To this day the legacy of Metropolis can be felt and seen throughout the world of cinema. It’s one of the rare pieces that truly deserves the distinction of being dubbed a masterpiece. Countless films have drawn a heavy influence from Fritz Lang’s Sci-Fi opus and numerous highly regarded filmmakers site Metropolis among their favorite films of all time. Believe me when I say there is not another science fiction film that has ever been more influential than Metropolis. In fact, there are very few films period that can be said to have made more ripples in the world of film than this one.
As I stated above, Metropolis was directed by Fritz Lang and remains one of the prime examples of German expressionist film. It starred Alfred Abel, Brigitte Helm, Gustav Frohlich, and Rudolf Klein-Rogge. The first thing I want to note is the budget. It cost around 5 million Reichsmark to produce, making it the most expensive silent film ever. But that’s not even the most astonishing part. After you adjust that figure for inflation, the actual number is around $200 million dollars. To put that in perspective, Transformers 3 had a reported budget of $195 million. In fact, Metropolis, after that adjustment for inflation, is among the most expensive movie ever made. It gets even crazier when you remember that Metropolis was released in 1927, years before any other films were even sniffing budgets in that neighborhood.
I’m actually going to try to talk about Metropolis without spoiling too much of the plot for those of you who haven’t seen the film. What you should know is the screenplay was written by Fritz Lang and his wife, Thea von Harbou. Like most great works of science fiction, the story itself was an allegory to a much larger social commentary. The base premise is that sometime in the distant future, society has been divided up into two distinct classes in the megacity of Metropolis. Workers live underground in poverty, slaving in a horrific work environment where they’re literally herded in and out of shifts like cattle. In stark contrast, the upper echelon of society lives high above these atrocities in massive skyscrapers. Theirs is a life of luxury and beauty. Here’s the opening to give you an idea (sorry the titles aren't in English, but this was the best version I could find):
The story was heavily influenced by the writings of two other Germans, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. It’s established early on that this is an urban dystopia. The upper class has propped themselves up through the exploitation of the workers, who in time join together to rebel against this system. Any of that sound familiar?
One of the main things that should be taken from all of this was that Metropolis was a film built around big political and social ideas. People today have often wondered why big budget blockbusters (although filmmakers like Christopher Nolan have been bucking the trend) can’t also be smart, deeply layered films. In that respect, Metropolis was far ahead of its time. It was an expensive, sweeping sci-fi that went beyond being mere eye candy. It dealt with themes that were actually shaping the world in the period around its release. It had something important to say and, in a true testament to its greatness, many of these ideas still resonate today.
All that being said, you certainly can’t ignore the stunning visuals seen throughout Metropolis. Simply put, the film came out 84 years ago and is still wowing audiences. Much of the architecture seen in the film was based on Art Deco, which, during the era, was a completely new style of architecture. A prime example of Art Deco is the Chrysler Building in New York. Since most people hadn’t been exposed to these designs yet, the architecture in the film became an even more powerful symbol of the social elite. Here’s a photo of the Tower of Babel:
I want to go into a little more detail regarding how Blade Runner fits into all of this, so check out this clip:
The Tower of Babel is a symbol of power and the dominant ruling class of Metropolis. It literally looks over the entire megacity, making it an intimidating and, at the same time, an awe-inspiring presence. As you can see in the clip, the Tyrell Corporation Building in the opening of Blade Runner was most certainly influenced by the Tower of Babel. It even serves the same symbolic purpose as it watches over a dystopian Los Angeles.
Eugen Schüfftan was the man responsible for the effects seen in the film, and, needless to say, he was well ahead of the curve. He made use of miniatures and a camera on a swing, among other things, to help create many of the distinctive effects. His most impressive feat, however, involved using mirrors to project images of actors into miniature sets. The technique is fittingly known as the Schüfftan Process. The great Alfred Hitchcock made use of this innovation in his own work a few years later.
This piece wouldn’t be complete if I didn’t touch on two key characters, Rotwang and the Maschinenmensch. Rotwang is the brilliant man who creates the Maschinenmensch (robot) in the film. The character itself is one of the most influential aspects behind the creation of the archetype of the mad scientists we are all so familiar with today. Wild hair, a gloved, mechanical hand, and those crazy eyes all started with Rotwang. These traits turn up time and again across all forms of media. Famous examples include Doc Brown and Dr. Strangelove (his hand!). Rotwang’s industrial lab also gave us the typical sights and sounds that are now commonly associated with mad scientists and their diabolical laboratories. Dr. Frankenstein’s lab was one of many that found it’s roots in this film. I've also even heard that George Lucas might have found inspiration for the lightsaber in the famous scene of Rotwang running through the catacombs with his light, which cuts through the darkness like a knife.
Like I said above, Rotwang created the Maschinenmensch. Before we go any further, here’s another photo for you to check out. The middle one is a recreation of the Maschinemensch.
Notice the similarities? The suit was sculpted over a plaster cast of Brigitte Helm, who actually played the robot as well, even though you never could tell it was her. The costume was very tough on Helm, and she ended up suffering through nicks and bruises. I imagine it also probably got pretty hot inside that thing. Anyway, the suit was painted silver and bronze and went on to become one of the most iconic images in the history of film.
The saddest thing about this film is that it was extensively cut after its Berlin premiere in 1927. Most audiences who saw the film after that were exposed to a much shorter and often times incoherent version of the picture. At the time theaters weren't very willing to show films longer than 90 minutes and Metropolis clocked in at around two and half hours. Metropolis' sound was also played at 24 fps, instead of the 16fps it was shot at, which ended up adversely affecting the pace of film. In short, very few people have seen the movie as Lang intended it. Much of the original footage was lost over the years, so every version out there is an attempt at a restoration of the original work. However, there was a huge breakthrough in 2008 when a copy of the original film was discovered in a Buenos Aires museum archive. Around 25 minutes of lost footage was reintegrated into previous restorations of Metropolis and in 2010 the new cut of the film was shown to the public.
I'll end this feature by talking about the film's reception. Often times many great works of art are overlooked and generally poorly received upon their release. Critics of the time described Metropolis as a "technical marvel with feet of clay," and said its plot was "foolishness, cliché, platitude and muddlement about mechanical progress and progress in general." You could even go as far as to say that Metropolis set an early precedent of great films being given the praise and appreciation they truly deserved years after their initial release. Even Fritz Lang himself looked back on the film with a sense of displeasure. It's amazing to think that a film that has literally shaped and influenced countless movies, music videos, TV shows and so much more, could have taken such a beating from its first audiences.