“I have recently seen the silliest film. I do not believe it would be possible to make one sillier… Never for a moment does one believe any of this foolish story; for a moment is there anything amusing or convincing in its dreary series of strained events. It is immensely and strangely dull. It is not even to be laughed at. There is not one good-looking nor sympathetic nor funny personality in the cast; there is, indeed, no scope at all for looking well or acting like a rational creature amid these mindless, imitative absurdities.”–H.G. Wells
“Those who understand cinema as an unassuming storytelling mechanism will be deeply disappointed in Metropolis. That which it recounts is trivial, overblown, pedantic and outdatedly romantic. But, if to the tale we prefer the “plasitco-photogenic” background of the film, then Metropolis will fulfill our wildest dreams, will astonish us as the most astonishing book of images it is possible to compose.”–Luis Buñuel
FEATURING: Gustav Fröhlich, Brigitte Helm, Alfred Abel, Rudolf Klein-Rogge
PLOT: The future city of Metropolis is starkly divided between two classes: the rulers who spend their days in pleasure gardens, and the workers who live underground and run the massive machines that supply the city with power. Freder, the son of Joh Fredersen, the most powerful man in Metropolis, discovers the existence of the underground world when he becomes entranced by beautiful Maria, a woman who prophesies to the workers that a Mediator will come to unite the two classes. Joh is not happy with this development and he enlists the scientist Rotwang to kidnap Maria and create a robotic duplicate of her to discredit her with the workers; but the doctor, who harbors a personal grudge against Fredersen, sabotages the plan.
- Metropolis cost 5 million reichmarks to produce (about $24 million in inflation-adjusted dollars). This would make it one of the most expensive movies of its era, and although its cost has often been exaggerated, it did almost send its studio into bankruptcy. The movie utilized thousands of extras: reports range between 25,000-37,000 people.
- Adolph Hitler was a fan of Metropolis, despite having banned another of Fritz Lang’s films, The Testament of Dr. Mabuse, for its anti-Nazi sentiments. Joseph Goebbels told Lang that he would be made an honorary Aryan despite his Jewish heritage (the director’s mother was a Jew who converted to Catholicism). Goebbels offered him a position as head of UFA, Germany’s national studio, which Lang declined.
- Lang’s wife, Thea von Harbou, wrote the screenplay for Metropolis and followed up with a novelization of the story. She willingly joined the Nazi party in 1932. Lang and von Harbou divorced in 1933. Lang fled to France in 1934, and then went on to Hollywood in 1936.
- In the early years of movies, the concept of film preservation had not yet been formed, and many movies were lost when the prints decayed or were deliberately destroyed. At 153 minutes, Lang’s original Metropolis cut was too long for many exhibitors of the time, and 30 minutes were deleted after the premier for international audiences. Portions of the original uncut prints of Metropolis did not survive, and it was long thought that a complete version of the film would never surface. In 2008, however, a nearly complete print containing an additional 25 minutes of footage was discovered in Buenos Aires. Although of poor quality, the segments were incorporated into existing prints of Metropolis and the film was re-released to theaters (and later on home video) as “the Complete Metropolis.” A few minutes of footage are still believed to be forever lost, however.
- Ranked #35 on Sight & Sound’s poll of the greatest movies of all time.
INDELIBLE IMAGE: The robot encircled by electrified rings as it takes on the form of Maria is not only Metropolis‘ most memorable vision, it’s one of the most iconic images in all of cinema.
WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: An allegory of steely skyscrapers and miserable sewers, Metropolis is a movie that reveals, and revels in, the unique power of silent film to create an experience that feels more like living through a myth than listening to a story. Divorced from dialogue, drained of color, it is the pure images that stick in our memory, like fragments of a dream. Metropolis is not the weirdest film on our List, but its influence is seen throughout fantastic cinema (the cityscapes of Brazil would not have the same shape without it, to name just one example). Metropolis is simply too big to ignore.
Trailer for the 2010 restoration of Metropolis
COMMENTS: There is hardly an ounce of reality in Metropolis, which is set in an amazingly realized yet dreamlike art deco world of tomorrow full of strange and sinister machines, evil robots, mad scientists and apocalyptic Bible imagery. The entire movie is a symbol, or a series of interlocking symbols. The city of Metropolis is a dualistic, hierarchical setting, with a sunlit world of intellect above and a shadow world of sweat below. This setup creates a structure with layers of allegorical resonances that, together with its astounding Futurist visuals and melodramatic leaps in logic, help the movie feel monumental, even when its explicit message (“the mediator between the head and hands must be the heart”) seems pedantic and naive. The movie shuttles us between the sunlit upper world, where oligarch Joh Fredersen and his Rotwang plot their crimes, and the cavernous mysteries of the undercity, and as we do so we also move between levels of political, religious and psychological meaning.
