The mothership of science fiction movies, and one of the most influential and important films in cinema
Please don’t be afraid when a silent film comes along on this blog. If you skip over them you’ll be denying yourself the immense pleasure and surprise of watching some of the best films ever made, and this week’s masterpiece “Metropolis” is one of those prime treasures you don’t want to miss. Colossal sets, groundbreaking special effects, and a literal cast of thousands come together so extraordinarily, that this film contains some of cinema’s most iconic images and perhaps its most astounding use of production design. There is nothing else like “Metropolis”.
Credited as cinema’s first science fiction epic, it is also lauded for having created the science fiction film genre and often appears on Greatest Films of All-Time lists (such as BFI’s Sight and Sound critics poll which placed it at #35). There’s no way to gauge the massive influence of this film, but a smattering of movies it in some way inspired include “Star Wars”, “Blade Runner”, “Frankenstein”, “The Wizard of Oz”, “Back to the Future”, “Dr. No.”, “Brazil”, and “RoboCop”, and there’s even a direct nod to it in Madonna’s music video “Express Yourself”. Its lasting impact is also demonstrated by the fact that in 2005, an original international style "Metropolis" movie poster set the record as the most valuable movie poster in the world (selling for $690,000, reportedly to Leonardo DiCaprio), and the original 1927 German poster is the world’s third most valuable (selling for $357,750 in 2000). In addition, “Metropolis” was the first film added to UNESCO's Memory of the World Register. This is one amazing film.
“Metropolis” is told in three parts – a “Prelude”, an “Intermezzo”, and a “Furioso” (terms borrowed from music). It takes place in a gargantuan city named Metropolis that rises high above the earth and dives deep below the surface, and in it live only two classes of people – the toiling workers and the privileged rulers. The workers live and work underground, sweating day and night to keep Metropolis running while above ground is the Club of the Sons where the pampered rich live and work in towering skyscrapers, play in pleasure gardens, and live off the profits generated by the workers.
The story of “Metropolis” is simple: “Freder”, the upperclass son of the all-powerful master of Metropolis, falls for a worker from below named “Maria" and searches the depths of the city for her. Along the way he opposes his father, discovers the oppressed conditions of the laborers, trades places with a worker, and encounters a mad scientist ("Rotwang") who has created an evil robot in the image of “Maria”.
Many themes interweave throughout the film (such as good versus evil, man versus machine, and various religious motifs), but at the film’s core is the idea that the only way to live with progress and technology is to unite the leaders and workers through understanding by using the most human part of us – the heart. Many of the film's themes resonate loudly today, and what makes this film so singular is the excitement and breathtaking style with which it is told. “Metropolis” is so spellbinding it is nearly impossible to look away.
This groundbreaking epic is a shining example of the extraordinary films produced during the 1920s by the production company UFA, based in Berlin, Germany. UFA (Universum-Film AG) began producing and distributing movies in 1917 in the midst of World War I. Because of the war, films made by other countries were banned in Germany, and UFA's original intention was to make German propaganda films. But by 1920 it was producing international films for entertainment value, and by 1923 it became home to the world's best and most modern filmmaking equipment. UFA allowed its filmmakers artistic freedom and the ability to experiment, and as such, it gained a worldwide reputation for producing many of cinema’s top aesthetic, most experimental, and technically savvy films, giving Hollywood a run for its money. UFA attracted many top talents in its day, including actors such as Emil Jannings, Pola Negri, and Conrad Veidt, and directors that included F.W. Murnau, Ernst Lubtisch, Carl Theodor Dreyer, Alexander Korda, and the director of "Metropolis", Fritz Lang.
With the coming of hyperinflation and Hollywood films becoming more popular in Germany, by 1927 UFA was facing financial trouble. When the Nazis came to power in 1933, they forced UFA to make National Socialist films, and by 1945 UFA was closed. It is also important to note that "Metropolis" was made during what was known as the "golden twenties" of the Weimar Republic, a time in Germany (particularly Berlin) of cultural renaissance, bursting with creativity and sexual liberation accompanied by industrial disputes, inflation, and fears of excessive capitalism. You can see the influence of all of this in "Metropolis", with its relaxed sexuality, homoerotic undertones, artistic style, depiction of a class-driven society, industrialization and mass production, and views about excess pleasures and capitalism.
In the years just before World War I (around 1910 or so), European artists began expressing their feelings of anguish and devastation through their art. They continued to do so during and after the war, creating what became known as the Expressionist Movement. That movement colored German cinema, and UFA became the world leader in producing Expressionist films for most of the 1920s. These highly stylized films pushed the aesthetic and technical boundaries of cinema, and "Metropolis" is among the finest examples.
Among the biggest and most important film directors at UFA was Fritz Lang. A master at visual storytelling, Lang’s jaw-dropping direction in “Metropolis” continues to dazzle even today. True to Expressionism, this film opts for a less realistic approach to its story, instead using exaggerated sets, forced perspectives, heightened acting, unusual camera angles, and innovative lighting to produce emotion rather than simply replicate life.
