Sunday, 11 October 2015

Space Oddities: Metropolis (1927)

Fig. 1, Metropolis (1927), Poster
Fritz Lang’s Metropolis [1927] can be often given the honour as “the first science-fiction epic (Newman, 2011:56)”, largely driven by its production design: “The set’s gleaming metallic towers created a city of 2025 and set the standard for sci-fi films and futuristic fantasies (Whitlock, 2011:55)”. However, just like Robert Wiene’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari [1920] should be viewed deeper than just a plain horror film, it can be argued that the Metropolis story of ‘man vs. machine’ contains deeper elements than just plain sci-fi spectacle, especially when looking into context of Weimar Germany and the 1920s economic boom – the film premiered just two years before the Wall Street Crash of 1929, ultimately ending the Roaring Twenties.
Fig. 2, Metropolis (1927)
The great epic can be said to have dominated much of silent cinema since its earliest years, driven by the new technology and creative opportunities, as “directors looked back at their country’s classical past to make films that were visually extravagant and operatic in scale (King, 2011:26)”, as seen in films such as D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance [1916] [Crucifixion of Jesus, Ancient Babylon, 16th-century France and modern-day America] (Wikipedia, 2015), and Cecil DeMille’s The Ten Commandments [1923]. Metropolis, however, can be said to depict worrying visions of the future, rather than reflecting historical events. There are certain moments seen in the film’s production design that could be designed to resurrect issues from the past, such as the modern-day Babylon Tower, and the worker’s tower resembling one of the ancient Egyptian pyramids where slaves are about to be taken in. 
Fig. 3, Metropolis (1927)
Compared with the great epics of earlier years containing highly decorative, historical and naturalistic sets, Lang “favoured restrained modern designs with cubistic architecture and geometric grid patterns (Whitlock: 2011:55)”, and looked to the architecture of the rapidly rising New York as his inspiration. Whitlock’s analyses the wide gap between classes; that Metropolis’ “futuristic city set painted a future where bureaucrats sat in their skyscrapers and towered over a world of underground workers below (Whitlock: 2011:55)”; that the planned city epicentre contradicts with the unplanned underground worshipping places set up by the workers [could be compared to settlements today such as Rio de Janeiro’s favelas]. The production design could reflect the trends and attitudes of the time in the booming 1920s, when modernist movements such as Art Deco and Bauhaus seemed to have dominated architecture and interior design in the Western world, and the rise of mass consumerism could have “brought more conflict than celebration (History, 2015)”. Indeed, the film’s later depiction of the gradual tearing down of society by the working people, as well as featuring huge divisions between the underground city’s electrical sparks and floods and the cloud-filled, dreamlike land of the partying aristocracy, could depict warnings of revolutions such as the on-going Russian Revolution and the rise of the Nazi Party.
Fig. 4, Metropolis (1927)
Though Metropolis at first glance could be best remembered for its futuristic city production design, the film takes a huge focus on intertwining human stories in even the smallest of locations, such as in the underground worshipping place, and could suggest the director’s intention of taking the audience on a rollercoaster ride between areas of mountainous terrain and pools of calm: “The audience is interested in individuals, who they can love or hate (A Personal Journey with Martin Scorsese through America Movies, Pt. 2, 1995)”. Indeed, the story involves an aristocrat jumping out of his commonplace environment and decides to swap identities with an underground worker, similar to Mark Twain’s The Prince & the Pauper (Wikipedia, 2015).
Additional notes:
  • Mechanisation – rise of humanoid – “Brilliant eroticisation and fetish-isation of modern technology (Bradshaw, 2010)”
  • Gradual tearing down of society – revisiting areas previously mundane now being torn down – whilst class live in luxury like nothing’s happened – “One of the biggest, strangest, maddest films in cinema history (Bradshaw, 2010)”
  • Hallucinating fantasy motion graphics – similar to those in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari
  • KEMP, P. (editor) (2011) Cinema: The Whole Story. London: Thames & Hudson
  • SCHNEIDER, S. (editor) (2011) 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die. Octopus: London
  • WHITLOCK, C. (2010) Designs on Film: A Century of Hollywood Art Direction. New York: Harper-Collins
Illustration List:


  1. Good Robin :)
    Try not to use Wikipedia as a source as it is unreliable. You can use it as a jumping off point to point you in the direction of more academic sources.

  2. Ahh Metropolis. This one's a favourite of mine. Not jsut as a science fiction work but as an example of the stories in films reflecting and highlighting the problems of the years they were made. You've done well analysing this as its one of those films that has been analysed over and over and you just keep hearing new things.

    I agree with Jackie though. While Wikipedia can be good sometimes (mainly for sourcing), its crowd-sourced nature of the information means sometimes you just don't know even with cited statements.

    The Prince and the Pauper might be common knowledge enough that you might be able to get away with not needing a citation.