up and going dark. All in all, the special effects work done on Metropolis eclipsed almost anything else done before, with perhaps The Lost World (1925, review) and Our Heavenly Bodies (1925, review) as its only rivals.

Rudolf Klein-Rogge as Dr. Mabuse in 1922.

Metropolis has a four-clover of lead actors. Lang decided to pitch two German veterans against two almost completely unknown youngsters. Alfred Abel and Rudolf Klein-Rogge were already familiar faces for Lang. The former appeared in The Weary Death, and the latter in The Weary Death, Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler, as well as in Die Nibelungen. The title role as Mabuse had catapulted Klein-Rogge into great fame, and he would later reprise the role in the internationally acclaimed talkie The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (1933). (Trivia: Klein-Rogge appeared in an uncredited bit part in the 1919 expressionist horror masterpiece The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.) Abel is able (pardon the pun) as the cold-hearted Joh Fredersen, who softens at the sight of his son in mortal danger, although he is not really given the chance to shine.

Klein-Rogge, having already set the template for the world-dominating supervillain with Dr. Mabuse, here firmly establishes the blueprint for yet another movie staple – the mad scientist. Here he is with a white lab coat, white hair on end, goggles on forehead, a mechanical hand, waving and snarling, going off on crazy rants, while fiddling with his buttons and levers. Although several films had toyed with the mad scientist theme before, like the 1910 Frankenstein (review)and the many Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde films, this is the first one where the stereotypical, full-blown mad scientist really springs into action. The portrayal is iconic, as is the layout of Rotwang’s lab. There is no doubt that the 1931 film adaptation of Frankenstein drew inspiration for both Dr. Frankenstein himself, his lab and the creation of the creature from Metropolis.

The transformation scene.

The idea of the Frankenstein creature coming to life amidst the frantic crackling of electrical machines in a lab filled with gears and levers, with thunder howling and lighting striking didn’t appear until the unproduced American stage adaptation from 1930 by John L. Balderston, which in itself was an adaptation of British playwright Peggy Webling’s 1927 stage adaptation. In Webling’s play, the “awakening” happened off-stage, as it had done in most previous stage versions. But Balderston, presumably having seen Metropolis, took the awakening scene front and centre and added pyrotechnics and special effects. This play also formed the spine of the 1931 film adaptation, and it is clear as day that director James Whale also saw Metropolis, so glaring are some of the similarities.

Gustav Fröhlig, Fritz Lang and Karl Freund.

Gustav Fröhlig was a fairly unknown actor, actually a journalist, who in 1922 also started appearing in smaller parts in films. He certainly holds his own against the veterans Abel and Klein-Rogge, not only putting in a heartfelt performance, but an impressive load of physical work as well. Fröhlig took well to acting, and had a long and successful career, which continued with TV work as late as the early eighties. Although never as iconic as some of his co-stars in Metropolis, Fröhlig was a popular leading man in B-movies, and in 1973 received an Honorary German Film Award for lifetime achievement. He also wrote and directed a handful of movies. And since I’m from Finland, I feel it’s my duty to inform you of that one of those films was Seine Tochter is der Peter (“His Daughter is Peter”, 1955), which was re-titled in Finland and Sweden as “His Finnish Bride”, due to the fact that the female lead was played by Ruth Johansson, a German-born starlet of Finnish heritage.

Brigitte Helm with Fritz Lang (right) rehearsing for her dance scene.

The real icon of the movie is, of course, the legendary femme fatale Brigitte Helm, who was only 18 when filming began, and whose only film experience was a screen test for Die Nibelungen. Helm is a natural, effectively juxtaposing the timid, soft and chaste beauty of the saintly Maria, and the twitching, diabolical, sexual evilness of the fake Maria/Maschinenmensch. The famous dance scene with the fake Maria wearing nothing but a loincloth and some glitter to cover her nipples probably had many males in the audience gasping for breath just as much as the young men of Metropolis. Helm takes absolute control of almost every scene she appears in, and with such bravado that it is very hard to believe that it is only her first film. After this she was typecast as a vamp, and twice had to play the role of the man-eating soulless Alraune, both in the 1928 silent version (review) and the 1930 talkie (review).

Helm as Fake Maria.

