Introduction to Metropolis (Lang, 1927) – Dukes cinema, Lancaster, 16 Jan 2010

Bruce Bennett (Lancaster University UK)

(This is the introductory public talk I gave for a screening of a print of the definitive 2010 restoration of this film)


Premiered in Berlin on January 10th, 1927, Metropolis was the most expensive film produced in Germany up until that point. With 36,000 extras, 200,000 costumes and costing 5m Reichsmarks it was the Titanic (Cameron, 1997) or the Avatar (Cameron, 2009) of its day. The film was intended to challenge the commercial and aesthetic international dominance of American cinema that had continued from the First World War onwards, and its director, Fritz Lang, contended that German culture could imbue the technology of modern cinema with a spirituality and significance that American films lacked.  Metropolis, which is about the seductive marvels (and dangers) of industrial technology, is thus also a film about the marvellous industrial technology of cinema. It was intended to demonstrate that technically sophisticated, mainstream cinema could also be deeply moving and thought-provoking.

The stylistic influence of Metropolis is quite profound. It developed an epic visual vocabulary in its depiction of a technologized society that has served as a template for the imagined futures of twentieth century science-fiction cinema. Familiar images of future cities as vast, labyrinthine spaces from which nature has been expunged in films like Logan’s Run (Anderson, 1976), Star Wars (Lucas, 1977), Blade Runner (Scott, 1982), Brazil (Gilliam, 1985), The Fifth Element (Besson, 1997), and The Matrix (Wachowski, Wachowski, 1999) are derived, at least in part, from Metropolis.

Despite its influence, however, the film’s critical reception has been quite ambivalent.

A standard critique of Metropolis has been that its visual inventiveness is not matched by an equally sophisticated narrative. The American film historian Tom Gunning suggests, however, that a key reason for the sceptical response to the film is a failure to understand it as allegory, a symbolic narrative rather than a realistic hypothesis of a possible future. As a result, the film has tended to be regarded as simplistic. When HG Wells reviewed the film for the New York Times, he famously dismissed Metropolis as ‘the silliest film’ partly because of his belief that science fiction’s responsibility was scientifically rigorous prophecy (and partly because he felt it was plagiarising his own work). However, unlike Blade Runner, say, Metropolis is not an attempt to present a convincingly realistic depiction of a possible future, but instead is a mythic narrative. Lang’s two previous films, both very successful and visually rich, were of stories from Der Nibelungen – German mythology – and we might understand Metropolis as a continuation of this preoccupation with mythic storytelling – a futuristic folk-tale, or modern myth. In the preface to the novel, from which the film was adapted, Thea von Harbou writes, ‘This book is not of today or of the future. It tells of no place…It has a moral grown on the pillar of understanding’. The film too should be seen as a moral tale but, the American film historian Tom Gunning suggests, this has made the film confusing for film viewers who are used to analysing layered, realist films whose themes and messages are hidden and elusive. ‘It is the over-explicit nature of this film’, he writes, ‘that makes many viewers, trained to hunt out subterranean meanings and organic symbols, so uncomfortable’.

Like many film-makers and critics of the silent period, Lang had an idealistic notion of cinema’s social role and he felt that film could comprise an international language that would allow complete communication between cultures. He wrote in the 1920s that ‘The internationalization of film language will become the strongest instrument available for the mutual understanding of peoples, who otherwise have such difficulty understanding each other in all too many languages’. This claim rests on an understanding of cinema as a primarily visual medium and so it is important to recognize that Metropolis was not conceived as a literary film, or as an art film for a small audience of connoisseurs, but as a film that addresses as broad an audience as possible by exploiting the capacity of cinema to produce rich, complex, narrative images.

This is a film about a society organized entirely around the requirements of capitalism and industry. Metropolis, whose name identifies it as a generic city, rather than a specific place, is a dystopia in which the workers have been reduced to cybernetic components of the giant machines that power the city. They live like animals in underground caverns and, as we see in the opening scenes, even their physical movements have become machine-like – they are robotic figures. Thus, although this is a society that has been transformed by radical technological expansion and the rationalized efficiencies of Taylorism and Fordism, industrial technology has not emancipated the workers but has dehumanized them. The city is an architectural manifestation of these repressive class divisions so that while the workers live underground ‘in the depths’, the elite live and work above ground in modernist skyscrapers entertaining themselves in decadent nightclubs, sports arenas, lecture halls, theatres, pleasure gardens and brothels. Gender roles are also extremely traditional in this supposedly advanced context, with women occupying the roles of mothers and saintly madonnas on the one hand, and prostitutes and seductive vamps on the other.

