In 1927, Fritz Lang’s Metropolis premiered in Berlin, accompanied by majestic symphonic music written by composer Gottfried Huppertz, one of the first orchestral works specially composed for films during the silent era. In fact, some of the film’s reconstructions and restorations were only possible using transcriptions from Huppertz’s film score cues. Metropolis was recut considerably after its premiere and the latest restoration of the film still omits portions of material.
Watching Metropolis in 2017, you will feel a nervous twitch in your right temple, and you will ask: “Why isn’t cinema this good anymore?” Celebrating its 90th anniversary this year, Metropolis remains the unadulterated template for epic science fiction. The spellbinding cyborg scene where the celestial machine-man in the form of Maria (Brigitte Helm) is created by the mad scientist Rotwang (Rudolf Klein-Rogge) will leave you breathless. A fable of war and peace set against a backdrop of machines, the prodigious balletic choreography, staging, and epic set design will make any discerning filmmakers feel inadequate.
Metropolis is mostly about the dehumanizing effects of human automation, overarching surveillance, and the use of technology as a force for the control of labor. The film’s vision materializes around us today in the form of call centers, intrusive digitalization, and city streets deluged with CCTV. Is it a question of life imitating art? Is it a cinema foretelling? Or is it simply a lucky guess? Whatever the case, Metropolis has informed countless science fiction works, including Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982) and the Star Wars saga. The film received the Freddy Mercury treatment with a Radio Ga Ga music video and even a disastrous truncated release of the film in the 80s featuring an electronic disco Queen film score. Generation Z kids won’t get it, Millennials won’t want to get it, but Lang’s opus continues to impact visual culture, fashion, and interior design to this day.
Its roots in early 1920s German Expressionist theater give the film an energy unique to that era. The quality and sheer ambition of the content will never be equaled again. We are not just talking about lush matte paintings and optical effects; we are talking about the radical political allegory that is Metropolis, and which has established a pioneering cinematic grammar for social activism. This type of progressive filmmaking will never happen again on this scale. Never.
Metropolis is a passionate call, and equally a passionate caution, for social change. Large sections of the film make an enthralling case for a new revolutionary spring, only to reverse mid-act and suddenly push an anti-revolutionist tone. Some parts of the film even imply that an authoritarian government may be in the best interest of society.
It is no surprise, then, that the film has been exploited as a propaganda tool by political movements on both the left and right. The significant Marxist declaration in the prologue, “These are your brothers,” are words that may swing with the proletarian psyche, as may the battalions of workers drooping to labor like the marching soldiers of the First World War. The first act takes an anti-industrialization stance; workers’ rights suffering at the hands of the technology used by the ruling elite. Later, during the chaotic revolution, the composer Huppertz wields syncopated snippets from the melody that has come to embody the French Revolution, La Marseillaise. Thus, the broken melodies carry an uncertainty, a doubt over the significance of the mobilization of citizens. The frenzied workers almost destroy both themselves and the innocent, as they heedlessly try to bring down the machines powering the city. The film cautions us on the wider self-destructive implications brought about by mass emotion. Lang’s depiction of the mob, elaborated later in his M (1931) and Fury (1936), rather than serving as an advert for leftist revolution, arguably mirrors Gustave Le Bon’s assessment of the frenzied “enthusiasm and heroism of primitive beings.”
These reproaches for and against revolution were in part due to different releases of the film. The bittersweet union behind the scenes may also shed light on its convoluted stances. Fritz Lang and his then-wife Thea von Harbou made several films together. They changed the world. Their public partnership brought about one of the most peculiar and productive artistic unions in cinema. She wrote. He directed. Did they love each other? Perhaps. Certainly creatively. It is unclear if Lang was a communist, but he was certainly captivated by the works of Marx and Engels. Harbou was intrigued by the Third Reich, eventually subscribing to the Nazi Party. She was likely delighted when Metropolis was championed by the Nazi regime.
One imagines, however, that Marx and Engels would have choked at Metropolis‘s epic medieval Christian imagery. Peaching for a social revolution from the Eternal Gardens to the Tower of Babylon was not what the Reds had in mind. The mesmerizing “M Machine” turns into Moloch, the Canaanite god of child sacrifice, and consumes the city’s expended workers only to return to its iron machine disguise. Indeed, the correlation between biblical motif and ideology seems key to the film, as it was in Lang’s own life. He waxed lyrical about a dark visit by Nazi propagandist Dr. Joseph Goebbels, who seemingly poached Lang for a job as the head of the National Socialist Film Studios.
Lang eventually did leave Germany, though perhaps several months after his alleged meeting with Goebbels. He was to partially disown Metropolis, only acknowledging its lauded merits decades later. Harbou, despite being a significant woman of pioneering creativity, was condemned to the dark caverns of fascism for historical deletion. Following their divorce, they never spoke again and their artistic relationship dissolved forever.
Metropolis, anachronistically today, is a dystopia with utopian activism; it is a tale of social change and an egalitarian technological society. Though an imperfect film, it stands courageously with its scattering commentary on civil liberties, caste, fascism, and social revolution. Metropolis may be sistered with Battleship Potemkin (1925), another film with strong socialist tendencies. On its 90th anniversary, it stands as a reminder of the influence cinema can have over politics.
Cristobal Catalan is a film historian, curator, and producer.