Fritz Lang and Metropolis


Metropolis (entire movie, above), the 1927 silent film directed by Fritz Lang, is regarded as one of the most important and influential films of all time. The world’s first epic science fiction movie, it continues to serve as  inspiration for countless films, and forced humanity to look critically at it’s increasingly complex relationship to industrial and technological growth. In cinematic terms, evidence of its influence can be seen everywhere from to Soylent Green to Snowpiercer.

Aesthetically, it's influence is still present in popular culture, with contemporary artists like Guy Maddin and Tim Burton liberally borrowing stylistic elements from Metropolis is also a film that contains serious cultural and political messages. For example, the dystopian society it portrays was direct commentary on the possible result of the industrial revolution. Metropolis has also proved itself to be prophetic, as many of the themes it explored almost a century ago are as relevant, and pressing, today as they were when the film was first released.

Metropolis was one of the pivotal films of the early German expressionist movement (expressionism being an artistic style that encompassed many art forms, including painting, architecture, dance and film). Expressionists in all of these fields sought to express subjective states as well as ideas about society rather than simply depicting the physical world in a realistic manner, and Metropolis was one of these works, following in the footsteps of other German films such as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), Nosferatu (1922), and The Last Laugh (1924).

The Mediator Between Head and Hands Must be the Heart

The film portrays a society that is divided into two distinct classes -- while the wealthy live in an idyllic, technologically advanced city above ground, the workers struggle in dismal conditions underground.

A saintly woman named Maria, played by Brigitte Helm, gives speeches to the workers and urges them to wait for a "mediator," someone who will liberate them. This mediator turns out to be a man named Freder (Gustav Frohlich), whose father Joh Frederson (Alfred Abel) is the ruler of Metropolis. Rather than lead a Marxist style rebellion, however, Freder is destined to be the "heart" that mediates between the two distinct classes.

The symbolism of the heart is important here, since Metropolis depicts a world run by machines. This, of course, was a reaction against the increasing automation of modern societies in the 19th and early 20th century. The people working in the factories of Metropolis have been reduced to mere cogs in vast machines. One of these machines, named Moloch, after an ancient pagan god, is seen literally consuming workers. In other words, giant machines have turned into malevolent gods that demand human sacrifices.

One of the major statements Lang was making in this film was that society needed to return to a more humanistic mode, a core idea that is summarized with a quote that appears at both the beginning and end of the film: "the mediator between head and hands must be the heart."

Metropolis and the Uncanny

Some of the issues raised in Metropolis relate to directly to the essay, "On the Psychology of the Uncanny," written by Ernst Jentsch. One of the examples of the uncanny Jentsch gives are automatons or machines that behave in a human manner: a primary theme of Metropolis.

The inventor, Rotwang (Rudolf Klein-Rogge), even creates an automaton in the likeness of the prophet Maria to deceive the workers. This ends up causing a catastrophe that nearly destroys the entire city. Thus, one of the more obvious messages of the film is that the results can be disastrous when machines take on the role of humans.

How is Metropolis Relevant Today?

For a movie that was made almost a century ago, Metropolis is still eerily relevant. Although our civilization may not physically resemble the one depicted in the movie, in many other ways there are clear parallels. For example, in economic terms, the disparity between workers and industrialists is greater than ever.

Equally relevant is the fact that technology is playing an ever greater role in our society; the notion of robots or automatons is not nearly as farfetched as it was in Lang's day. Certainly, much has been written about both the societal hazards and ethical issues that arise with military drones. Surgical robots are also becoming relatively common in the United Kingdom, and while that may indeed yield untold social utility over time, the idea is still pretty creepy. Another new (and somewhat disturbing) trend are home automation systems and fully automated security systems which can be controlled through a smart phone to synchronize a household’s thermostat and locks… it's no longer the stuff of German Expressionism, or even the paranoid musings of writers like Ray Bradbury in the fifties.

Metropolis is a film that can be viewed on several levels. It can be appreciated as an amazing feat of early filmmaking or it can be studied within the context of the wider German expressionist movement. It can even, perhaps most importantly, be seen as a cautionary tale about what can happen when people depend too much on technology. - Brandon Engel

Mr. Engel is a blogger in Chicago with a passion for Victorian literature and vintage science-fiction films. Follow him on Twitter @BrandonEngel2.