Metropolis: a Filmic Masterpiece

Sarah Okapal


In 1927, Fritz Lang created a place for himself in the history of cinema when he made and released the film Metropolis.  This film has become a significant influence on the film industry in many ways.  Metropolis is considered by many to be a landmark German film.  This film set many standards for today's science-fiction films such as Star Wars, Blade Runner, and 2001: A Space Odyssey.  Lang's use of mob scenes, providing a possible glimpse at the future, creating the model for robots, and elaborate scenes involving hundreds of workers have been used in many films since.  This film not only contains beautiful sets, but also a standard for science-fiction films that are still used.  The message of the film also has become important in today's society.  There can be no understanding between the hands and the brain unless the heart acts as mediator.  For these reasons as well as others, Metropolis is considered by many to be one of the greatest filmic masterpieces of all time. 

There are many ways one can interpret the importance of this film.  This is because of the many versions offered to modern audiences.  The original version of this film has not been available since it's release.  There have been several versions made since.  As the years have progressed the story has taken on slight changes.  The most common versions are the original German and United States versions, a 1980's U.S. version with a rock soundtrack and the recent re-release with restored footage.  Most versions keep the film in black and white, while the early 1980's version provides a sepia and sometimes blue tinted look at the world of the city.  The most recent re-issue includes a soundtrack that is a re-recording of the original soundtrack.  This version also offers the closest glimpse modern audiences can get to the original version.   

Metropolis is a film that shows the year 2026 from the view of the 1920's.  The wealthy ruling class lives in luxury in their skyscrapers while the working class is forced to sweat and slave in subhuman conditions.  The working class is a slave to the master class, and man is a slave to the machine.  The story of Metropolis provides a unique view of the future.  This film is about a working class rising above those that have oppressed them.  The character of Freder (Gustav Frohlich) is the son of a member of high society, Joh Fredersen (Alfred Abel).  One day, Freder is playing in one of the Eden like gardens of the upper class when a beautiful woman from the working class brings the younger children up to see how their brothers live.  He is immediately taken by Maria (Brigitte Helm), and wants to learn more about the lower class.  He then travels to the depths of the lower city and learns of how hard their lifestyle is.  Freder then tries to persuade his father to provide a better future for his fellow human beings.  Freder's father dismisses this idea.  Freder later makes another trip to the lower city.  In this trip he takes over the job of an overworked laborer.  After Freder completes the shift, he learns of a secret gathering of workers.  When he attends this gathering he finds Maria speaking, teaching the workers about the Tower of Babel.  He then decides he defiantly needs to make a change and tries to help Maria succeed in achieving her desires.  Joh learns of his son's escapades in the lower city and seeks out an old rival to help him keep the working class under his control.  Rotwang (Rudolf Klein-Rogge) has built a machine that he plans to be better than a man and indistinguishable from one.  Joh then tells Rotwang to make the machine in the image of Maria, to fool the lower class into following her into a trap that will bring forth not their success but their demise instead.  After the successful switch of the Maria's, the machine Maria goes to the lower level to thwart the plans of the low-class workers while the real Maria is trapped in Rotwang's house.  Freder realizes this is not the real Maria and tries to warn the workers, but they only see the son of a wealthy high-class man, and therefore attack Freder.  The machine Maria leads the workers to destroy the machines, which causes their city to flood.  The workers do not realize their children have been left down there, and it is up to Freder and Maria to save them.  Eventually the children are freed, which causes the workers rebel against Maria who they believe to be the cause of their problem.  The workers end up burning the machine Maria at the stake, and the real Maria is involved along with Freder and Rotwang in a rooftop struggle.  Freder is almost killed in this struggle.  Through this the workers and his father realize Freder is the connection from the brain to the hands, Freder is the heart of the machine. 

Fritz Lang has often been credited with having an amazing ability to film mob scenes.  Metropolis is no exception to this.  One specific scene in this film that is particularly fascinating is the scene in which the machine Maria, gathers the workers together.  This sequence not only shows off Lang's brilliant ability for mob scenes, but also shows Lang's ability in editing.  The scene begins with an establishing shot from a high angle of the crowd gathering.  The scene then changes to an up-close shot of machine Maria.  A shot of a city street where more people are entering in from all sides is shown next.  A shot of a worker gathering more people into the crowd is also shown.  These four shots are continuously repeated for several frames of the film until there is a large crowd gathered in front of what the mob believes to be Maria.  The machine Maria then tells the workers they must kill the machines.  The mob then rushes to the elevators.  Lang again uses a shot reverse shot sequence of the mob running towards the elevators and the mob on the elevators rising up.  The rising of the elevators could be symbolic of the workers rising up in power to overtake what has been controlling them.  After the mob arrives on the upper level, they run into a barrier.  They work at breaking down the barrier.  Machine Maria then mentions that no man or woman is left behind.  However, the next shot shows the children who are still on the lower level coming down stairs.  The audience then becomes aware that the mob in their anger has forgotten about their children.  The mob is then shown breaking down the barrier and machine Maria leading them to the machines. 

