Metropolis (1927)

Directed by Fritz Lang

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Alright so here are the influences of Metropolis that I’ve gathered thus far:

  • C-3PO, the name of Superman’s city, Dark City (1998), Logan’s Run (1976), Brazil (1985), Blade Runner (1982), Minority Report (2002), really any sci-fi movie, the use of the “Schüfftan Process” (to combine miniature models and people in the same shot), the “Radio Gaga” (Queen) music video, a Madonna music video, The Hudsucker Proxy (1994), Tim Burton’s Batman (1989), Jacques Tati’s Playtime (1967)Dr. Frankenstein, the basic idea of a mad scientist (Back to the FutureRick and Morty), etc.

From what I’ve read this was one of the first ‘serious’ science-fiction films.  And not only that it’s quite grim, more of a horror film that eventually inspires optimism than some depiction of an exciting, shiny new future.

In Metropolis the rich literally live on top of the poor (Hell this dynamic even appeared just as literally in Jordan Peele’s Us.  The more I think about it the more I see this film’s influence).  The city is controlled by one man living in his version of the ‘Tower of Babel,” which is maintained by the anonymous working class.  They are laborers who shuffle into and out of the factories like soldiers heading to or returning from the front lines of war.

At one early on we even see a machine malfunction and literally consume many such workers, only to be ignored and forgotten moments later.  The important witness to this is the main character, Freder Frederson (Gustav Fröhlich), the son of the city’s leader, Joh (Alfred Abel).  Soon after the film begins he has his eyes opened to the horrors going on underneath his feet.  This happens as he tries to follow a woman, Maria (Brigitte Helm), with whom he has quickly become enchanted.

She is a prophet down below who inspires many followers to believe in the imminent arrival of the “mediator,” someone to connect the “head” and the “hand,” aka the above and the below.  This Jesus figure will be Freder, and he takes to the cause almost immediately.

Fearful of the lower class, Joh consults his mad scientist friend Rotwang (Rudolf Klein-Rogge) who reveals his recent invention, a robot called “The Machine Man.”  He will later takes Maria’s likeness for the machine and have it preach words of violence to the lower class, hoping to incite a riot which can then justify Joh’s subsequent use of force to put them down.

The politics of this film are worn on its sleeve, just as is the religious element of the story. Metropolis is famous for the visual world it created, one that isn’t just hyper realistic, with both elements of horror and grandiosity, but so too infused with gothic elements, including a church-like scientific laboratory and a final battle that takes place besides the gargoyles on top of a cathedral.

This juxtaposition of old and new, particularly the way the ‘old’ is sandwiched in, can be seen in many subsequent movies, including (to name a couple) Up (2009) and, of all things, Stuart Little (1999)…

Such a futuristic world is almost cancerous, with the old church/lab like a relic whose existence is a mistake in the industrial genetic code.  That spreading world is endless, at times so blocky and abstract that you’re not even sure which way is up.  It’s the same futuristic worlds as in so many modern science fiction films, all dense and luminous, at once awe-inspiring and horrifying.

Metropolis seems to me the most blunt example of the horrors of capitalism.  It’s the rich and the poor, to the extreme, with no semblance of a middle class.  The rich are powerful and ignorant, for the most part, and the poor are constantly suffering.  What the rich aspire to isn’t necessarily bad, or really not bad by any means, but it does require the obscene sacrifice of the poor.  As Maria explains when she compares Metropolis to the Tower of Babel, what someone like Joh aspires to, to construct a tower to reach the heavens, simply requires the labor of many.  And for their part they don’t share in his ambition, hence the disconnect between the head and the hand.

The movie is quite clear with what it wants to say upfront, but it never quite indicts those in power as much as you might expect.  In the end they make a certain kind of peace, but it’s hard to imagine what the future of Metropolis looks like.  In a way the film softens as it goes on, even as it deals with mass riots and burns someone at the stake.

Really there’s just a lot going on here in a short amount of time, but the lasting legacy of Metropolis has less to do with the story and more with the imagery.  In fact most of what I think is considered so transcendent about this film comes in the first twenty or thirty minutes, in those wide shots of the city above and below, and certainly in the fatal machine explosion which Freder witnesses.  It’s an undeniable spectacle, and even by today’s standards it’s quite a sight.

Up Next: It’s Impossible to Learn to Plow by Reading Books (1988), Diane (2018), M (1931)

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