Metropolis is a 1927 German expressionist epic science-fiction drama film directed by Fritz Lang. Scripted by Thea von Harbou, with collaboration from Lang himself,it starred Gustav Fröhlich, Brigitte Helm, Alfred Abel and Rudolf Klein-Rogge. Erich Pommer produced it in the Babelsberg Studios for Universum Film A.G. The silent film is regarded as a pioneering work of the science-fiction genre in movies, being among the first feature-length movies of the genre.
Made in Germany during the Weimar Period, Metropolis is set in a futuristic urban dystopia and follows the attempts of Freder, the wealthy son of the city's ruler, and Maria, a poor worker, to overcome the vast gulf separating the classes of their city. Filming took place in 1925 at a cost of approximately five million Reichsmarks. The art direction draws influence from Bauhaus, Cubist and Futurist design.
Metropolis was met with a mixed reception upon release. Critics found it pictorially beautiful and lauded its complex special effects, but accused its story of naiveté. The film's extensive running time also came in for criticism, as well as its alleged Communist message. Metropolis was cut substantially after its German premiere, removing a large portion of Lang's original footage.
Numerous attempts have been made to restore the film since the 1970s. Music producer Giorgio Moroder released a truncated version with a soundtrack by rock artists such as Freddie Mercury, Loverboy and Adam Ant in 1984. A new reconstruction of Metropolis was shown at the Berlin Film Festival in 2001, and the film was inscribed on UNESCO's Memory of the World Register in the same year, the first film thus distinguished. In 2008 a damaged print of Lang's original cut of the film was found in a museum in Argentina. After a long restoration process, the film was 95% restored and shown on large screens in Berlin and Frankfurt simultaneously on 12 February 2010.
Metropolis features a range of elaborate special effects and set designs, ranging from a huge gothic cathedral to a futuristic cityscape. In an interview, Fritz Lang reported that "the film was born from my first sight of the skyscrapers in New York in October 1924". He had visited New York for the first time and remarked "I looked into the streets – the glaring lights and the tall buildings – and there I conceived Metropolis." Describing his first impressions of the city, Lang said 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 hypnotize". He added "The sight of Neuyork alone should be enough to turn this beacon of beauty into the center of a film..."
The appearance of the city in Metropolis is strongly informed by the Art Deco movement; however it also incorporates elements from other traditions. Ingeborg Hoesterey described the architecture featured in Metropolis as eclectic, writing how its locales represent both "functionalist modernism [and] art deco" whilst also featuring "the scientist’s archaic little house with its high-powered laboratory, the catacombs [and] the Gothic cathedral". The film’s use of art deco architecture was highly influential, and has been reported to have contributed to the style’s subsequent popularity in Europe and America.
The film drew heavily on biblical sources for several of its key set-pieces. During her first talk to the workers, Maria uses the story of the Tower of Babel to highlight the discord between the intellectuals and the workers. Additionally, a delusional Freder imagines the false-Maria as the Whore of Babylon, riding on the back of a many-headed dragon.
The name of the Yoshiwara club alludes to the famous red-light district of Tokyo.
Much of the plot line of Metropolis stems from the First World War and the culture of the Weimar Republic in Germany. Lang explores the themes of industrialization and mass production in his film; two developments that played a large role in the war. Other post-World War I themes that Lang includes in Metropolis include the Weimar view of American modernity, fascism, and communism.
The screenplay of Metropolis was written by Thea von Harbou, a popular writer in Weimar Germany, jointly with Lang, her then-husband. The film's plot originated from a novel of the same title written by Harbou for the sole purpose of being made into a film. The novel in turn drew inspiration from H. G. Wells, Mary Shelley and Villiers de l'Isle-Adam's works and other German dramas. The novel featured strongly in the film's marketing campaign, and was serialized in the journal Illustriertes Blatt in the run-up to its release. Harbou and Lang collaborated on the screenplay derived from the novel, and several plot points and thematic elements – including most of the references to magic and occultism present in the novel – were dropped. The screenplay itself went through many re-writes, and at one point featured an ending where Freder would have flown to the stars; this plot element later became the basis for Lang's Woman in the Moon.
The time setting of Metropolis is open to interpretation. The 2010 re-release and reconstruction, which incorporated the original title cards written by Thea von Harbou, do not specify a year. Prior to the reconstruction, Lotte Eisner and Paul M. Jensen placed the events happening around the year 2000. Giorgio Moroder’s re-scored version included a title card placing the film in 2026, while Paramount’s original US release stated that the film takes place in the year 3000.
