Sunday, 16 October 2016

Film Review - Metropolis, Fritz Lang (1927)

*Reposting to fix an issue with viewing the original post from 2 weeks ago*

If the transparent amount of effort put into the crystal clear restoration doesn't hint at this film's cinematic relevance, its scope does. In spite of its highly stylised, theatrical sets (exemplary of German Expressionism), the intricately imagined and the vast city of  Fritz Lang's Metropolis (1927) is truly believable, its cityscape vistas conveying a very strong sense of a massive metropolitan interior (see fig. 1.), used repeatedly to show characters moving great distances across the city. At no point in the film do you see a horizon, or any suggestion of the city's limits. In the viewers mind it is infinite, expanding far beyond the screen; this is one of the first examples of a film that doesn't simply plonk down scenes to tell a story, but builds a world. No expense was spared on the production; although sources disagree on the true total, between 25000 (Ebert, 1998) and 37000 (Hall, 1927) extras were employed in the production of Metropolis in order to truly present a densely populated mega-city.
Fig. 1. Metropolis cityscape (1927)
Bear in mind that Fritz Lang's Metropolis (1927) was released only 7 years after Robert Wiene's Der Cabinet Des Caligari (1920), born in an era when cinema was still trying to invent itself. The modern equivalent of the difference in scope and world building (in an emerging medium) between Caligari and Metropolis would be the degree of advancement between Namco's Pacman (1980)(see fig. 2.) and Square's Final Fantasy (1987)(see fig. 3.).

Fig. 2. Pacman Arcade Game (1980)
Fig. 3. Final Fantasy for the NES (1987)
Metropolis is both a love story and a tale of social revolt. Grand as it is, there is a sinister duality to the city of Metropolis. The glory of the upper city exists only because of a subterranean worker city, a literal social underclass who slave away, unacknowledged, to support the systems that sustain the city above. It is this class division that drives the dystopian vision behind the film's plot and over the course of the film we witness the workers ruinously rise up to overthrow the ruling class of the wealthy upper city. We discover the existence of this underclass vicariously through the experiences of Freder Frederson, the son of the city's creator, and who at the beginning of the film is just as ignorant of the nature of Metropolis as the film's audience. He encounters Maria, a beautiful woman who has brought children of the workers up from the lower city to see the opulence which is denied to them. After her departure, Freder is driven to find her, and in doing so is shocked to discover the existence of Metropolis' cruel underworld. What follows is a series of misadventures driven by the results of Joh Frederson (Freder's father) colluding with the mad scientist Rotwang in order to unleash a robotic doppelganger of Maria upon the city, an allegorical whore of Babylon, who drives the upper city into a frenzy of gross indulgence, and inspires the lower city to violently revolt. The film resolves these problems once Rotwang and the robot Maria are focibly stopped, with Freder stepping in to amicably reconcile the workers and his father.

Although the film ends on a rather weak note, rampantly high emotions mysteriously settled by the wholly underwhelming Freder, as Roger Ebert noted, Metropolis is "Considered the first great science fiction film" (Ebert, 1998). It serves as a basis for much of modern Sci-Fi. For example, traces of the scene in which the heroine Maria's likeness is replicated onto der maschinenmensch (see fig.4.) can be found in nearly every significant sci-fi film to date, from the electrode cap on her head - Matthew Vaughn's Xmen: First Class (2011) when Charles Xavier dons the prototype electrode cap of Cerebro, to the machine Maria is bound in - Luc Besson's The Fifth Element (1997) when Leeloo is fabricated out of thin air by genetic reconstruction, even down to the act of fabricating a human facade for a machine - Chris Columbus' Bicentennial Man (1999) wherein Andrew, a robot, is furnished with a human facsimile by a prosthetist (in fact the entire premise of Bicentennial Man hinges on the idea that a robot could appear convincingly human).
Fig. 4. Maria is held captive by Rotwang, strapped into a machine about to replicate her likeness onto der maschinenmensch (1927)
Fig. 5. Charles Xavier connects his mind to Cerebro (a machine) by donning an electrode cap (2011)
Fig. 6. Leeloo lies strapped down immediately following her genetic reconstruction (1997)
Fig. 7. Andrew's original robotic face alongside his human face (2000)
Grand scale aside, Metropolis notably made use of several simple, yet highly effective filmic devices to drive audience's emotional response. The scene in which Rotwang chases Maria through murky undergound tunnels in an attempt to kidnap her is strongly characterised by the manner in which he uses the light cast by his torch to terrorise her as he slowly catches up. Much of the scene simply involves Maria being 'caught' by the light and fleeing from it in terror, yet it succeeds in evoking the horror of being pursued and assailed in the dark environment. Much later on in the film, during the destruction and evacuation of the worker city, Freder and Maria are the last to escape up a stairway to the surface. At one point during their ascent the camera shakes violently and zooms in toward, and back out from Freder and Maria as they are flung to the ground by the cataclysmic collapse of the worker city - an effect which, again, is exceedingly simple, but by using the camera to simulate environmental instability, a tremor, we understand implicitly that they have not randomly fallen over, but that the environment has flung them to the ground, which is swiftly supported by a shot of the worker city collapsing.