A major figure in German Expressionist cinema, Lang's work in “Metropolis” shows why. His camera angles and edits alone brilliantly escalate emotion in every scene. One example is when “Maria” tries to escape the clutches of “Rotwang” inside his house. While reaching for a skylight, she is screaming just as “Freder” happens to be outside the house, and because of Lang's camera angle (which looks down at the skylight and “Maria”) we clearly see a small part of the skylight is missing and know “Freder” can hear her. After a stunning shot from “Freder’s” point of view (scanning the front of the house to figure out where the scream is coming from), Lang intercuts “Freder” trying to enter the house, “Rotwang” restraining “Maria”, and “Maria” screaming – all transforming a simple moment into heart-pounding action.
Lang also employs many stunning montages and dissolves, most spectacularly as “Maria’s” doppelgänger does her erotic dance. He quickly cuts and dissolves between her gyrating moves, reactions of the men watching, collages of faces and eyes, “Freder” in bed, the “Thin Man” prophesying of the Apocalypse, and the coming of the seven deadly sins. Some shots last less than a second, and together they create one of the film’s many electrifying sequences.
Like many great talents who flourished at UFA, Austrian-born Fritz Lang left Germany for Hollywood in the 1930s. During his time in Hollywood, Lang’s remarkable background and genius at making silent films (and in particular Expressionist films) helped flavor Hollywood films and subsequently films all around the world. With a penchant for dark themes and the use of dramatic chiaroscuro lighting, Lang is often credited as having a considerable influence on the creation of the film noir genre that flourished in Hollywood through the 1940s and early 1950s. Though he made several silent masterpieces (including "Dr. Mabuse the Gambler” and “Die Nibelungen”), “Metropolis” remains his (and one of cinema's) most famous silent film. I previously wrote about Fritz Lang and German Expressionist films in my post on his first sound film, the masterpiece “M”. Please check it out for more on this trailblazing director.
In addition to Lang’s expert use of montage, camera placement, and dissolves, “Metropolis” is filled with groundbreaking special effects including those pioneered by effects expert Eugen Schüfftan. Don’t forget that this film was made well before computers and digital effects. Sets were completely built or combined with matte paintings, and all effects were optical (done in-camera), using techniques such as multiple exposures, mirrors, and even prismatic lenses. One of the film’s (and cinema’s) most iconic and spellbinding scenes is when “Rotwang” transfers “Maria’s” image onto his “Man-Machine”.
As “Maria" helplessly lies hooked up to electrical wires, "Rotwang" throws switches, lights flicker, liquids bubble, electricity flows, and hovering rings surround the “Man-Machine” as it takes on “Maria’s” likeness. This unforgettable sequence employed the use of multiple exposures, forced perspectives, miniatures, and circular reflective hoops – none of which are evident. Another of the film's iconic images are the shots of the city itself, with its skyscrapers, floating streets filled with moving traffic and flying airplanes. These shots were created largely through stop-motion animation. Many monumental scenes were filmed just as we see them, such as the children running through the flood waters, or the scene with fire (in which actress Brigitte Helm’s dress caught fire while filming).
The idea for “Metropolis” came to Lang when he traveled to New York by ocean liner and arrived at its imposing skyline which looked to him like a wall of buildings. His collaborator and then wife, Thea von Harbou, wrote a novel and screenplay based on his idea, drawing from works by writers such as H. G. Wells and Mary Shelley. Filming lasted over seventeen months, and with 35,000 extras, 200,000 costumes, and 500 to 600 skyscraper models, the cost of the film rose somewhere close to what would today be $50 million, bringing UFA to the brink of bankruptcy. The film was a financial disaster when it originally opened.
As a result, “Metropolis” was drastically trimmed several times for different countries. Germany also reedited the film, destroying the discarded footage. Lang’s original version was only seen by those who saw it in Germany upon its brief initial theatrical release in 1927. In 1972, an attempt was made to reconstruct Lang’s original version, and another version was reconstructed in 1984, set to a new music score by Giorgio Moroder which included songs by 1980s rock and pop bands (which helped make “Metropolis” a cult film). Knowing there was still missing footage, another restoration attempt was made in 1987, followed by what was labelled a "definitive" version in 2001. In 2008, a 16mm print of Lang's original cut was found in Buenos Aires, Argentina, which was then incorporated into a 2010 version, which is noted as the complete "Metropolis". When you see this film, make sure to watch the complete 2010 version (the film should run 148 minutes). I was very lucky to see the complete version on the big screen at the 2010 Turner Classic Movie Film Festival and was blown away by its overwhelming impact. If you ever get a chance to see “Metropolis” on the big screen – run to see it! It is an incredible and unforgettable experience.
