(Dir. Fritz Lang, Germany, 1926)

[part of a BFI essays collection]

Metropolis boasts some of the most startling and memorable images in science fiction cinema. Indeed, the robot Maria has become a defining icon of the genre, clearly influencing concept designs for C-3PO in Star Wars (1977). Like many science fiction movies, Metropolis was on the cutting edge of film technology, making extensive use of Eugen Schüfftan's composite image process, which allowed actors to be combined with detailed models to give the appearance that they were on vast sets. Many of the models were built from just one expressionistic perspective, allowing them to be filmed from a specific angle; a new angle required a new model or set. Whilst Metropolis glories in images of mammoth future machines powering expressionist skyscrapers, it also pays homage to a gothic style. Below the glass towers and sky-roads, the dark dirty streets have been forgotten by the light in a future vision that would later lend much to the post-modernist world of Ridley Scott's Blade Runner (1982). Fritz Lang's vision is marred only by the curious notion that this sleek future would employ bi-planes, and by a story so banal that it led H.G. Wells to describe Metropolis as "quite the silliest film". Despite the irony of this comment from the screenwriter of Things to Come (1936), Wells is right.

Legend has it that Lang got the idea for Metropolis as he sailed into New York harbour in 1924. In a concept which owes something to Karel Čapek's 1920 stage play R.U.R. - Rossum's Universal Robots, Metropolis imagines its mammoth machines driven by subterranean workers. Freder, heir to this metropolitan empire, accidentally discovers these workers and their spiritual guide, Maria; guilt-ridden and now in love, Freder takes his place among the machines. Freder's father finds out and exhorts scientist-cum-sorcerer Rotwang to replace Maria with a robot. The robot, for no apparent reason, encourages the workers to revolt and destroy their underground world. The particularly trite ending sees the real Maria acting as mediator between the workers and the elite.

Producer, Erich Pommer, employed over 37,000 extras and spent over 7 million Deutsch Marks realising Lang's dream. Metropolis was easily the most expensive film to date, almost bankrupting Europe's greatest film company, UFA. However, it was not a financial success. When Germany's film companies were 'acquired' by Goebbels' Nazi propaganda agency in 1933, Lang was 'asked' to become the Third Reich's official film maker. Lang responded by leaving Germany, eventually to ply his mastery in Hollywood. Much of UFA's output was destroyed; the original version of Metropolis, running at a reputed 3½ hours was lost - which may account for the arcane storyline in extant versions. A good account of the 'restorations' and 'reconstructions' which have attempted to recapture Lang's vision is given in Thomas Elsaesser's BFI Film Classic text. Perhaps the most contentious of these versions is Georgio Moroder's 1984 tinted reconstruction with its contemporary rock soundtrack. This is described as bringing together all available material from the film, including still photographs - a total of 83 minutes; however, this was followed in 1992 by a "Director's version Newly restored", totalling 139 minutes! Neither of these versions contains scene 103, indicated as pivotal to Lang's original vision by Enno Patalas in his 1986 Camera Obscura article.

In 2008, a complete, pre-censorship, general release print was found in an Argentinian museum archive. This 16mm version has been used to fill-in gaps in the various 35mm versions; the reconstructed version is now available on DVD and Blu-ray (for more information, go here).

Germany; Universum Film A.G. (UFA); 80-210 minutes (and counting); UK cert. PG; B&W, silent.
Producer: Erich Pommer; Writers: Fritz Lang & Thea von Harbou; Cinematography: Karl Freund & Günther Rittau; Art Direction: Otto Hunte, Erich Kettlehut, Karl Vollbrecht; Special Effects: Ernst Kunstman & Eugen Schüfftan.
Cast. Freder Fredersen: Gustav Fröhlich; Maria/Robot: Brigitte Helm; Johhan Fredersen: Alfred Abel; C.A. Rotwang: Rudolf Klein-Rogge; Slim: Fritz Rasp; Josaphat: Theodor Loos.

Metropolis, Thomas Elsaesser, 2000, London: BFI (Classics).
"Metropolis": Mother-City - "Mittler" - Hitler, Roger Dadoun, translated by Arthur Goldhammer in Camera Obscura 15 (fall), 1986, pp.136-63.
"Metropolis", Scene 103, Enno Patalas, translated by Miriam Hansen in Camera Obscura 15 (fall), 1986, pp.165-73. Also in Constance Penley et al. 1991, pp.160-69. (see below)
Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang, Pauline Kael, 1970, London: Calder and Boyars. [review]
Between the Boys and Their Toys: The Science Fiction Film, Susan Thomas, in Armitt, 1991, 109-122.1991. [article reference] (see below)
Where No Man Has Gone Before: Women and Science Fiction, edited by Lucie Armitt, 1991, London: Routledge.
Close Encounters: Film, Feminism and Science Fiction, edited by
Constance Penley, Elisabeth Lyon, Lynn Spigel and Janet Bergstrom, 1991, Minneapolis and Oxford: University of Minnesota Press.

previous essay BFI index next essay