After Metropolis she got a 10 year contract with Ufa, and more or less had to play whatever they placed her in, thus vamps and more vamps. After a while she grew so frustrated with playing nothing but the same roles, that she actually took the company to court in 1929, trying to get out of her contract, but to no avail. She lost the trial, and most of her salary after that went to paying off the court debts. Her 29 films were a rollercoaster of bad and brilliant movies – notable are The Love of Jeanne Ney (1927), where she plays a blind woman, Crisis (1928), where she portrays a spoilt woman of the world who from sheer boredom almost destroys her own life, and L’Atlantide, where she plays a an opaque, otherworldly goddess driving men crazy. She was considered for the title role of James Whale’s masterpiece Bride of Frankenstein (1935, review) before Elsa Lanchester was cast. Before she quit acting she appeared in yet another sci-fi film, the today largely forgotten classic Gold (1934), where she got to play an unusually well-balanced character. 

Fake Maria captivating the masses.

Helm also led a much publicised private life. In 1935, when she made her last film, she enraged the Nazis by marrying an Jew. She was also a reckless car driver and was involved in several car accidents, one with a fatal outcome, for which she served a short sentence. But such was her fame, that Adolf Hitler himself is said to have seen to it that she got pardoned. After 1935 she completely withdrew from films and public life, and almost never gave any interviews. In the sixties she was tracked down by a journalist, but wouldn’t let him inside the house. In the end of the eighties she gave an interview, but on the premise that it was only going to be about fashion. Nevertheless, she is fondly remembered as a true icon of cinema.

Fritz Rasp as The Thin Man would go on to portray the evil American spy “The man who calls himself Walter Turner” in Lang’s Woman in the Moon (1929). Theodor Loos, playing Josaphat, was one of Lang’s go-to guys and a highly respected character actor. Loos also had prominent roles in Homunculus (1916) and Our Heavenly Bodies (1925).

And here’s a fun bit of trivia: in a small role as a worker we see writer/director/producer Curt (Kurt) Siodmak, who would go on to make a name for himself as a genre movie legend in Hollywood in the forties and fifties. Not only did he create The Wolf Man (1943), he also contributed heavily to Universal’s canon of Frankenstein, The Invisible Man and Dracula, and during his career also dipped into franchises such as Sherlock Holmes and Tarzan. He wrote monster movies, UFO movies, moon flight movies, aviation movies, jungle movies, crime thrillers, horror films, zombie films, romantic comedies and war movies. One of his greatest accomplishments was the 1942 sci-fi novel Donovan’s Brain, which re-invented the brain-in-a-vat trope, and was adapted into at least three films and spawned two sequels. His extra role in Metropolis was his first film credit, and his only acting credit.

Curt Siodmak.

One of the set decorators on Metropolis was Edgar G. Ulmer, who likewise made a name for himself in the Hollywood B-movie business, as a production designer, yes, but also writer, producer, and primarily as a director. He is probably best known for the Karloff-Lugosi horror classic The Black Cat (1934) and the critically acclaimed early Poverty Row noir Detour (1945), which the mighty Roger Ebert himself gave 4/4 stars. Bubbling under is the sci-fi cult classic The Man from Planet X (1951, review). In 1960 he made two touchdowns in sci-fi, the rather weak The Amazing Transparent Man and the surprisingly decent Beyond the Time Barrier. Other films sort encroached on sci-fi without really being sci-fi, Daughter of Jekyll (1957) and the Atlantis-yarn Journey Beneath the Desert ([1961] yes, as we all know, Atlantis lies beneath a desert). Ulmer made films in almost all conceivable genres, as so many Poverty Row directors, and sometimes the quality of the material was too much even for him — such as when he changed his screen credits to “Ove H. Sehested” for the impossibly weak nudist sexploitation soap opera The Naked Venus (1959). During his career as a set decorator and art director, Ulmer worked with the creme de la creme of the German movie world, such as F.W. Murnau, Fritz Lang, Ernst Lubitsch and G.W. Pabst.

The Moloch Machine.

Much like its Soviet counterpart AelitaMetropolis has intertwining plotlines and characters that we sometimes lose for great chunks of the film. The subplots don’t so much distract from the overarching story as they sometimes make the movie feel a bit meandering, and the different threads don’t necessarily gel perfectly. However, the visual grandeur and Lang’s impeccable direction easily smooth over the imperfections of the script, holding the viewer breathless from beginning to end – that is, at least the modern viewer. But unlike Aelita, this film offers no subtle and intelligent musings on contemporary society. Where Aelita used subtle chisels to carve out biting satire of the Russian revolutionary pathos, Metropolis goes at its political statements with a sledgehammer. The conclusion with the workers and rulers shaking hands in a ”why can’t we all be friends” moment is nothing short of naive, although heartfelt. Fritz Lang later disowned the film, saying the political statement was ridiculous. ”I wasn’t thinking very politically back then”, he said in an interview, ”of course you can’t make a political movie and say that the mediator between the head and the hand must be the heart”.

