There are films that define a year. There are films that define a decade. There are even films that define a genre. However, films like Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, define an industry. The film has undergone several restoration attempts as well as being selected for UNESCO’s Memory of the World Programme, aimed to document the legacy humanity left should we be destroyed. To put it simply Metropolis is to film, what Beethoven’s 9th Symphony is to music.
Made in Germany in 1927, Metropolis is set in a dystopian future where the upper class live in a luxurious world while the working class labour away below ground, breaking their backs to keep the city running. The film follows Freder (Gustav Fröhlich) the son to the owner of Metropolis Joh Fredersen (Alfred Abel). He lives a life of frivolities but when he encounters a young woman named Maria (Brigitte Helm), he is transfixed with mystery and attempts to find her again. In doing this, he discovers his beautiful lifestyle may not be so beautiful after all and a prophecy regarding a mediator who can bridge the gap between the upper and lower classes.
You know the theory that everyone is related if you trace you’re family back long enough? Well this concept is entirely true in the case of Metropolis. You can take any classic film techniques and almost all the time, you can trace it back to Metropolis being the first to do it. Most certainly is was the first film to show a dystopian world on a scale unimaginable at the time, something that would be replicated in Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner. Star Wars has Metropolis to thank for the design of C3P0, using mirrors to allow actors to be placed inside Lang’s models has been used many times in early Hitchcock works and more recently in The Lord of the Rings film series. It’s astonishing to think that all these techniques we’ve come to identify originated in one place, one film.
Furthermore on the models, we have to talk about the city of Metropolis. This film was the most ambitious and expensive of it’s time and a lot of this went into pioneering the visual effects, and by far the most outstanding to behold are that of the citywide shots. These are remarkable with the most astonishing model being the Tower of Babel building. The city itself has a very futuristic look and even after all these years and decades, it still looks like a vision into the future we’re so far away from.
Any filmmaking buffs amongst you will probably identify Metropolis not just as a revolutionary science fiction film, but also a brick amongst many in the movement of German Expressionism. A movement that to film, meant new, revolutionary interpretations on the human condition. A lot of techniques associated with these interpretations are in abundance in Metropolis, for instance the darker shadows, shooting from high angles and camera tilting, even using stylistic sets like the ones we’ve previously discussed. Many have argued that this enables Lang to comment on the way technology consumes society and looking at the gigantic machines underneath Metropolis as well as the appearance of the distinctly looking Maschinenmensch (Machine human).
Lots of remarkable stories have arisen from this film. Two stand out as the most interesting, the first being the discovery of one of the copies, often cited as “The Holy Grail” of film finds. After the films original release, a quarter of the film has to be cut in order to be shown in America. The cut footage was believed to be lost until one day in 2008, the reels showed up in a small museum in Buenos Aires. Later in 2010, the film was shown with the footage on the found reels included before it was released on DVD/Blu-ray, the copy of Metropolis which I currently own. The second story centers around how this film potentially saved Fritz Lang’s life after it’s release. In the late 1920’s, Nazi Ideology was spreading across Germany, and one individual who took a liking to it was Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s minister of propaganda. After showing it to Hitler, he and Goebbels tried to convince Lang (of Jewish descent) to make Nazi propaganda film, Lang fled Germany later to escape the Nazi party.
I’ll be honest with you, I feel as though I’m more in love with the legacy of this film rather than the film itself, but the two most certainly come close in appreciation value. Metropolis is the kind of film that filmmakers dream of working on just once in their career and it would certainly be a stop on my fantasized time travel adventure. Fritz Lang’s image of a dystopian future has set the example for all science fiction film to follow, possibly for all time. If you have any copy of this film in your film collection, you’re a friend in my book.