This particular scene uses the space it is given to show the vastness of the crowd and the immense size of the sets.  The sets while not having many details do show the city in a particular way.  The city is shown as having many crooked angles, giving the city a run-down look, which is symbolic of the destitution, the workers must live in.   Whenever the city of the ruling class is shown, the city looks as if it were new and futuristic.  

The editing choices that were made within this particular scene are important.  There are several shots that are repeated.  The scene shows many of the same angles over and over again in specific sequences.  By alternating shots of machine Maria and the crowd, Lang is showing how the mob is willing to follow Maria.  The choices made to repeat certain images while others, such as the children, were only shown a few times.  This is perhaps to emphasize the importance of machine Maria gathering the people, and to give the audience a chance to make their own opinion on what will happen to the children. 

The cinematography for this scene changes slightly with the different versions.  The 1984 version, which uses color tinting, changes from a sepia color to a blue color for this scene.  This forces the viewers to recognize the importance of this particular scene.  The black and white versions do not change between this scene and the ones preceding and following it.  Other than the color differences, and the slight change in quality, these scenes are identical.  The illustrious shots chosen by Lang for this scene as well as his choice in lighting create an almost magical setting for the viewer.  The up-close shots of machine Maria show the audience the dark side of the character.  There are not many other characters within this scene that get a close-up.  The majority of the crowd is shown as an extremely large group. 

Sound for this scene is affected by the different versions as well.  The original orchestral soundtrack gives the impression the workers are gathering and will overtake the ruling powers with the use of their heart, while the soundtrack of the 1984 version implies the group will rise above because of their strength.  In the 1984 version, the soundtrack also involves diagetic sound.  The sounds of the mob gathering and breaking through the barrier are added for effect in the scene.  The other versions of this film do not include these diagetic sounds, which add to the believability of the scene.  Since this film is supposed to be a silent film, the addition of diagetic sounds to the score, give the film a different voice. 

This film has a distinct view of society.  The film prepares the viewer for the possible future, of a ruling class that does not communicate with the working class.  Within the story, Maria tells the working class the story of the Tower of Babel.  This story is the foundation for the working class and the ruling class to live in harmony as one.  The story of the Tower of Babel is simple.  The thinkers decide to create a tower to rise above the rest, praising the world, its creator and man.  The thinkers however cannot devise a way to build this tower, so they hire workers.  The workers suffer many hardships during the construction, and do not benefit from the building.  The project fails because there is no one to interpret the vision of the thinkers to the labor of the workers.  The two groups are divided because the thinkers, who make plans don't know how anything works, and the workers, who achieve goals don't have the vision.   Maria states it best when she says, there can be no understanding between the hands and the brain unless the heart acts as mediator.  The working class needs to find a mediator between them and the ruling class.  Freder witnesses this talk and realizes he can become this mediator.  He then goes to his father, Joh Fredersen to try and give the working class a better lifestyle.  It is not until after Joh realizes he may lose his son, that there must be a better way for the society to exist. 

This film has an important place in the history of film.  The idea of the futuristic dark city was not used in films before this.  After this film however, many directors found themselves making the dark city the reality of the future.  Blade Runner is an excellent example of a film that was inspired by Lang's view.  Also from this film arose the model for the character of C3-P0 from the Star Wars films.  This character is an obvious replica of the machine built by the character of Rotwang.   Metropolis is often credited as being the first true science fiction film.   This film is now over 75 years old and still attracts audiences.  The innovative style of this film is considered by many to be far ahead of its time.  The future is not only shown as having a dark industrial aspect to it, possibly because of the effects of the Industrial Revolution, but also has having light sides with the stadiums and gardens the ruling class gets to enjoy.  The city above shows suspended streets connecting the buildings, as well as planes and automobiles all over the city.  This film also holds an important place in film history as being a part of what is considered by most to be the trio of true German Expressionistic films.  The other films within this category are Nosferatu, by F.W. Merneau, and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, by Robert Wiene.  These films were all representations of the low-class of society. 

This film could be further researched by comparing the film to other works of Fritz Lang.  Lang often uses the mob as a sense of society in his films.  The importance of the mob rising above obstacles to seek justice is an important factor in the moral of his tales.  Another possible way to compare the film is to look at other films of the time such as Nosferatu and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.  By comparing this film to the other German Expressionistic films of the time, parallels could be made as to why this particular film style was popular and important to film history.  Yet another possibility for study is to further look into how the science fiction genre has developed and been influenced by Lang's work in this film. 



Works Cited

  Metropolis.  Dir. Fritz Lang.  Perf. Gustav Frohlich, Alfred Abel, Brigitte Helm, and Rudolf Klein-Rogge.  Universum Film A.G. (UFA), 1927.