Wednesday, 1 October 2014

Review: Fritz Lang's Metropolis

Director - Fritz Lang
Screenplay - Thea von Harbou and Fritz Lang
Producer - Erich Pommer
Score - Gottfried Huppertz
Distributed by - UFA and Paramount Pictures

Fritz Lang's Metropolis (1927) is a Weimar-German film made and released in the midst of a time where the country was suffering from huge inflation within its economy. Despite this, it was the most expensive movie of it's time, clocking at a budget of over five million Reichsmarks. And it shows, as the sets, props, and other elements look like they were built with a costly professionalism uncommon in other movies in the medium's early years. No doubt, Metropolis helped pave the way for what we know today as the "Hollywood Blockbuster", for better or worse.

[Figure 1]

  One of the film's most prominent elements of course, is the titular Metropolis itself. The upper city, reserved for the wealthy upper class, is an art-deco paradise where all the sky-scrapers, bridges and other structures fit together like a neat jigsaw. It's image had set the standard for how a lot of cities in science fiction would look. Even some cities in real life seem to have taken a little bit of influence from it's architecture and layout of buildings.
  The worker's city, in contrast, is a cramped display of same-looking lifeless buildings and grime. And thus, it serves it's job perfectly. Though the film is in black and white, it is hard to imagine such a place with any contrast at all, even if the film were to have been shot in colour.
  The look of the film's setting is an infamous piece of the movie, and is familiar to even a large portion of people who haven't even seen the film. Likewise is the case for the "Maschinenmensch" (or "Machine-man"), as played in both machine and "human" form by Brigitte Helm. Being the first humanoid robot ever depicted in cinema, this character was featured predominantly in the advertising for the movie. It had influenced a how a lot of androids in sci-fi have looked, most notably C-3PO from the Star Wars series. It has since become an iconic part of pop-culture.

[Figure 2]

  The film opens with an insight into how the working class of Metropolis live, as they march slowly, grimly, but orderly from one workstation to the other. These opening shots set the mood effectively, and convey that the working men are an oppressed group of people expected to live like slaves, without even needing to show any of them doing work.
  Meanwhile on the surface, our protagonist - Freder Fredersen (as played by Gustav Fröhlich), the wealthy son of Metropolis' leader, is enjoying the spoiled life in the gardens with some lucky ladies. They are soon interrupted by the beautiful Maria (Brigitte Helm) who is snooping in on them to show the less well-to-do children how the privileged people live. After she and the children are escorted away, Freder is left curious, and goes down to the worker's city to chase after her, only to discover how the working class really live.
  When he goes to see his father, Joh Fredersen (Alfred Abel) for an explanation, the master of Metropolis dismisses his son's concerns and thinks the workers are "where they belong". Shocked at his father's ruthlessness, Freder returns to the worker's city in an attempt to put things right, becoming the "mediator" to link the two societies.

  Metropolis' plot in general is serviceable, though it should be noted that it was very simplistic, even at the time, considering the complexity of other sci-fi works, mostly in literature. Author H.G. Wells even criticises that "It gives in one eddying concentration almost every possible foolishness, cliché, platitude, and muddlement about mechanical progress and progress in general served up with a sauce of sentimentality that is all its own." and "I do not think there is a single new idea, a single instance of artistic creation or even intelligent anticipation" [1].
  The film also creates various plot-threads that go nowhere. For instance, in the first act, Freder swaps places with a worker, who he then tells to wait at another location to meet up later, implying Freder had a plan for him. However, the worker betrays his trust and uses Freder's status to loose himself to gambling among the rich. This is never brought up again, nor seems to have any real consequences.

[Figure 3]
  The story has a very obvious pseudo-Marxist moral, which a lot of critics, both today and at the time, felt was too naive and unsubtle. Interestingly, despite this, Nazi Germany's minister of propaganda, Joseph Goebbels was a considerable admirer of this film, as well as Fritz Lang's filmmaking skills in general, and even offered him the position of head of the UFA, Germany's leading film studio. Lang refused.

  Metropolis ends with an upbeat message and positive view of the future, as representatives of the two factions link hands, implying a prosperous union is about to take place. It could be said that it was the kind of attitude and message the film's country of origin, as well as the world, needed right about then, in it's between-war state.

Illustration sources:
Header image:
[Figure 1]:
[Figure 2]:
[Figure 3]:



  1. This is a very satisfying and well-written review Tyler - well done!

    Just be aware that the brief askes you to support your discussion with at least 3 quotes, and these have to be referenced using the Harvard method. Have a look here for details on how to reference within the text, and how to create your bibliography -

    It's also a good idea to link your images to your text more directly, so for example,

    'Likewise is the case for the "Maschinenmensch" (or "Machine-man"), as played in both machine and "human" form by Brigitte Helm (Fig 2).

    Looking forward to the next review!

    1. Thank you Jackie!

      I'll keep that in mind the next time around.

  2. Well done, Tyler - a thoughtful debut - so yes, just look again at what the brief asks of you in terms of content/conventions for reviews. Good stuff. Onwards! :)