Metropolis began principal photography on 22 May 1925 with an initial budget of 1.5 million reichsmarks. Lang cast two unknowns with little film experience in the lead roles. Gustav Fröhlich (Freder) had worked in vaudeville and was originally employed as an extra on Metropolis before Thea von Harbou recommended him to Lang. Brigitte Helm (Maria) had been given a screen test by Lang after he met her on the set of Die Nibelungen, but would make her feature film debut with Metropolis. In the role of Joh Fredersen, Lang cast Alfred Abel, a noted stage and screen actor whom he had worked with on Dr. Mabuse the Gambler. Lang also cast his frequent collaborator Rudolph Klein-Rogge in the role of Rotwang. This was Klein-Rogge's fourth film with Lang, after Destiny, Dr. Mabuse the Gambler, and Die Nibelungen.
Shooting of the film was a draining experience for the actors involved due to the demands that Lang placed on them. For the scene where the worker's city was flooded, Helm and 500 children from the poorest districts of Berlin had to work for 14 days in a pool of water that Lang intentionally kept at a low temperature. Lang would frequently demand numerous re-takes, and took two days to shoot a simple scene where Freder collapses at Maria's feet; by the time Lang was satisfied with the footage he had shot, actor Gustav Fröhlich found he could barely stand. Other anecdotes involve Lang's insistence on using real fire for the climactic scene where the false Maria is burnt at the stake (which resulted in Helm's dress catching fire), and his ordering extras to throw themselves towards powerful jets of water when filming the flooding of the worker's city. UFA invited several trade journal representatives and several film critics to see the film's shooting as parts of its promotion campaign.
Helm recalled her experiences of shooting the film in a contemporary interview, saying that "the night shots lasted three weeks, and even if they did lead to the greatest dramatic moments – even if we did follow Fritz Lang’s directions as though in a trance, enthusiastic and enraptured at the same time – I can’t forget the incredible strain that they put us under. The work wasn’t easy, and the authenticity in the portrayal ended up testing our nerves now and then. For instance, it wasn’t fun at all when Grot drags me by the hair, to have me burned at the stake. Once I even fainted: during the transformation scene, Maria, as the android, is clamped in a kind of wooden armament, and because the shot took so long, I didn’t get enough air."
Shooting lasted over a year, and was finally completed on 30 October 1926. By the time shooting finished, the film's budget leapt to 5.1 million reichsmarks.
The effects expert Eugen Schüfftan created pioneering visual effects for Metropolis. Among the effects used are miniatures of the city, a camera on a swing, and most notably, the Schüfftan process, in which mirrors are used to create the illusion that actors are occupying miniature sets. This new technique was seen again just two years later in Alfred Hitchcock's film Blackmail (1929).
The Maschinenmensch – the robot built by Rotwang to resurrect his lost love Hel – was created by sculptor Walter Schulze-Mittendorff. A whole-body plaster cast was taken of actress Brigitte Helm, and the costume was then constructed around it. A chance discovery of a sample of "plastic wood" (a pliable substance designed as wood-filler) allowed Schulze-Mittendorff to build a costume that would both appear metallic and allow a small amount of free movement. Helm sustained cuts and bruises while in character as the robot, as the costume was rigid and uncomfortable.
September 12, 2012 by tanineallison
The Magic of METROPOLIS (Fritz Lang, Germany, 1927)
Made at the height of the German Expressionist movement in the Weimar Republic, Metropolis almost bankrupted German studio UFA, costing more than 500,000 Reichsmarks (at least $1 million in 1927). But as a result, Metropolis is one of the most spectacular and technically ground-breaking movies of all time. Set in the far future (the year 2000!), the film imagines a massive, industrially driven city, split between the privileged industry leaders and their sons who live lives of leisure in pleasure gardens and sports stadia, and the oppressed proletariat, who live underground and are treated no better than lobotomized robots. In addition to visualizing such a city–inspired in part by director Fritz Lang’s first visit to New York City–Lang also imagined an actual robot, who through some crypto-science and movie magic is transformed into a woman indistinguishable from her human model (except for being oversexed–watch out for her Art Deco striptease scene!). George Lucas has admitted that C3PO in Star Wars was directly inspired by Lang’s character.
Brigette Helm, who played both the virginal Maria and her robotic doppelganger, was only 18 years old when Metropolis started filming. Metropolis also features a definitive performance by Rudolf Klein-Rogge as the mad scientist Rotwang, one of many inspirations for Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove. (Both have prosthetic/mechanical hands–a trope that shows up in Star Wars too).
