Metropolis: The First Sci Fi Epic
(This is the text of an audio review I provided to The Spirit Blade Underground podcast. You can find the episode here.)
Metropolis is not the first science fiction film. According to my copy of Phil Hardy’s The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction Movies (1984), that honor goes to the Lumiere short film “The Mechanical Butcher,” produced in 1895. It is, however, probably one of the most important science fiction films in history. Its influence is seen in many films even down to what we might call the modern era.
German film director Fritz Lang had just completed an epic six-hour film version of the Nibelungenlied that was critically as well publicly well-received. To follow up, he wanted to make a film about the future.1 He and his (then) wife, the writer Thea von Harbou, set about working on the story of class struggle that would become the core of Metropolis. When he and von Harbou and producer Erich Pommer traveled to New York to promote Die Nibelungen, he saw for the first time New York City and the visual look of the film took root. From aboard the steamship Deutschland, he “saw a street lit as if in full daylight by neon lights, and topping them oversized luminous advertisements moving, turning, flashing on and off, spiraling…something which was completely new and nearly fairy-tale-like for a European in those days, and this impression gave me the first thought for a town of the future.”2
The film took 16 months or more to produce (Phil Hardy notes that this was in a time when it usually only took a few weeks to shoot a film), involving over 36,000 actors and extras, 200 thousand costumes and sets involving 5-600 70-story skyscrapers at a cost of about 7 million Reichsmarks (it was originally budgeted at 800,000 Reichsmarks).3
The film was released in 1926 in Berlin and ran for about four months, resulting in a paltry box office of 75,000 Reichsmarks. This bankrupted the studio and led the American distribution partners, Paramount Studios, to demand drastic changes.4 The film was edited down from 17 reels to 10 reels for the US distribution (70 minutes of film were removed). The argument was that American theater managers wanted to be able to show multiple screenings of a film in a day and therefore make more money.5 The original edit of the film was considered lost until 2008 when a 16mm duplicate print was found in Argentina and restorers were able to reassemble the missing pieces with the help of the original musical score, censor cards and other documents. The most complete version possible, then was released on DVD and Blu-ray in 2010.
The film is a pretty standard tale of class struggle in the year 2026. The super wealthy live high above the streets of Metropolis in their gleaming skyscrapers while the laborers live underground and work at the machines that keep the city running. There are some absolutely haunting sequences of laborers at the shift change trudging either toward or away from the elevators that take them to the machine rooms, and another establishing shot of workers at the controls of the main machine for the city, moving rhythmically, as if they are parts of the machine themselves.
The story focuses on the son of the Master of Metropolis, Freder. He is a carefree young man shown at play with his peers at the sports arena, or flirting with the girls at the Eternal Gardens. Suddenly, he is confronted by a beautiful, serene young woman leading a group of bedraggled children into the Eternal Gardens and telling the children, “These are your brothers.” Just as suddenly, she is ushered out. When Freder asks about her, he is told she is only a daughter of one of the workers. Intrigued, he pursues her, until he comes into contact with the machine rooms and witnesses the soul-crushing conditions of the work place. Going to his father, Joh Frederson, Freder attempts to get some relief for the workers, but is ignored. At that point, Freder decides to join the workers and work in the machine rooms.
Freder later learns that the young woman, Maria, is a sort of leader to the workers preaching restraint and a message that one day a “Mediator” will come that will join the Head of Metropolis with its Hands. Freder’s father engages the scientist-inventor Rotwang to use his newly invented robot to infiltrate the workers disguised as Maria to keep them under control. The scene where Rotwang transforms the robot into the image of Maria is another one of the iconic sequences in film, and inspired the lab of Dr. Frankenstein in the James Whale version of Frankenstein.
Those who take issue with the overuse of CGI in films today will find the practical effects in Metropolis amazing, especially for their ability to transform a massive machine into the image of an idol of the god Moloch. The miniature city sets are breath-taking as well.
There is a great deal of biblical imagery present in the film. We see Freder at the nearly abandoned cathedral, imagining statues of the Seven Deadly Sins coming to life, and a figure of Death menacing him. The Robot-Maria performs a sultry dance at a nightclub, finishing by reclining on a couch in a pose that is reminiscent of the image of Babylon from the book of Revelation. The overall message of the film also has some religious overtones: “The mediator between the brain and the hands must be the heart.” Most critics find this message the hardest part of the film to swallow. In fact, H. G. Wells called it ‘quite the silliest film,’ and even director Fritz Lang himself revealed in a 1959 interview that he didn’t like the story. However, in a later interview he conceded that in talking with young people about “what they miss in a computer-guided establishment, the answer is always: ‘The heart!’ So, probably Thea von Harbou…was right and I was wrong.”6
As much as it pains me to say this, given my love for this film, it is not perfect. The acting, in places, is almost laughable, especially from that of Gustav Froehlich (who played Freder), and through eyes jaded by a sex-obsessed culture, Robot-Maria’s dance at the club isn’t that seductive. Having said that, the actress who played Maria, a young Brigitte Helm in her first role, does well in the dual role, especially as the Robot version of herself. The other actors who played Freder’s father and the inventor Rotwang are far more understated and their performances and therefore that much more powerful.
Metropolis is a visually stunning piece of filmmaking achievement that has its flaws. Its influence is visible on everything from the afore mentioned Frankenstein to Dr. Strangelove and from Star Wars to Blade Runner. The plot is pretty threadbare, and despite the biblical and supernatural imagery rampant in the film, the storytelling just doesn’t completely match up with its visuals.
On a scale of 1 to 10, I’d rate Metropolis a solid 8.5 (although on days I could go as high as a 9). The visuals are just that good that they overcome a lot of the weaknesses in the story.
I’d recommend either purchasing the Restored Metropolis (2010) or catching it in on Netflix or Hulu, or if you can’t do that, another personal favorite version of mine is the Giorgio Moroder version from 1984 that incorporates a 1980’s rock soundtrack. Its not as complete, but the film is just as fun.
1 Documentary: “The Fading Image”
2 Introduction, Harbou, Thea. Metropolis. Norfolk: Donning Co./Publishers, 1988.
3 Documentary: “Voyage to Metropolis”
5. “The Fading Image”