Have you ever thought of watching a German movie but dropped the idea because you do not understand the German language, or you thought German movies do not make a cut like Hollywood movies? If the answer is yes, then continue reading. There are a number of science fiction movies that were made since the advent of cinema, but the question is “Is there a movie that can be considered the father of all science fiction movies? If so, who made it and where?” The answer is “Metropolis” and it is made in Germany by the Germans. Do not worry, we will not reveal you the plot of Metropolis but rather discuss in detail the impact of Metropolis on the genre of science fiction movies.
Made by Fritz Lang in 1927 with breathtaking visuals and immense scale, Metropolis has stood the test of time as one of the most influential films ever made. One can see the echoes of its architecture ideas and scenes in almost every modern science fiction film. Why is the imagery presented by Fritz Lang in 1927 still so relevant today and what separates Metropolis from the science-fiction films that came before it? The reason can be attributed to the seriousness in the scale, plot, visual effects, budget and effort involved in making this movie. For example, the earliest science fiction films such as “a trip to the moon” by George Miller played science fiction for laughs and falls in the category of comedy. Fritz Lang created the first serious science fiction epic giving those a fascinating glimpse into the future. There was also a biting social commentary of the present.
How Metropolis shaped science fiction movies as we know it today?
When the Metropolis was first premiered in Berlin in 1927, it had a runtime of around two and a half hours. It received mixed reviews at that time with many critics praising it for its visuals but criticizing the film for being too long and complicated. This meant that for its American release the same year, it was cut down to around one hour and 55 minutes. It was later cut again in April to remove all communist subtext and religious imagery by 1936 (remember the time when Soviet Union was the communist country that ever existed on the planet) when the film was archived by the British Museum of Modern Art. Only 91 minutes of Fritz Lang's original 210 minutes remained over the years. New footage emerged but it was variations of this shortened version that majority of the people watched. To the luck of all movie buffs, an almost complete version of the film was found in an archive in Argentina in 2008.
This event deserves attention by the readers because the earlier edited versions of Metropolis seen by most people did not make a great deal of sense story-wise. The characters, motivations were completely erased, new cuts changed the tone and meaning of scenes and some crucial plot points were left unresolved. For example, all reference to “Hel” (the late wife of John Frieda son in the movie) were removed for being too close to the English word for “Hell”. This made the actions of the inventor Rotwang (scientist in the movie) confusing and unmotivated. As a result, Metropolis did not really influence how we tell stories, instead it influenced the visual codes of cinema. It changed what science fiction looks like and shaped our collective vision of the future. People were blown away by the vivid world built by Fritz Lang and the surreal appeal it carried. The new Tower of Babel standing tall in a city of light starkly contrasted with the dark subterranean workhouses of the poor. The film's architecture itself is as many characters as Rotwang or Maria (important characters in the movie). If you removed all dialogues, action and characters you would know everything you wanted to know about the world by looking at the buildings alone. The busy highways and bike lanes convey a sense of urgency and speed and show us the interconnectedness of a city of the future. While the unknowing, uncaring machines of the subterranean city tells we are in a world where industrialization (Industry 4.0 as we are witnessing now) has been taken to a logical conclusion where human beings are expendable as long as the wheels keep turning.
Subsequent Influences on Science fiction Genre and Modern Cinema.
The buildings and architecture in the movie alone tell us that this is a world where it is a life of bliss for some and drudgery for others. These symbols and visual codes would become written into the DNA of cinema. One can see it pretty much straightaway in films like “Just imagine” from 1930 which tells the story of life in the 1980s New York complete with skyscrapers, hover crafts and an interconnected city with bridges and highways. Metropolis is iconography of an industrialized future where workers act as cogs in a machine would later reappear in 1936 Charlie Chaplin's silent movie “Modern Times”.
In a more recent movie history, Metropolis has influenced the look of iconic science fiction films including many of the images from “Star Wars” from the characters, props and even cities. Perhaps the film most heavily influenced by the look of Metropolis was “Blade Runner” replaced by planes and blimps for hovering police cars and you have something close to art director David Snyder's vision of 2019 s “Los Angeles”. Other ideas from Metropolis would also reappear throughout cinema, the modern mental Rotwang served as the inspiration for James Whale’s “Henry Frankenstein” in the year 1931. Some adaptations or inspirations of completely humanoid robots will be seen again in movies like “AI” and “the Terminator”.
Not only did Metropolis create the visual grammar for how we see the future but also by combining futuristic art deco, cityscapes infused with Gothic religious symbolism including a fight on top of the church. It helped influence the dark tone of fantasy in films like Tim Burton's “Batman”, Alex Proyas “The Crow”. But why is the imagery of Metropolis so enduring? For one, the film plays on our fears of the future, a future of industrialization where workers have been dehumanized and this is reflected in what you see on screen. Vast rooms of uncaring machines, it is a future inequality where the working-class live in drab subterranean structures while the ruling class within a clean bright city. It's also a future of hope of amazing technology of bright lights and new possibility and it was in Fritz Lang's combination of these things that change the way that we see the future.
A careful analysis of the movie brings forth a rudimentary question of how the west views the world? One can see the notion of class struggles influences of Marxism in Metropolis. The Proletariat is depicted through working-class that lives in drab subterranean of Metropolis and Bourgeoisie (the rich and powerful) represented by the ruling class that enjoys the fruits of the labor by the Proletariat leading to a class struggle. The protagonist in the movie “Frater” (the son of a wealthy man with great power) playing the role of Christ-like figure who establishes harmony between the two classes which looks very delusional considering the plot evolves till the climax. From these observations, it can be concluded that Metropolis is nothing but an amalgamation of imagination, Marxist theory, and creativity. The film’s release perfectly coincides with the time that Marxist theory was gaining popularity around the world. Fritz Lang’s world view is shaped more by Marxism and Populism that was prevailing at that time rather than reality. The prejudice and bias of Fritz Lang’s can be seen in many of his works later. More about such works will be covered in the coming weeks.
All In all, Metropolis is considered an epitome of German expressionism by the movie buffs. Excited about Metropolis? then get yourself ready for a surreal experience this weekend, and we will take through the journey of German cinema and how it directly and indirectly shaped the perception of India and its people by the West leading to Cultural appropriation.
Author: Kiran Kishore Gandikota
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