But despite their best efforts, the cast is ultimately overshadowed by the special effects. Massive scale-model sets were built to convey the scope of the futuristic city with its layered overpasses and airplane traffic. Each of the 300 automobiles in the photo above were moved by hand in a frame-by-frame stop-motion process. The production also took advantage of Eugen Schufftan, who invented “the Schufftan process,” which uses mirrors to insert live-action footage of actors into the same shot as miniatures. Multiple exposure was also used to combine many images in one (as in the images of eyes ogling the robot Maria)–this was done all in-camera, rewinding the same film over and over again to get each additional piece. The film took more than 310 days to shoot and required hundreds of technicians.
Lang is notable not only for his visual genius, but also for his “legendary cruelty” toward his cast. According to Frank Miller for TCM:
Whether it was just perfectionism or a sadistic streak (which could be mirrored in the violence in his films), Lang drove cast and crew relentlessly, with little regard for their health or safety. He spent two days rehearsing and shooting a simple scene in which Frohlich collapses at Helms’ feet. By the time he was finished, the actor could barely stand. During a fight scene, Frohlich dislocated his thumb, but Lang only gave him a half-hour to recover going back to work on the scene. During the flooding of the worker’s living areas, he kept directing the extras and children to throw themselves at the biggest water jets until they were almost drowned. When it came time for the workers to burn the robot Maria at the stake, he insisted on using real flames for the shots of Helm. At one point, her dress accidentally caught fire.
The original conception for Metropolis was a collaboration between Fritz Lang and his (second) wife, Thea von Harbou. Lang has claimed that Josef Goebbels offered to make him the head of UFA, directing films for Adolf Hitler (whose favorite film was reported to be Metropolis). According to the legend, Lang fled Germany by train that same night, in fear because of his Jewish heritage. (Although raised Roman Catholic, his mother was Jewish.) Von Harbou, a Nazi sympathizer, did not follow and they divorced, ending their decade-long collaboration. He eventually emigrated to Hollywood, where he directed such influential noir films as Fury and The Big Heat.
Metropolis Movie Review
June 2, 2010
The opening shots of the restored “Metropolis” are so crisp and clear they come as a jolt. This mistreated masterpiece has been seen until now mostly in battered prints missing footage that was, we now learn, essential. Because of a 16mm print discovered in 2008 in Buenos Aires, it stands before us as more or less the film that Fritz Lang originally made in 1927. It is, says expert David Bordwell, “one of the great sacred monsters of the cinema.”
Lang tells of a towering city of the future. Above ground, it has spires and towers, elevated highways, an Olympian stadium and Pleasure Gardens. Below the surface is a workers' city where the clocks show 10 hours to squeeze out more work time, the workers live in tenement housing and work consists of unrelenting service to a machine. This vision of plutocracy vs. labor would have been powerful in an era when the assembly line had been introduced on a large scale and Marx had encouraged class warfare.
Lang created one of the unforgettable original places in the cinema. “Metropolis” fixed for countless later films the image of a futuristic city as a hell of material progress and human despair. From this film, in various ways, descended not only “Dark City” but “Blade Runner,” “The Fifth Element,” “Alphaville,” “Escape From L.A.,” “Gattaca” and Batman's Gotham City. The laboratory of its evil genius, Rotwang, created the visual look of mad scientists for decades to come, especially after it was so closely mirrored in “Bride of Frankenstein” (1935). The device of the “false Maria,” the robot who looks like a human being, inspired the Replicants of “Blade Runner.” Even Rotwang's artificial hand was given homage in “Dr. Strangelove.”
The missing footage restored in this version comes to about 30 minutes, bringing the total running time to about 150 minutes. Bordwell, informed by the chief restorer, Martin Koerber of the German Cinematheque, observes that while the cuts simplified “Metropolis” into a science-fiction film, the restoration emphasizes subplots involving mistaken identities. We all remember the “two Marias”: the good, saintly human and her malevolent robot copy, both played by Brigitte Helm. We now learn that the hero, Freder, also changes places with the worker Georgy, in an attempt to identify with the working class. Freder's father, Fredersen, is the ruler of Metropolis.