The class conflict that results is explored through the invocation of Christian myths. Metropolis is ruled over by a patriarch, Joh Frederson, who uncovers a burgeoning, illicit religion forming among the workers around a woman called Maria who preaches to them about the coming of a messianic figure called the ‘mediator’, (der Mittler), who will bring the classes together. Meanwhile, Frederson’s son, a playboy named Freder has become infatuated with Maria and has disguised himself as a worker in order to travel to the worker’s underground city to meet her. Frederson asks the crazed scientist, Rotwang to turn the robot he has built into a replica of Maria, so that they can use the robot to disrupt this potentially seditious underground movement. It transpires, however, that Rotwang resents Frederson because years earlier, Frederson married the woman he loved, so in revenge he programs Maria to cause havoc and she leads the workers to destroy the city. Rotwang, who sports a robotic hand and whose workshop is decorated with a pentangle, represents the irrational, uncontrollable dimension of technology.

So, the film explores the social impact of technological progress and capitalist exploitation. It also explores the way in which religion functions both as consolation and as a vehicle for political resistance.  Despite its dramatization of class struggle and the violent inequalities produced by capitalism, the film has often been seen as, at best, politically ambivalent. The workers remain de-individualized and framed as bodies rather than rational intellectual figures, and the liberal narrative resolution which favours reconciliation rather than resistance and confrontation is abrupt and somewhat unconvincing: ‘The mediator between head and hands must be the heart!’ The film has often been read as fascist while the studio producing the film felt that it displayed Communist sympathies.

But of course, Metropolis’s significance is not that it offers an insightful narrative examination of class politics, or a progressive political programme, but that, through the medium of a big-budget action film, and a mythic tale of an alternative reality, it gives us images of the effects of advanced industrial capitalism, which depends upon the subjugation, depersonalization and invisibility of labouring bodies. It also offers us spectacular and threatening images of a society organized around principles of rationality, efficiency, surveillance and control. It is a distorting mirror, reflecting back to audiences of the 1920s an exaggerated, grotesque image of contemporary reality. This is crystallized in a sequence in which a shot of a massive exploding generator dissolves into a shot of a sacrificial furnace into which ranks of uniformed workers, who are identified by number rather than name, are being marched. It is an image that captures the relentless, indifferent violence of modern industrial capitalism in which humans are simply another resource, and also the horror of rationalized, assembly-line genocide that was to follow just a few years later.

The version of Metropolis released in January 1927 was around 2½ hours long and was received with little enthusiasm. As a result the distributor, UFA, cut about a quarter of the film out. The American distributor, Paramount, made even more severe cuts, handing the film to a playwright and critic, Channing Pollock, who reframed the film as a Frankenstein-derived story about an inventor attempting to replace humans with robots. Pollock changed the names of characters and rewrote the intertitles, cutting out entire subplots and characters as well as the crucial back-story of the longstanding rivalry between the inventor and the head of the city, and he also altered the running order of the story. Consequently, the shortened versions of the films were incoherent and perhaps because of this, the film was a disastrous commercial failure that almost bankrupted the studio.

The material cut from the film was ordered to be destroyed, and so it was assumed that the original version was lost for good, but in 2008 an almost complete copy of the 1927 edit was found in an Argentinian film archive. That print was very badly damaged, but it provided restorers with most of the missing scenes and the correct running order. There are still one or two missing passages but of the five or six versions of Metropolis I’ve seen, this is the first that makes sense and it raises the question of whether the film might have had a different reputation if it was known in this version. There is a clearer motivation for characters’ behaviour and there is also a certain amount of comedy that wasn’t evident in earlier versions.

This is a film that was designed to be viewed on big screen, a much bigger screen than this, accompanied by a symphony orchestra playing the specifically commissioned score, but watching it on a cinema screen of any size, also allows us to see the subtleties of the performances, the nuanced hand gestures and facial movements, as well as the intricacies of the production design. 1927 was the year in which sound film became commercially viable with the release of the Jazz Singer, and for many critics and film-makers of the time, the pedestrian realism of synchronized sound film destroyed the poetry and allusiveness of cinema, as well as its capacity to cross language barriers. It meant that the primarily visual medium of cinema was superseded by an audio-visual medium, which required film-makers and audiences to engage with a new aesthetic regime. So, Metropolis is a film from the summit of silent cinema, one of the last and one of the most refined, ambitious, expensive and mature works of the silent period.


Thomas Elsaesser (2000) Metropolis. London: BFI

Tom Gunning (2000) Fritz Lang: Allegories of Vision and Modernity. London: BFI