Take Five – Metropolis
Beth Hughes shares her thoughts on Lang’s 1927 ‘sci-fi masterpiece’, providing us with a gripping philosophical insight into Germany’s complex twentieth-century political history.
Fritz Lang’s 1927 sci-fi masterpiece, Metropolis not only presents a thrilling story of love and revolution with a glamorous art-deco backdrop and iconic imagery, but conveys a snapshot of cinema history, revealing the numerous struggles and insecurities of German 1920s, or “Weimar”, society.
For anyone looking for a break from today’s chaos, this black-and-white silent epic immerses you fully in the futuristic utopia of Metropolis, where the wealthy live in towering skyscrapers and spend the days idling in lavish gardens. Meanwhile, the working class masses slave away endlessly tending the gargantuan machines that power the city in their subterranean world known as “The Depths”.
Inspired by the working class saviour Maria, the privileged but clueless Freder, son of the city’s ruler Joh Fredersen, becomes a Messiah figure, working to unite the classes for the good of the whole city. Their elitist utopia threatened, Joh Fredersen and the inventor Rotwanger conspire to create a robot clone of Maria to spread chaos and inspire the working classes towards a destructive and violent revolution.
…Joh Frederson and the inventor Rotwanger conspire to create a robot close of Maria to spread chaos and inspire the working classes towards a destructive violent revolution.
Fuelled by robot Maria’s violent rhetoric, the workers destroy the machines bringing the city to a standstill, but in their rage abandon their children to be saved by Freder and Maria as the subterranean city crumbles and floods. Inspired by the peril of the children, the workers destroy robot Maria and Freder unites his father and Maria in inter-class unity and the promise of a better and more equal future for the city.
On the surface, this film is highly enjoyable, transporting you back to the era of silent film with classic intertitles and bizarre exaggerated facial expressions. The Weimar era is famed for its pioneering and thrilling cinema, and Metropolis is widely regarded as one of the finest pieces of cinema to derive from it.
The Weimar era is famed for its pioneering and thrilling cinema, and Metropolis is widely regarded as one of the finest pieces of cinema to come from it.
In fact, the film is a valuable piece of cinema history. Labelled by many as the first sci-fi film, Metropolis creates imagery that are now staples of the genre: utopian cities crowded with bright lights, skyscrapers and elevated highways, and huge gothic machines consuming workers, both figuratively and literally. Throw in a mad scientist, star-crossed lovers and a repressive, authoritarian regime, and Metropolis becomes the blueprint for sci-fi films, inspiring the creators of Blade Runner, The Matrix, and even Star Wars.
Beyond the compelling storyline and genre-defining imagery, this film is a fascinating insight into the psyche and struggles of Weimar Germany. Between the two World Wars, Germany was a nation plagued by economic hardship and heightened class division caused by intense industrialisation and modernisation. This is clearly seen in the film with the workforce subjugated to the extent they literally live underground and exploited mercilessly by the rich living in paradise.
…this film is a fascinating insight into the psyche and struggles of Weimar Germany.
The film takes a Marxist approach to class relations, advocating class consciousness and highlighting the power of the working classes to revolt and bring about reform, ideas that were spreading across Europe from communist Russia in the 1920s. While not promoting revolution, as in the film this results in anarchy and threatens the lives of the workers’ children, it recognises the hardships faced by the working class and calls for increased inter-class communication and cooperation to narrow the gap between the super rich and the impoverished.
It was, of course, this economic hardship and discontent among the working classes that led in part to the rise of Hitler in the early 1930s, just a few years after the release of Metropolis. Some have argued that the film shows the latent facist and authoritarian tendencies that could be found in Weimar society. The workers mindlessly follow the evil robot clone of Maria to violent revolution, even abandoning their children, inspired by her powerful oration and use of religious ideas to motivate them, reminiscent to a modern audience of the following that Hitler commanded.
Some have argued that the film shows the latent fascist and authoritarian tendencies that could be found in Weimar society.
It would be inaccurate to claim that Lang predicted the rise of facism. However, throughout the film Lang warns against authoritarian leaders and the power of rage to blind people to the true effects of their actions and the motivations of their leaders. Perhaps aware of the volatile national psyche and atmosphere at the time.
The perfect introduction to the world of Weimar cinema, this film provides value and entertainment even today. The Marxist and anti-authoritarian messages of the 1920s still hold weight and importance for us today, but also provide a rare insight into the mind of a nation in flux at a turning point in history. A key part of German cultural and social history and modern development in both the realms of politics and cinema, this film is not one to be missed.