Production: Ufa; released in the United States by Paramount
Direction: Fritz Lang
Screenplay: Thea von Harbou; based on her novel of the same name
Cinematography: Karl Freund and Gunther
Maria: Brigitte Helm
Joh Freddersen: Alfred Abel
Fredder: Gustav Frohlich
Rotwang: Rudolf Klein-Rogge
"Metropolis", employed the
cinematic style known as "German Expressionism", an
influential early twentieth century artistic movement. Rejecting
the simple reproduction of reality, this movement applied nonnaturalistic
forms in an abstract symbolic approach to thematic material. Most
films created during this period were produced in studios which
encouraged a stylized approach and allowed for total control of
the films visual elements.
The style that evolved was highly artificial:
stylized and distorted sets and decor, unnatural lighting that
created deep shadows and sharp contrasts, visual compositions
that emphasized the grotesque, and an exaggerated acting style,
meant to externalize the characters' psychological torment.
When Lang and his wife Thea von Harbou
visited the United States in October of 1924, it was initially
only to observe American methods of production, however it was
their observations of New York that inspired their conception
Production on "Metropolis"
began on May 22,1925 and ended approximately one and a half
years later on October 30, 1926.
The films plot is deceptively simple,
the ruling class, the "Masters of Metropolis," indulge
themselves in hedonistic pleasure, the workers, segregated in
their own city far beneath the surface, perform the backbreaking
and dehumanizing work in the machine rooms that provide power
to Metropolis. "Metropolis'" central theme, as articulated
by Maria is that, "between the brain that plans and hands
that build, there must be a mediator...the heart." is often
overwhelmed by its astonishing degree of technical accomplishment
and its dynamic visual style. In evaluating the films narrative
structure, however, one must take into account that no print of
the film in its original German version appeared to have survived,
thus the judgments of present-day critics are based on the version
prepared for exhibition in the United States. The adaptation involved
much more than the changing of character names--the film was reduced
in length by about one-third. Seven reels were cut from the original
seventeen. Thus much of what is known about Lang's intent is derived
from Thea von Harbou's novel "Metropolis". The
novel was first published in English translation in 1927 and reissued
in paperback in 1963. The profound effects stemming from the removal
of one particular establishing character should be noticed. This
is the woman named Hel, whose elimination - because of the name's
connotations for American audiences - is corroborated by an account
of the film's American release. Her prior existence, however,
establishes the psychological basis for the unusual relationship
between Freddersen and Rotwang, and to a lesser degree between
Freddersen and his son.
The motivations for Rotwangs abrupt
shifts of sympathy and sanity toward Maria is much easier to understand
in light of his relationship to Hel and his connection to Freddersen.
Without it there is no basis with which to understand his desire
to defy the will of Freddersen. It is this relationship that explains
why when he awakens, he believes he has died and so he goes in
search of his lost love Hel.
The novel also explains the role of
Slim, a character who is reduced to minor significance in the
films American version. Slim actually seems to function as a sort
of conscience to Freddersen. In one particularly telling scene
Freddersen asks, "Where is my son?" Slim, taking on
an almost demonic appearance, raises his hand and dramatically
states: "Tomorrow thousands will ask in anguish-'Where is
Alfred Abel and Rudolf Klien-Rogge.
Klien-Rogge had been married to Thea von Harbou before her marriage
As a director Lang was obsessed with
the duality of human nature. Freddersen-Rotwang, Maria and her
robot double, and the divisive social structure of "Metropolis"
all variously illustrate the duality of human nature, a common
theme in German silent cinema that seems to have always fascinated
Lang. "Metropolis" seems to say that emotions
are both indispensable and dangerous, a source of both strength
Lang's favorite themes (which appear
repeatedly throughout his films): the opposition of social and
moral forces: the illusionary nature of free will in a world governed
by fate: an innocent hero in a hostile, enclosed environment:
the redemptive power of true love: an omnipotent mastermind: and
a healthy dose of insanity, mob violence and enticement
are all readily apparent in "Metropolis".
Most viewers are quick to note the films
heavy handed Christian allegory which is repeatedly re-enforced
by the Langs repeated use of explicit and abundant religious imagery.
The film makes repeated Biblical References in addition to utilizing
distinctly medieval iconography such as the pentagram.
At the hands of its' inherently visual
director in "Metropolis", architecture becomes drama;
the films meanings are inseparable from it's visual design, and
the most fascinating character is the city itself. The enduring
strength of "Metropolis" lies in just those qualities
and in it's orchestration of light, shadow, decor, and movement
on a grand scale. Human cogs: the workers, an undifferentiated
mass of black-clad figures, trudging mechanistically across the
screen in rigid formation, heads down, arms at their sides, shoulders
slumped, their bodies and spirits weighed down by the symbolic
burden of oppression. The city itself is a bleak soulless place.
A work of insanity, "Metropolis" is a strikingly visual
The tale of a mechanical world in which
men are enslaved by machines, becomes an excuse for Fritz Lang
to build enormous sets, employ all sorts of screen magic, to visualize
an idle future with all the technical and financial resources
of the German cinema at his command. Produced at a cost of more
than 1.5 million, an enormous sum in 1926 "Metropolis"
was as enormous a production as its name implies. The films production
facts are staggering. Nearly 2 million feet of film where exposed
during the course of filming; eleven thousand women, seven hundred
and fifty children, and 25 Chinese extras. To film this masterwork
required a shooting schedule of 310 days and 60 nights during
which time rumors abounded ranging from the suggestion that UFA
was going bankrupt to allegations that Lang was utilizing some
sort of magical process to combine miniature sets with real actors.
This last rumor was a reference to Lang's use of the Schuftan Process,
a special effects technique invented by the same Eugene Schuftan
who, years later won the Academy award for Cinematography in the
As a director Lang possessed a special
ability to create an atmosphere by visual means, and to propel
a story by using a moving camera and by staging scenes in strong
geometric patterns. The film is dominated by tormenting shots
of workers arranged in architectural tableaux, or marching in
ornamental unison, like dancers. As a fantasy "Metropolis"
has been called prophetic. Lang's choreography and use of geometrically
arranged people was later ripped off by Leni Riefenstahl in the
Nazi documentary, "Triumph Of The Will". It is
a little known fact that at one point Goebbels told Lang that
he and a young Hitler had viewed "Metropolis" in a Berlin
theater. Following the showing Hitler had exclaimed, "That
is the man to document our story." Needless to say Lang subsequently
Ultimately "Metropolis" is
a catalogue of Lang's favorite themes from its mood of oppression,
to the use of his favorite device of contending forces and an
enclosed trap, Lang delights in his depiction of individuals struggling
with omnipotent mobs, right up to the films prosaic ending.