Metropolis is a film fantasy of the futuristic city and its mechanised society. Fritz Lang's visionary movie was not the first one to depict 'the future'. Melies had done so a quarter of a century before. However, Lang was the first film-maker to try to represent a future world consistently - including social organisation, architecture, costumes and predictions of technological change.
The narrative - which follows an upper-class young man abandoning his life of luxury to join oppressed workers in a revolt - is often disjointed and the plot rather shallow. The 'special effects' do look rather quaint now. However, what is striking even to present-day viewers is the Took' of the film. The production design is magnificent (see Intolerance, chapter 1). Lang was in part influenced by the German expressionist tradition popular during the 1920s (see Nosferatu, chapter 2): expressionism is divorced from the 'realism' of American cinema of the time. As a mode of representation, expressionism features distorted and dramatic sets, high contrast lighting and symbolic (rather than natural) acting.
Fritz Lang developed through his directorial career as a master of mise en scene. With Lang's work, the pictures really do tell the story. The experimentation of Metropolis was both made more intimate and conversely taken further in the masterful M (1931), where the setting creates an effect of entrapment. Lang (like Murnau) exported his style to Hollywood, particularly with seminal film noir pictures such as The Big Heat (USA, 1953) and Beyond Reasonable Doubt (USA, 1956).
Metropolis opens with images of pistons pumping and wheels spinning cut with the image of a ticking clock. We are viewing the internal workings of some huge machine. This is the first of many suggestions that the society of 'Metropolis' is mechanised, ordered and controlled. The subsequent images reinforce this idea. 'The Day Shift' is announced in white text against a black background and we then see two sets of workers waiting in ordered ranks before the huge, barred gate of a lift. The setting with its bars has a prison-like quality and this is enhanced by the uniform costume of the workers (black caps, black shirts, black trousers) and their position and movement. All have bowed heads and expressionless faces and when the gates open they move in a choreographed and synchronised manner. They are organised like soldiers but shuffle more and are slower, their bowed heads suggesting defeat. The rhythmic quality of their slow march echoes the movement of the pistons in the opening shots, indicating that they are part of the same mechanism.
These opening images combine to create the impression of slavery and imprisonment. The workers and their environment seem inhuman, totally devoid of individuality, freedom of choice or movement. The lighting at this point is high key, allowing us to see the details of the set. Once the bars of the lift have closed, the workers are taken down (symbolically) to 'The worker's city, far below the surface of the earth'. Here the setting, with its rectangular shapes, soaring pillars and sharp lines, presents us with the same inhuman quality. It looks both alien and magnificent, the effect enhanced by shafts of light and shadow criss-crossing the enormous structures, the height of which completely dwarfs the workers.
The next title introduces us to a contrasting setting: 'And high above a pleasure garden for the sons of the masters of Metropolis'. For the first time we see movement that looks spontaneous rather than rhythmic, as a scantily clad girl runs across the set pursued by Frieder, the hero of the film. The contrast to the inhuman quality of the workers' city is further enhanced by the first 'natural' images. We see a peacock and other exotic birds, plants and the flowing water of the fountain at the centre of the garden. The overwhelming impression created by the jewelled costume and naked flesh of the woman, the mermaid at the centre of the fountain, the game of chase followed by an embrace, is one of decadent pleasure. The garden in fact seems as clearly constructed for a purpose as the workers' city. The juxtaposition of these two contrasting settings clearly suggests that it is the slave labour of one group that provides the pleasure garden of the other. This message is then reinforced by the intrusion into the garden of a woman with a group of dirty barefoot children. Her costume, plain laced-up dress and demure collar, sets her apart from the women of pleasure in the garden. Her face is both sad and pleading. Described by the text as the daughter of a worker, she appeals to the occupants of the garden to recognise the children as their 'brothers'. Her appeal has a profound effect on Frieder, whose privileged position as the son of the master of Metropolis is denoted by his pale aristocratic clothes. He follows her exit and makes his way to the underground areas.
Once underground, we see the workers in action, their choreographed rhythmic movements making them at one with the great machine that they tend. We see a worker collapse at his station; the pressure gauge rises and there is an explosion. Workers' bodies fly through the air, which is swathed in steam. Out of the steam Frieder's symbolic vision of 'Moloch' - the Canaanite idol to which children were sacrificed - is slowly revealed. The great machine retains the same lines and overall shape but now we see at its centre a huge sphinxlike structure, the entrance to a temple of hell. The workers are now represented as bound slaves being whipped up the steps and thrown into the great demonic mouth at the heart of the machine. Slowly the images of sacrifice fade and we see the great machine once more, as the bodies of the dead and wounded are removed on stretchers and the work goes on. It is through the juxtaposition of such images that the tyranny at the heart of Metropolis is made clear. The children who appeared briefly in the pleasure garden will be sacrificed to the great machine to work until they die.
Lang cuts to the image of the skyline in the world above. Again the setting is elaborate and magnificent, dominated by skyscrapers and movement happening on many different planes, as cars, trains and aeroplanes traverse the city. This futuristic landscape was created in 1926. It is a tribute to the imagination of the set designers that it has been so much copied in films as recent as Blade Runner (Scott, USA, 1982) (see chapter 32), The Fifth Element (Besson, France, 1997) and The Phantom Menace (Lucas, USA, 1999).
In these opening scenes of Metropolis it is the different elements of mise en scène, setting, costume, position and movement within the frame and lighting that create very specific meanings. Lang uses settings and contrasts between settings with particular effect: they do more than present us with a landscape of the future; they embody messages and values that enable us to understand and make judgements about the nature of society in Metropolis.
Metropolis is a visually arresting film. It is also sociologically and historically interesting. The film is a vision of 'the city' (as inspired by a particular city after Lang's visit to New York). It is a vision of 'the future' - and not an entirely happy one. The dystopian elements of Metropolis may well be a product of post-world war disillusion. They may also be read as a critique of capitalism. It is interesting - if somewhat fanciful - to see Lang's vision as prefiguring the excesses of the totalitarian regimes to come.
Some Things to Watch out for and Consider
* How and why has Metropolis proved so influential?
• How realistic a vision of the present and / or future does it present?
® What might the film have gained or lost from being made (or remade) in colour and / or with sound?
* How might Tim Burton's Batman movies be indebted to Metropolis?
The Cabinet ofDr Caligari (Wiene, Germany, 1919) Dr Mabuse the Gambler (Lang, Germany, 1922)
M (Lang, Germany, 1931) Blade Runner (Scott, USA, 1982) Batman (Burton, USA, 1989) Batman Returns (Burton, USA, 1992) The Fifth Element (Besson, France, 1997)
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