The purpose of the tall, cadaverous Thin Man, assigned by Freder's father to follow him, is also made more clear. And we learn more about the relationship between Fredersen and the mad scientist Rotwang, and Rotwang's love for the ruler's late wife. This woman, named Hel, was lost in the shorter version for the simplistic reason that her name on the pedestal of a sculpture resembled “Hell,” and distributors feared audiences would misunderstand.
“Metropolis” employed vast sets, thousands of extras and astonishing special effects to create its two worlds. Lang's film is the summit of German Expressionism, with its combination of stylized sets, dramatic camera angles, bold shadows and frankly artificial theatrics.
The production itself made even Stanley Kubrick's mania for control look benign. According to Patrick McGilligan's book Fritz Lang: The Nature of the Beast, the extras were hurled into violent mob scenes, made to stand for hours in cold water and handled more like props than human beings. The heroine was made to jump from high places, and when she was burned at a stake, Lang used real flames. The irony was that Lang's directorial style was not unlike the approach of the villain in his film.
The good Maria, always bathed in light, seems to be the caretaker of the worker's children — all of them, it sometimes appears. After Maria glimpses the idyllic life of the surface, she becomes a revolutionary firebrand and stirs up the workers. Rotwang, instructed by Fredersen, captures this Maria, and transfers her face to the robot. Now the workers, still following Maria, can be fooled and controlled by the false Maria.
Lang's story is broad, to put it mildly. Do not seek here for psychological insights. The storytelling is mostly visual. Lang avoided as many intertitles as possible, and depends on images of startling originality. Consider the first glimpse of the underground power plant, with workers straining to move heavy dial hands back and forth. What they're doing makes no logical sense, but visually the connection is obvious: They are controlled like hands on a clock. When the machinery explodes, Freder has a vision in which the machinery turns into an obscene, devouring monster.
Other dramatic visual sequences: a chase scene in the darkened catacombs, with the real Maria pursued by Rotwang (the beam of his light acts like a club to bludgeon her). The image of the Tower of Babel as Maria addresses the workers. Their faces, arrayed in darkness from the top to the bottom of the screen. The doors in Rotwang's house, opening and closing on their own. The lascivious dance of the false Maria, as the workers look on, the screen filled with large, wet, staring eyeballs. The flood of the lower city and the undulating arms of the children flocking to Maria to be saved.
Much of what we see in “Metropolis” doesn't exist, except in visual trickery. The special effects were the work of Eugene Schufftan, who later worked in Hollywood as the cinematographer of “Lilith” and “The Hustler.” According to Magill's Survey of Cinema, his photographic system “allowed people and miniature sets to be combined in a single shot, through the use of mirrors, rather than laboratory work.” Other effects were created in the camera by cinematographer Karl Freund.
The result was astonishing for its time. Without all of the digital tricks of today, “Metropolis” fills the imagination. Today, the effects look like effects, but that's their appeal. Looking at the original “King Kong,” I find that its effects, primitive by modern standards, gain a certain weird effectiveness. Because they look odd and unworldly compared to the slick, utterly convincing effects that are now possible, they're more evocative: The effects in modern movies are done so well that we seem to be looking at real things, which is not quite the same kind of fun.
The restoration is not pristine. Some shots retain the scratches picked up by the original 35mm print from which the 16mm Buenos Aires copy was made; these are insignificant compared to the rediscovered footage they represent. There are still a few gaps, but because the original screenplay exists, they're filled in by title cards. In general, this is a “Metropolis” we have never seen, both in length and quality.
Although Lang saw his movie as anti-authoritarian, the Nazis liked it enough to offer him control of their film industry (he fled to the United States instead). Some of the visual ideas in “Metropolis” seem echoed in Leni Riefenstahl's pro-Hitler “Triumph of the Will” (1935) — where, of course, they have lost their irony.
“Metropolis” does what many great films do, creating a time, place and characters so striking that they become part of our arsenal of images for imagining the world. Lang filmed for nearly a year, driven by obsession, often cruel to his colleagues, a perfectionist madman, and the result is one of those films without which many others cannot be fully appreciated.
Note: Some of the restored footage shows small black bands at the top and left side, marking missing real estate. Expert projectionist Steve Kraus says this image area was lost due to shortcuts taken either in making the 16mm negative or quite possibly years earlier when the 35mm print they worked from was made.
This article is based in part on my 1998 Great Movies essay.
Brigitte Helm as Maria
Alfred Abel as Joh Fredersen
Gustav Froehlich as Freder
Rudolf Klein-Rogge as Rotwang
Heinrich George as Grot
Thea von Harbou
Drama, Foreign, Science Fiction