Metropolis is responsible for a series of impressive cinematic firsts, but it was almost overly ambitious and it shows. The grandious visual ambition seemingly resulted in a neglectful approach to the story itself; Metropolis, with the exception of Maria, suffers from weak character development and a sometimes baseless narrative which could have easily derailed it, but as Roger Ebert concluded - "The gaps and logical puzzles of the story (some caused by clumsy re-editing after the film left Lang's hands) are swept away by this torrent of images. ... Even when the plot seems adrift, the movie itself never lacks confidence: The city and system are so overpowering they dwarf any merely logical problems." (Ebert, 1998). As a result of it's visual strength there is little doubt about the pervasive influence it has had, and continues to have on Sci-Fi in film. Jonathan Romney states, "Rotwang's creation is not the first film robot, but it was the first to be sexy and streamlined." (Romney, 2010). Metropolis spawned not only the future-dystopic megacity, but the idea that robots could be sleek, agile, human. Without Fritz Lang's vision of der maschinenmensch George Lucas' Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope (1977) would have been without C3PO, there wouldn't be the Replicants of Ridley Scott's Blade Runner (1982), and we would have struggled to empathise with any of the robotic characters in the film adaptations of Isaac Asimov's 'Positronic Brain' stories, if indeed they still existed at all i.e. Bicentennial Man, and Alex Proyas' I-Robot (2004).


Ebert, Roger. (1998) Great Movies: Metropolis. At: (Accessed on 27.09.16)

Hall, Mordaunt. (1927) 'A Technical Marvel.' In: The New York Times [online republication] At: (Accessed on 27.09.16)

Romney, Jonathan. (2010) 'Metropolis, Fritz Lang, 145 mins, (PG): Back to the ravishing and dystopian future' In: Independent, The [online] At: (Accessed on 27.09.16)

List of Illustrations

Figure 1. Untitled. (1927) From: Metropolis, UFA. Directed by: Fritz Lang. [Film still: Metropolis cityscape] At: (Accessed on 03.10.16).

Figure 2. Untitled. (1980) From: Pacman, Namco. Created by: Toru Iwatani [Game Still: Pacman Arcade Game] At: (Accessed on 03.10.16).

Figure 3. Untitled. (1987) From: Final Fantasy, Square. Created by: Hironobu Sakaguchi [Game Still: Final Fantasy for the NES] At: (Accessed on 03.10.16).

Figure 4. Untitled. (1927) From: Metropolis, UFA. Directed by: Fritz Lang. [Film still: Maria is held captive by Rotwang, strapped into a machine about to replicate her likeness onto der maschinenmensch] At: (Accessed on 03.10.16).

Figure 5. Untitled. (2011) From: Xmen: First Class, 20th Century Fox. Directed by: Matthew Vaughn [Film still: Charles Xavier connects his mind to Cerebro (a machine) by donning an electrode cap] At: (Accessed 03.10.16).

Figure 6. Untitled. (1997) From: The Fifth Element, Buena Vista International. Directed by: Luc Besson [Film still: Leeloo lies strapped down immediately following her genetic reconstruction] At: (Accessed 03.10.16).

Figure 7. Bicentennial Man. (1999) From: Bicentennial Man, Columbia TriStar Motion Picture Group. Directed by: Chris Columbus [Film Poster: Andrew's original robotic face alongside his human face] At: (Accessed on 03.10.16).

No comments:

Post a Comment