The political allegory of Metropolis is primary, and easy to grasp if we put ourselves in a Weimar Republic mindset. This brief flowering of German democracy between the World Wars was a fertile time for artists, but an anxious time politically. Capitalism flourished in Germany but it was under assault from Marxist intellectuals. The Russian Revolution of 1917 which brought the Bolsheviks to power had put the status quo in Europe on edge; although the Germans were generally favorable to socialist ideas, they were not inclined to violence and had no wish to establish a dictatorship of the proletariat. Metropolis, while clearly sympathetic to the plight of workers and hostile to greedy capitalists, in large part looks like a reaction to the Russian Revolution, and a fear that an unwise rebellion would wreck the country. Although Russia had not yet quite succumbed to totalitarianism when Metropolis was being made—Stalin would seize power and institute one-party rule in 1927, the year of the film’s release—Lang and his screenwriter wife must have had their suspicions about the ultimate end of a proletarian revolution. Maria, the voice of reason and the true friend of the workers, preaches caution and reconciliation. She recognizes the evil of the rulers of Metropolis but, using the metaphor of the Tower of Babel, she argues that the hands (laborers) and the head (management) are both necessary and must speak the same language. Here, the “workers’ revolution” is not a noble goal, but a suicidal mission to destroy the machines that make Metropolis live, and to flood their own homes. The instigator is not a well-meaning ideologue, but an impostor sent to foment revolution, specifically to give the rulers an excuse to use force against them. Metropolis‘ message to the working classes is, essentially: we sympathize, but don’t rise up and seize power or you will destroy society. Just wait and eventually things will work out. But what is the “heart” that will serve as a “mediator” between the classes? Metropolis doesn’t supply the working classes with an answer—just, whatever you do, don’t take up arms, you’ll wreck everything!
The second level of symbolism in Metropolis, the religious/Christ allegory, is also deliberate, and is perhaps included for cynical reasons, to reinforce the political message with an emotional response. The workers are advised to be long-suffering and patient (and meek) and to wait for the coming of the promised Messiah. Not surprisingly, their female prophet is named Maria, after Christianity’s go-to gal, although Maria’s romantic relationship with Christ figure Freder is accidentally Oedipal. Joh Fredersen is the vengeful God of Metropolis, spitefully bent on destroying the sinful and rebellious people of the city (though a flood, no less!) until the intervention of his Son. As for Freder’s position as a Christ figure, how much more evident could it be than when, taking the people’s torments onto himself as he works turning the hands on an absurd clock-like machine, he is symbolically crucified and cries out “Father! Father! Will ten hours never end?” (“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”) Besides the Christ allegory, Lang liberally sprinkles the tale with Biblical allusions—the aforementioned Tower of Babel story, which is acted out in grandiose fashion with thousands of extras, a reference to the workers’ machines as Moloch, and the parade of the Seven Deadly Sins, among others. These references reinforce the story’s mythical qualities, lending it a symbolic aspect that merges its political ambitions into religious sentiments.
Freudian psychology forms a third allegorical resonance, which is less obvious and calculated than the metaphors previously discussed, but shows how far the head-heart-hands metaphor can be carried. The city Metropolis is explicitly likened to a human being, with the upper classes with the knowledge, money and power as the “head” and the lower classes, who supply the labor necessary to support them, as the “hands.” What is missing from the equation is the “heart,” the mediator necessary to reconcile the competing needs of each. While the “head” here is not a perfect image of Freud’s superego, the “hands” look an awful lot like his id, and Freud’s entire concept of the “ego” is as his mediator between the two competing agendas. The id, of course, is the reservoir of bodily desires, and it is purely unconscious; how appropriate, then, that the “hands” are to be found under the surface, in a carnal geography full of pipes, machines and fluids. This symbolism, of course, is not entirely consistent; it’s just that the city’s structure of higher functions/lower functions with a mediator suggests it. As a pure allegory, the Freudian reading falls apart with Maria, who is a part of the id (workers) but urges caution like a mediating ego. Interestingly, the false Maria created by Rotwang acts precisely like an id, invading the superego’s pleasure center (the Yoshiwara nightclub) and inspiring chaos with her lewd “Whore of Babylon” belly dance. (Perhaps we shouldn’t criticize this sequence for not fitting into the Freudian allegory, however, because it makes little sense even in the context of the surface story—Fredersen wanted the false Maria to spread discord among the workers, not the men of the upper city). Regardless, the mediating function of the Freudian ego fits in with Metropolis‘ overall structure. Metropolis‘ internal ethics suggests balance, compromise and moderation are the key virtues, with the triumph of extremes leading to catastrophic imbalance, either Fredersen’s paranoid neurosis or the mob’s senseless rampage.
