Jetpacks, time travel, teleportation and robots are classic flights of fantasy of the far future. As technology rapidly evolves, images of what may be become more elaborate, more fascinating, more open to possibility and science fiction follows suit. In the first quarter of the 20th century, Fritz Lang produced his vision of the future – a giant city of glittering neon spires stretching past high-rise highways and decorated with biplanes circling lavish nightclubs. Metropolis is a unique science fiction film captured at the pinnacle of German expressionism by one of Europe’s greatest directors.
‘You cannot make a social conscious picture in which you say that the intermediary between the hand and the brain is the heart. I mean, that’s a fairytale – definitely’. Lang speaks of the central mantra of Metropolis. The gargantuan city of metal and glass twinkles for the rich and elite exercising in Olympian courtyards or relaxing in Pleasure Gardens, but the Utopia balances atop a steam filled dystopia where workers slave over giant machines. The elite are the ‘Brains’ and the slaves the ‘Hands’, they await a mediator who may just be Freder (Alfred Abel), the son of the grand architect of the megalopolis.
This fairytale slant is a strong theme which shapes Metropolis. Lang places archaic roots within the context of the following century; the Wizard is mad scientist Rotwang (Rudolf Klein-Rogge), the King is an architect of the city, the virtuous princess (Brigitte Helm) preaches to workers of peace and, of course, the prince is the hero. These epic roots are almost used as a way to read Lang’s unique vision. It simplifies the world into base dualities of other epics; Good vs Evil, Hands vs Brain, Good Maria vs Evil Maria, aristocratic Freder literally swaps position with a lowly worker, but two current political dualities of 1927 may be major influences. Plutocracy vs Labour is prominent, and Metropolis mirrors the rise of Marxism and in the revolutionary finale. The second is perhaps a subtle influence rising on the periphery of the filmmaker – Nazism.
Fritz Lang was a half Jewish Austrian living in his beloved city Berlin. His wife of the time, Thea Von Harbou, was an early supporter of the Nazi party, but the party manifesto caused shadows on the horizon for keen observers. The facade of a pristine world on the surface and a group persecuted away from the giddy happiness of others is perhaps Lang’s rendition of a world of unopposed Nazism. After the premier of Metropolis, Goebbels and Hitler met with Lang, stating their adoration for his epic and pressured the director to create THE nazi film. When Lang cautiously explained his origin, they cooly replied ‘Mr Lang, we decide who is Jewish and who is not’. Lang fled Berlin the same night. Perhaps the director had diluted his political ideology too far. He would go on to create a Nazi film in 1944 – The Ministry of Fear, though this was probably not as the dictator imagined.
‘I am an eye man, not an ear man’ is an infamous quote by the auteur who learned his craft as German Expressionism distorted the silver screen. Metropolis, like his silent work before and sound movies after, is a narrative related in confident and inventive pictures. In an early sequence, the camera pulls back further and further with each shot until unveiling the final panoramic view of the New Tower of Babel. Over 30 superimpositions and the Schufftan effect made this shot possible, and it remains an iconic image of what may be.
Lang wields a blend of expressionism and mythic cinematography throughout to create evocative sequences of a nightmarish future. The early panoramic evokes the awe of a fairytale castle but replaces it with glistening metal work and sleek design. The wizard operates on the greatest scientific achievement in a decrepit shack untouched by progress. The image of the streamlined robot burnt at the stake like a medieval witch is an intriguing oxymoron. Evil Maria’s dance of Chaos in a futuristic nightclub is a bewildering sequence of swarming and staring eyes greedily panting over Maria swaying upon a throne of the seven deadly sins.
The science aspects work much the same way. In the underworld, workers rapidly direct dials to illuminated points unendingly. This act offers as much science as brightly decorated command boards in Star Trek, but it is of little importance, it is clearly tortuous and compounded in its hideousness as it transforms into a hungry beast gobbling up sacrifices. Maria’s likeness transferred to the Machine is justified scientifically by bubbling test tubes, nondescript wires running across the lab and eerie rings of light drifting over the pinnacle of technology. The science, like the construction and the visuals, operate on dream logic.
Metropolis is a film of such profound explosion of ideas that it echoes throughout cinematic history. The sleek Machine Man is the blue print for dithering C-3PO. The human facade of the robot is a Replicant prototype. The creator Rotwang is the basis for all great mad geniuses, his wild hair reminiscent of Back to the Future’s Doc Brown. The mechanical hand inspired Kubrick’s mad genius Dr. Strangelove. Of course, the city of Metropolis itself became the home of Superman, but is visited in rain drenched Blade Runner, Dark City, gothic Gotham, Alphaville and dilapidated Akira.
In 2008, a copy of Metropolis was discovered in Buenos Aires and included 25 lost minutes of footage. These negatives, printed to 16mm and of rather poor quality, nevertheless nearly complete the entirety of the Science Fiction masterpiece and allow it to be seen as Lang intended.
At the zenith of The New Tower of Babylon sits the office of grand architect Joh Fredersen. In a moment of silence, away from the trudge of workers marching in weary unison and the glamour of dizzying nightclubs is a view of his sprawling city stretching infinitely beyond the horizon. It is a shot which mirrors our awe and a proud creator absorbing his genius creation.