Thea von Harbou.

The ending was written by Thea von Harbou, Lang’s wife, who collaborated on almost all of Lang’s films until their divorce in 1933. Harbou doesn’t receive much love from Lang aficionados, as she tends to be blamed for most of the flaws in the scripts of his films. Despite this, one cannot deny that the duo of Lang-von Harbou was something of a super-tag team in German cinema. The two met while collaborating on The Walking Shadow in 1920, and together made such masterpieces as The Weary Death, Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler, Die Nibelungen, Metropolis, Woman in the Moon, Spies and M. In between she also worked on projects like the blockbuster adventure films The Indian Tomb, part I (The Mission of the Yogi) and II (The Tiger of Eschnapurwith Joe May (1921) and The Phantom (1922) with F.W. Murnau. The former two were based on her 1918 novel The Indian Tomb, which has become one of her most lasting legacies, prompting three different film adaptations. Richard Eichberg remade the two films as The Indian Tomb and The Tiger of Eschnapur in 1938, and Fritz Lang himself remade them again, with the same titles, in 1959, after his return to Germany from Hollywood.

Fritz Lang, Brigitte Helm and Thea von Harbou were the Beatles of their time.

von Harbou and Lang had an uneasy marriage, as Lang was a well-known womaniser, and apparently neglected all domestic chores. And during the making of Metropolis Lang caught von Harbou in bed with an Indian reporter 14 years her junior, who later became her husband. But their eventual divorce in 1933 also had political flavour. After Metropolis, Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels started courting Harbou for a position as a propaganda employee in the party, but Lang would have none of it. There has been much speculation over just how devout a Nazi Thea von Harbou was. What we do know is that she did join the Nazi party, and remained loyal to Germany under Nazi rule, unlike Fritz Lang, who left the country. It is also documented that their differing opinions on nazism was one of the factors contributing to their divorce. While never officially becoming part of the Nazi propaganda machinery à la Leni Riefenstahl or Veit Harlan, she continued to write films during the Nazi rule and WWII. Most of them were not explicitly political, but she did work as a consultant on a number of movies with clear Nazi ideology. After the war she said that the main reason she stayed in Germany was so that she could help Indian immigrants, such as her husband, and that she did not sympathise with the regime, and focused her efforts on doing volunteer work to help war-stricken civilians by welding, making hearing-aids and doing medical work. She received a medal for saving people during an air raid. During the war she also directed two films, but found that she didn’t enjoy the process.

After the war Harbou spent some months in a British prison camp, where she put on a performance of Faust. After her release she worked as a so-called Trümmerfrau, helping to rebuild bombed cities. She returned to screenwriting in 1948, and continued to write up until her death in 1954. While she fared better than many filmmakers who had collaborated with the Nazis, she wasn’t able to recapture the success she had had with Lang. Apart from her work with Lang, her greatest legacy is probably the adventure novel The Indian Tomb, which, as mentioned, was adapted for the screen on three different occasions.


Considering the reputation that Metropolis has today, it may be surprising for some that the film was something of a semi-flop when it was released. While the visuals and the scope of the movie were justly praised, some German audiences were confused by its surrealist and multi-faceted plot. At 153 minutes, it was also deemed too long and meandering. However, it’s reputation as a “flop” has been somewhat exaggerated over the years. In fact, it was the seventh highest grossing film in the world in 1927. But the first talkie, The Jazz Singer, made 7,6 million dollars worldwide, while Metropolis only made 1,2 million dollars, which wasn’t enough to cover its costs.

And now we come back to that ill-fated deal with Paramount and MGM, struck in 1925. Through the new company of Parafumet, the contract gave the two American companies permission to edit and alter Ufa’s films for distribution in the US in any way they saw fit. And edit they did. Parafumet’s chief regarded Metropolis as too long and confusing for American audiences, as well as containing a number of inappropriate themes and subtexts. He gave US playwright Channing Pollock the task of re-editing and shortening the film. Pollock hated Metropolis and called it “symbolism run such riot that people who saw it couldn’t tell what the picture was about”. Originally Pollock cut around 20 minutes of the film, rearranged scenes and changed title cards to give the film a completely new meaning. Now the focal point was on Rotwang, a mad scientist who was planning to build an army of robots in order to replace human workers in the factories. Joh Frederer was no longer presented as the ruler of the city, but as Rotwang’s servant. While some of the trimming that Pollock did was probably for the better, the new story didn’t mesh with what was seen on screen, and American audiences were even more confused than the German ones — but still just as amazed by the visual spectacle of the film.

The giant sets + Schüfftan process.