Alfred Abel plays “Joh Fredersen”, the master of Metropolis and father of “Freder”. This German-born actor began his studies as a forester, gardener, and businessman before studying acting. After starting in the theater (where he worked his entire acting career), he began appearing in German silent films in 1913, with "Somdoms Ende", accruing 141 film roles by his last film, "Mrs. Slyvelin" in 1938. He worked with many top directors, including Alexander Korda ("A Modern Dubarry"), Ernst Lubitsch ("The Flame"), F.W. Murnau (“Phantom"), Alfred Hitchcock ("Mary"), and even appeared in Lang's previous silent classic, "Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler". He was married once. Alfred Abel died in 1937 at the age of 58.
Gustav Fröhlich plays “Freder”, son of “Joh Fredersen” and the man who wants to help the workers of Metropolis. German-born Gustav Fröhlich began on stage, making his way to the famed Deutsche Theater under the direction of Max Reinhardt. He began appearing in small film roles beginning in 1922 with "De brutue", and seven films later came "Metropolis" which was his breakthrough. Now a leading man in Germany, he also appeared in German versions of American films. He remained in Germany during World War II, though was rarely involved in Nazi Propaganda films. A popular actor in Germany through the 1950s, he semi-retired in 1956, sporadically appearing on German TV until 1981. Some of his other films include "Asphalt", Max Ophüls' "The Company's in Love", and "Die Sünderin" opposite Hildegard Knef. He was married twice. Gustav Fröhlich died in 1987 at the age of 85.
Rudolf Klein-Rogge plays “Rotwang”, the inventor and mad scientist in "Metropolis". Thanks to Klein-Rogge’s convincing performance, "Rotwang's" gloved hand, wild hair, and intense thirst for revenge became the archetypes for pretty much all future onscreen mad scientists. German-born Rudolf Klein-Rogge began acting on stage, and also became a theater director by 1914. He married actress and novelist Thea von Harbou (later Lang's wife and screenwriter of many of his films, including "Metropolis"). Klein-Rogge’s first feature film appearance came in 1919's "Das Licht am Fenster", and he worked continually, including in an uncredited role in the 1920 Expressionist classic "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari". He quickly gained a reputation for playing sinister and master criminal types, and appeared often in Lang's films (including "Spies", as the title character in "Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler", "The Testament of Dr. Mabuse", and as "King Etzel" in both "Die Nibelungen: Siegfried" and "Die Nibelungen: Kriemhild's Revenge"). He appeared in 94 films, ending with 1949's "Hexen". He was married four times. Rudolf Klein-Rogge died in 1955 at the age of 69.
Fritz Rasp plays the “Thin Man”, hired by “Joh” to spy on “Freder”. Many of his scenes were among those cut from "Metropolis" in the various edits and not recovered until 2008. The re-inclusion of his scenes helped the storyline make much more sense than it did in the edited versions. German-born Fritz Rasp began with a very successful stage career, working with such legendary directors as Bertolt Brecht and Max Reinhardt. He began appearing in films starting with "Shoe Palace Pinkus” in 1916, directed by and starring his friend Ernst Lubitsch. Because of his imposing looks, Rasp became one of Germany's most successful film villains. His other notable films include "Orphan of Lowood", and two G. W. Pabst classics, "The Threepenny Opera" and "Diary of a Lost Girl". He also appeared in two more Lang films, "Spione" and "Woman in the Moon". He appeared in 121 film and TV shows, working mostly on German television from the mid 1960s until his death. He was married twice. Fred Rasp died in 1976 at the age of 85.
Brigitte Helm plays dual roles as the angelic “Maria” and the “Man-Machine” temptress made in her image (she was also inside the “Man-Machine” costume). Among the most iconic robots in cinema, the “Man-Machine” was even inspiration for the character of “C-3PO” in the “Star Wars” sagas. "Metropolis" was German-born Brigitte Helm's first acting role. She was 18 at the time and turned 19 during filming. It immediately led to starring roles, beginning with "Am Rande der Welt", also in 1927. She easily transitioned to sound films, and during a successful film career of 37 films, often played vamps and icy femmes fatales. Disgusted with the Nazi takeover of the German film industry, Helm retired from acting after appearing in 1935’s "An Ideal Spouse”. Her other films include "The Wonderful Lies of Nina Petrovna", "L'argent", and "The Blue Danube". She was reportedly considered for the leads in "The Blue Angel" (which made an international star of Marlene Dietrich), and "The Bride of Frankenstein", but refused to go to Hollywood. Helm found the filming of “Metropolis” so grueling (perhaps because Lang was a tyrant) that she refused to work with Lang ever again. In 1978 Helm came out of retirement to appear in the short film "Wie im Traum". She was married twice. Brigitte Helm died in 1996 at the age of 90.
This week's classic is a landmark in filmmaking that sill provides awe-inspiring entertainment from start to finish. Nothing like it has appeared on the screen before or since. A true cinematic masterpiece, enjoy "Metropolis"!
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