This non-specific psychological subtext of the movie, the idea of an unintegrated self trying to achieve a healthy balance just as the city of Metropolis must, is probably unintended, but it does help explain some of Metropolis‘ strange flavors. Our hero, Freder, is thrown into violent hallucinations at the slightest shock. The first time this happens is when he sees the workers scalded while working at his father’s giant machine; he immediately visualizes the apparatus as “MOLOCH!,” a steaming maw of full of grinding gears into which workers are thrown as human sacrifices. And upon seeing the False Maria (with her delightfully devilish wink!) in the arms of his father, he instantly falls to the ground and launches the film’s most elaborate dream sequence. It’s a delirium that goes on for more than five minutes, without which we probably would not have enough to latch onto to claim this movie as part of the “weird” genre. But what a demented dream it is! It is either intercut with false Maria’s “Whore of Babylon” dance, or the entire lascivious striptease occurs in Freder’s imagination. Freder hallucinates a mad monk warning of the apocalypse, followed by more gyrations from the sexbot disguised as a showgirl. Freder stares in horror, then we see the faces of Maria’s admirers contorted in almost comical lust; their faces optically overlap then dissolve into a mosaic of juicy, leering eyeballs (the scene is thick enough for an undergraduate thesis on “male gaze”). This segues into a parade where statues of the Seven Deadly Sins come to life, conjured by Death, who pipes on a femur bone. Is this a prophecy of Freder’s, his vision of the looming troubles of Metropolis? Hearkening back to the Christ allegory, does it represent his harrowing, his descent into Hell before his resurrection? Or is it just a fever dream by our high-strung hero, distressed by jealousy and his unfulfilled desire for Maria? All three levels of allegory may be operating at once, in series, which is what makes Metropolis stick in the mind as myth long after contemporary critics complaints of the “silly” plot and “naive” message have faded away.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“One of the last examples of the imaginative — but often monstrous — grandeur of the Golden Period of the German film, Metropolis is a spectacular example of Expressionist design (grouped human beings are used architecturally), with moments of almost incredible beauty and power (the visionary sequence about the Tower of Babel), absurd ineptitudes (the lovesick hero in his preposterous knickerbockers), and oddities that defy analysis (the robot vamp’s bizarre, lewd wink). It’s a wonderful, stupefying folly.” — Pauline Kael, 5,001 Nights at the Movies
“The movie has a plot that defies common sense, but its very discontinuity is a strength. It makes ‘Metropolis’ hallucinatory–a nightmare without the reassurance of a steadying story line.”–Roger Ebert, The Chicago Sun Times
“Even in 1927, Metropolis was recognized as the most ambitious spectacle in the decade since D.W. Griffith went broke with Intolerance—as well as the craziest… There’s no denying that much of Metropolis is absurd—and always was… Metaphor rules: Image trumps text.“–J. Hoberman, The Village Voice
Fritz Lang’s Metropolis – Official Website – Kino-Lorber’s website for the “Complete Metropolis” restoration with trailer, film clips and notes on the restoration (video requires QuickTime)
Metropolis – The British distributor’s Metropolis site has a nice stills gallery and a .pdf pressbook
IMDB LINK: Metropolis (1927)
OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:
Metropolis (1926) Overview – Includes four clips from the film and extensive notes by Frank Miller of Turner Classic Movies
Metropolis (Comparison – Restored Version (2001) – Restored Version (2010)) – An extremely detailed explanation of the differences between the 2001 restoration of Metropolis and the “complete” version with the footage discovered in 2008
The Full ‘Metropolis’ – The New York Times report on the discovery of the missing footage
Metropolis Restored: The Cinefastique Podcast – An hour-long podcast from the editors of Cinefastique, mostly devoted to Metropolis’ 2010 restoration
Yoshiwara – This site that bills itself as “the Metropolis fan base” does not seem to be updated very often but there is some good info here on the various restorations through the years
The Occult Symbolism of Movie “Metropolis” and it’s Importance in Pop Culture – There are some nice observations in this article from “Vigilant Citizen” that nevertheless comes to a paranoid conclusion
CAPSULE: GIORGIO MORODER PRESENTS METROPOLIS (1927/1984) – G. Smalley‘s review of Moroder’s controversial 1984 cut of Metropolis, scored to 1980s pop/rock
REPORT: THE COMPLETE METROPOLIS  (2010 RESTORATION) – Alex Kittle‘s contemporaneous report on the theatrical release of “The Complete Metropolis”
“Metropolis: New Revised Edition” – Theda von Harbou’s original novelization of the screenplay
“Fritz Lang’s Metropolis: Cinematic Visions of Technology and Fear (Studies in German Literature Linguistics and Culture)” – An anthology of critical writings on Metropolis through the years
“Metropolis (BFI Film Classics)” – The British Film Institute’s monograph on the movie by Professor Thomas Elaesser
DVD INFO: For years Metropolis was available in public domain releases of wildly varying quality. This is no longer the case, as the film’s copyright was restored in 1996. Now, the definitive North American release is Kino Lorber’s “Complete Metropolis” 2 DVD set (buy). The restored film looks fantastic, although the footage discovered in 2008 is in poor condition, scratchy, covered in vertical lines, and in a slightly different aspect ratio. This is fine, however, because it lets you clearly identify the new scenes, and true vintage film fans find the artifacting of old film stock to be one of its charms. Along with the visuals, the original 1927 Gottfried Huppertz score has been restored and is heard for the first time outside the film’s German premiere. The second disc contains two features on the restoration process and the new footage. The exact same content is available on a single Blu-ray disc (buy).
Metropolis is also available for rent or download on-demand (rent or buy).