While this was happening, Ufa’s financial situation became unbearable, and the company folded in 1927, and was rearranged under Nazi control. New Ufa boss halted all distribution of the original film, and had it re-edited along the lines of the American version. Over the years the film suffered even more edits by Ufa, removing all communist and religious subtext, as well as a number of other themes, and finally landed on a length of 91 minutes in 1936 -. almost half of the original movie had them been cut out. This version of the film was sent to MoMa in New York, and for many decades later it was the only version of the movie available to the public. This is partly why Metropolis was almost forgotten — while hailed for its visual impact, it was seen as a minor cult film, a botched attempt at sci-fi epicness, along the lines of the cheesy sci-fi films of the fifties. And some things that should not have been forgotten, were lost … darkness crept back into the forests of the world, whispers of an original copy of Metropolis in Moscow …

A last alliance of film scholars, restorers and editors from all over the world marched to Berlin in 1968 carrying bits and pieces of film from archives all over the world. It was here, in the editing rooms of the German National Film Archive that the fate of Metropolis was to be decided. But the power of time would not be defeated. It was clear that several pieces of the original film were still missing, no-one knew what the original inter-titles had been, nor in which order the scenes were originally edited. But after four years of painstaking restoration, the archive finally released the restored version of Metropolis in 1972 to a resounding … meh. Nobody was very interested. The world had forgotten about Metropolis.

Fritz Lang directing Heinrich George and Brigitte Helm.

But in the eighties the film passed to the creature Giorgio Moroder, an Italian electronic music artist and film buff. He took the MoMa version of the film and combined it with newly discovered bits and pieces. He took it deep inside his studio, and there it consumed him. In 1984 Moroder released a colourised version of Metropolis with a new soundtrack by pop stars like David Bowie and Annie Lennox. The restored film was universally panned by critics, but it was a moderate commercial success and became a cult film for the MTV generation of film buffs, who were rediscovering old silent films on the new medium of VHS. Moroder’s work inspired new efforts to find and restore the film to its original grandeur.

In the nineties , including something of a Holy Grail was discovered: an original German censorship card, which showed the content and order of all the original inter-titles, as well as the original musical score. The music was an important find, as the film featured an original soundtrack by composer Gottfried Huppert. Unlike other soundtracks, that were more descriptive of the mood of the films they were attached to, Huppert’s soundtrack had clear themes corresponding to scenes, characters and situations, and had built-in beats that synced with the original edit. So with the combination of the censorship cards and the musical score, film archivist Enno Patalas at the Munich Film Archive could get a pretty decent picture of what the original film had looked like. All he was lacking was the actual film. His version, 109 minutes long was released in 1987.

Fritz Lang in latter years.

In 1998, with yet new unearthed material, including never-before seen stills of missing scenes, film archivist Martin Körber in Germany attempted to assemble a “definite” version of Metropolis, with an actual recording of the original score, as well as inter-titles explaining the missing scenes. New digital tools could be used to clean up degraded film, and an international hunt through film archives around the world resulted in a movie that was now 124 minutes long, but still half an hour shorter than the original. The film was released — this time to much acclaim — at the Berlin Film Festival in 2001, and the restoration of not only the film, but of its legacy, was now well underway.

People were now mailing Martin Körber every now and again with tips on “new discoveries” of Metropolis, and nine times out of ten it was junk, mostly old copies of the MoMa print. So when he got a message from Buenos Aires about a badly degraded 16 mm print in 2008 he ignored it. Probably another copy of the MoMa film — and furthermore, he had no use for a small 16 mm print. But the caller, Museo del Cine, was adamant, please check out what we’ve got. It’s something special. Reluctantly Körber agreed, and lo and behold! Here was the entire 1927 original movie, in Lang’s own edit, lying around a dusty shelf in Argentina. This was in fact a reduced 16 mm backup copy of Lang’s original 37 mm negative, that was shipped to Argentina for a screening in 1927. The backup copy was made to safeguard the contents in case the nitrate film would go up in flames. Reduced, grainy and horribly degraded, the print was almost unwatchable. But it contained over 20 minuted of never before seen material. Körber and his colleagues somersaulted in the filing boxes.

A scene, like ripped from Blade Runner.

Around the same time another version with previously unseen material was discovered in New Zealand, and another one in Australia, apparently all shipped out in 1928, before the international distributor in America started chopping the film. Some of the material seen in the Argentinian print could be replaced from these copies, which were in better shape, but incomplete. The rest of the film was taken from the print from Buenos Aires — it was digitally enhanced and cleaned up, still badly decayed, but viewable. This resulted in an almost complete version being released in 2010, running 148 minutes in length. And finally the world could witness Fritz Lang’s vision in all its glory. Today Metropolis is regularly named as one of the greatest films of all time, its influence is universally noted and it continues to inspire new filmmakers all over the world.

