“In a futuristic city sharply divided between the working class and the city planners, the son of the city’s mastermind falls in love with a working class prophet who predicts the coming of a savior to mediate their differences.” (IMDB)
To kick things off here at playitagain.blog we have long-before-its-time silent, science-fiction film from German director Fritz Lang. This is a film that I have never seen and knew absolutely nothing about. So, if you’re in that boat, know that you are probably not alone.
Metropolis was the world’s first full-length science fiction film and is one of the most expensive films ever made. The film takes place in the year 2026, includes more than 37,000 extras, and had an impact not just on film history but also world history.
I had absolutely no idea of what to expect when I started to watch this film but was immediately struck by how futuristic it was in scenery, characters, and plot points for having been released in 1927. Being a child of the 70’s & 80’s, I cut my movie-going teeth on science fiction films such as Star Wars (1977), The Empire Strikes Back (1980) and Back To The Future (1984). For example, much of the scenery of the city represented in the film immediately reminded me of Blade Runner (1982) and one of the main characters, Rotwang (played by Rudolph Klein-Rogge), instantly made me think about Doctor Emmet Brown of the Back To The Future series from the 1980’s with his wacky hairdo and childish delight with technology.
In addition, a major character was even subjected to a human cloning process! Remember, we are talking about Germany in 1927 here. The prospect for human cloning seriously began in the 1960’s but, even today, in 2018, we still haven’t successfully achieved the ability to clone a human. Although the process of human cloning shown in Metropolis is overly simplified and looks more like something out of a Frankenstein movie, it is essentially the idea of having this technology as a scientific possibility in the future which is astounding.
Throughout the film, I was thinking about how this film might have reflected or influenced Germany in 1927. Although Hitler & the Nazi Party did not come into power until 1933, some 6 years after the film was released, Hitler was already making speeches thought Germany in the 1920’s and even led a failed government takeover in Bavaria in 1923. A severe economic depression coupled with high levels of unemployment, allowed the Nazi Party to begin their eventual takeover with the 1932 election capturing 230 out of 608 seats in the German parliament. In January 1933 Hitler was appointed German chancellor leading his Nazi party to eventually control every aspect of the government and going so far as to ban all other political parties. Also, in 1933, the Nazi’s opened their first concentration camp, Dachau, to house “political prisoners”.
I’m unsure if anyone could watch Metropolis and not wonder how the ideas of the film, such as the “lower class” who lived and worked below ground at the behest of the “upper class” who lived in the futuristic city above, fed into the Nazi Party’s ideas and ideals. Some of these might be of an individual or small group of like-minded individuals holding complete power over the people in their drive for a Utopian existence, allowing a situation to become so perilous that “eliminating the lower class” to protect the “upper class” is permissible, stirring up violent reactions based on false and misleading information that leads to “mob rule” and striking fear in individuals, through sanctioned violence, allows for even more control of the “workers” by the “thinkers”.
So, it didn’t come as a huge surprise to me, after having watched the film, that I discovered it was one of Hitler’s favorite films. In fact, it was such a favorite of Adolf Hitler and Joseph Goebbels that Goebbels met with the film’s director, Fritz Lang, and told him that he could be made an “honorary Aryan” despite his Jewish background. Goebbels told him, “Mr. Lang, we decide who is Jewish and who is not.” Lang left for Paris that very night. Smart move! Ultimately, the film is about “heart” and a meeting in the middle, via the prophesied “mediator”, in order to bring peace & unity or “heart” between the “hands”, represented by the “workers”, and the “head”, represented by the “thinkers”. Clearly, Hitler & the Nazi Party missed out on that significant point of the film or, perhaps, they had the astonishingly erroneous and misplaced idea that they were, in fact, the “heart”.
Despite Hitler & the Nazi Party holding this film in such high esteem, it was a flop in Germany and performed even worse when it was exported to the rest of the world. Part of this could have been due to its run-time of 2.5 hours which didn’t allow it to be run enough times per day for the investment of 5 million Reichsmarks (nearly 300 million US dollars today) to be returned. In addition, the film took nearly a year and a half to shoot and had many costly budget overruns. The company which produced the film, UFA (Universum Film), nearly went bankrupt as a result. UFA eventually requested financial help from Famous Players and MGM for a total of four million dollars to complete film. UFA never recovered its investment in the film.
The film was restored in 2001 from the best available source known to still exist. When watching the restoration, you will notice scenes throughout the film where the quality is much less than the prior scene or shot and where, clearly, the original remaining print had deteriorated significantly. There is even an entire portion of the film where there are no images shown, simply more modern title cards which recount the action, I assume, once existed on film but was no longer viable or available for the 2001 restoration. Some film print was recovered in 2004 in Argentina but might not have included all of the missing scenes. This is another instance where film preservation & restoration has come to the rescue.
The impact and influence of this film is far-reaching even today. I now understand why it is considered an essential and would highly recommend this film to anyone who has not seen it or is a huge fan of sci-fi in any era. Just be aware of the Marxist overtones of the film and try not to get too hung up on them. Knowing what was happening in the era in which a film was made is great background but don’t get too lost in that intellectual loop and miss out on how technically amazing this film was for its time as well as it’s long-lasting significance and imprint on film & popular culture moving forward.
MORE FUN FACTS ABOUT METROPOLIS (1927)
- Metropolis was so influential on Superman creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster that they named their city after it.
- The robot of this film inspired the look for C-3PO in Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope (1977).
- The mechanical right hand of one of the characters was later imitated in Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964).
- Footage of this film was used in the British Rock Band, Queen’s Music Video for “Radio Ga Ga”.
- The restoration debuted in Berlin and had its American premiere at the 2011 TCM Classic Film Festival.