Fritz Lang is one of the true greats not only of German, but international cinema. After establishing the pre-Blofelt world dominating villain with Dr. Mabuse, and revolutionised sci-fi with Metropolis, he made the expressionist spy classic Spies (1928), and created the template for all other moon travel films with Woman in the Moon (1929), where he was the first to introduce the countdown for take-off, the first to depict a scientifically correct moon rocket and the first to tackle weightlessness on a spaceship [EDIT: not quite. Aelita and Our Heavenly Bodies tackled weightlessness in 1924 and 1925, respectively]. He also created a liftoff area and scaffolding eerily similar to the later real-life takeoff areas in America.

Fritz Lang.

The 1931 expressionist masterpiece, and Lang’s first sound picture, M, is considered one of the greatest films of all time, and a huge influence of the film noir genre. Before fleeing to USA, he still had time to make The Testament of Dr. Mabuse in sound in Germany in 1933. He made over 20 films in the States, many of which are today considered highly influential classics, such as Fury (1936), the epic western Western Union (in colour, 1941), the Bertolt Brecht-scripted Hangmen also Die! (Venice film festival winner, 1943), The Woman in the Window (1944), a film that among a few others marked the onslaught of American film noirs, the violent, dark The Big Heat (1953), noted for the brutal disfigurement of star Gloria Grahame, after Lee Marvin’s thug throws scalding coffee in her face, and the geometric, cold noir While the City Sleeps (1956). Few directors have had such a huge influence on so many genres, and had such a productive and creatively successful career over so many decades. The great shame is that he was not always as revered during his American years as he should have been, and that he never won an Oscar, not until 1976, when he got a lifetime achievement award just six months before his death.

Brigitte Helm.

Picking the best Fritz Lang film is like picking the best composition by Mozart. How can you choose just one? Metropolis, though, is probably the one that is best known to the general audience, although films like M (1931), The Woman in the Moon and The Big Heat (1953) may have been just as influential on the medium of film. It is tempting to remove one star for the muddled and naive political message, and the pompously dramatic religious parallels, and the meandering script, but another one should be added for the astounding impact it had on film, art and style in general. And, hey, if you can’t give ten stars to Metropolis, which sci-fi film can you give it to?

The film has a whopping 99% Fresh rating at Rotten Tomatoes, was named as the 12th best film not made in English of all times by Empire Magzine in 2010 (Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai [1954] was number 1) and the second best silent film on the list (beaten by Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin [1925]). The British Film Institute has named it as the 35th greatest film ever made.

Left: Metropolis. Right: Blade Runner.

From early fore-runners like Just Imagine (1930, review), Frankenstein (1931) and Things to Come (1936), the imagery of Metropolis has gone on to inspire and influence science fiction films for ninety years, and its legacy lives on even today in the futuristic worlds of series like Altered Carbon (2018), with cityscapes that could be almost directly ripped from from the grandfather of cinematic future skylines. Of course one cannot go without mentioning Alphaville (1965), Logan’s Run (1967) 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Star Wars (1977), and in particular Blade Runner (1982) when name-dropping films that have been influenced — consciously or unconsciously — by Fritz Lang’s masterpiece. That the spirit of Metropolis lives and is vital is evident not only from recent films and Netflix shows, but also in how the film features in other youth culture — look no further than to how the amazing Janelle Monae has interweaved both the imagery and the story of Metropolis into her own futuristic post-cyberpunk music and style. Right now I’m just looking forward to what 2027 will bring, when the movie celebrates its 100th birthday.

Janne Wass

Metropolis. 1927, Germany. Directed by Fritz Lang. Written by Thea von Harbou, Fritz Lang. Starring: Brigitte Helm, Gustav Fröhlig, Alfred Abel, Rudolf Klein-Rogge, Fritz Rasp, Theodor Loos, Henrich George, Erwin Biswanger. Cinematography: Karl Freund, Günther Rittau, Walter Ruttmann. Art direction: Otto Hunte, Erich Kettelhut, Karl Vollbrecht. Special effects: Ernst Kunstmann. Visual effects: Eugen Schüfftan. Produced by Erich Pommer for UFA.

26 replies

  1. Thanks for this thorough research and analysis of this incredible movie! One of the movies that were not mentioned, among the others influenced by Metropolis, could have been “Back to the Future”, in the figure of Doc. =)

    Liked by 1 person

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