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Metropolis - Feature, UFA Babelsberg 1927

Metropolis (1927): Blueprint for Urban Dystopian Cinema

Introduction

The first memory of Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis” which I can remember is a rather bizarre one: While being a little kid at the beginning of the 1990s, I had to visit a doctor and it was the same with me as with every other small child: Spending time waiting was not exactly what I considered fun (remember: there were no smartphones or other gadgets to play around with, even my first GameBoy was years away back then). This doctor, though, was a vivid fan of all kinds of classic movies, so he put up various vintage film prints on the walls of his waiting room. I found them quite interesting and wandered through the room, checking every detail of these artworks. Among all of those beautiful pieces of cinematic history, there was this one specific print that fascinated me the most:

Metropolis - Artwork by Werner Graul 1927, UFA Babelsberg
Metropolis – Basic Artwork by Werner Graul, 1927, UFA Babelsberg

All kinds of thoughts and questions went through my little head: Who is that woman? Where is she? Is she travelling through space? What’s happening to her? What kind of device is she wearing? Is she a captive or protected? What’s up with her strange skin color? Is it just the lighting? Is she even human? My mind was spinning.

It wasn’t until several years later that I found answers to these questions. I often wondered if my early beginning of SciFi consumption and other related genres was partly because of these long hours in some arbitrary waiting room. A kid staring at a vintage print of a silent film from the 1920s – an artifact from a distant past, made long before himself or even his parents were even born.

Turns out that I wasn’t the only one who was fascinated with pieces of art from Metropolis: The film was groundbreaking at its time and it has influenced all kinds of cultural arts & works over the various decades. During the course of this article I will try to give you a quick overview of the film’s plot, its visual impressions and show you some exemplary cinematic works that got heavily influenced by it. Have fun!

Short Synopsis of Metropolis & Trailer

Sometime in the future1: Johann “Joh” Fredersen (Alfred Abel) is the mastermind of Metropolis, a futuristic high-tech city. Under the surface of this urban giant, masses of workers lead an archaic slave-like existence to support the decadent lifestyle of the upper class above. Freder Fredersen (Gustav Fröhlich), Joh’s son, is witness to these inhumane working and living conditions. He rebels against his despotic father after his discovery of a spiritualistic community down in the catacombs of the city: A young woman named Maria (Brigitte Helm) preaches to growing numbers of workers about the virtues of love and reconciliation. However, Joh Fredersen discovers Maria’s activities as well and conjures up a sinister plan.

[spoiler-alert]Joh Fredersen commissions the scientist Rotwang (Rudolf Klein-Rogge) to develop a cybernetic copy of Maria, which he wants use to gain influence over her growing followership and as a prototype for future workers. Initially everything goes as planned, but Freder and Maria are able to hinder the catastrophe almost in the last minute. The following mass hysteria among the workers turns and directs its rage towards the Cyber-Maria, who/which is burned at the stake. Afterwards, Freder and Maria form a new brotherly community among the different classes and even Joh Fredersen offers his hand in reconciliation, true to the film’s catchphrase: “the mediator between the hand and the brain must be the heart”.[/spoiler-alert]

If you are interested in some footage from the movie, just take a look on this trailer of the restaurated version from 2010:

Cityscape of Metropolis

Fritz Lang, Thea von Harbou, Werner Graul and all the other creative minds who were involved in the production of Metropolis were inspired by a multitude of different contemporary styles and designs like e.g. Art Deco, Bauhaus, Cubism and Futurism as well as influences by Gothic Art and even Mesopotamian Architecture. The latter is focussed especially on the topic of Babylon and its importance for mythological interpretations – an aspect that will be covered in this section.

Fritz Lang also gathered some inspiration for the Metropolis project from his own personal experiences and observations in the early 1920s in New York City:

“And while touring New York, I had the notion that this was the melting pot of diverse and confused human forces that blindly nudged each other, in the indomitable desire to exploit each other, living in perpetual fear. […] The buildings seemed to me like a vertical curtain, shimmering and glowing, a lush stage backdrop, hung in a gloomy sky to dazzle, dispersing and hypnotizing. At night, the city gave the exclusive impression of pure life: It lived like illusions. I knew that I had to make a movie about all these impressions.”2

Influences of Babylonian Architecture

Various motifs of ancient Babylonian architecture and mythology can be found in Metropolis. The omnipresent center of Metropolis is the building “Neuer Turm Babel” (“New Tower Babel”), the tallest building in the city. It resembles Babylonian architecture the most:

Tower of Babylon - Animation "Neuer Turm Babel", Fritz Lang's Metropolis, 1927 [Timestamp: 02:01:15 onwards]
Animation “Neuer Turm Babel”, Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, 1927, UFA Babelsberg [Timestamp: 02:01:15 onwards, rewind-loop gif by Planet Dystopia]
Striking because of its voluminous rotunda, the step-like levels, supported by monumental column projections and the far-reaching air landing sites near the top of the tower. It emphasizes the vertical division of society, which we will cover in more detail later, and is a visually strong reminiscent of the artistic works of Bruegel, Desiderio and many others who raved on the subject of the Babylonian Tower in the past centuries creatively.

The tower also houses the city’s main energy supply as well as the administration of the aforementioned entrepreneur Joh Fredersen. From his spacious office at the top, he surveys and manages the city. This above-ground position of Fredersen emphasizes his social position by spatial arrangement. His numerous technological monitoring and surveillance instruments reinforce this: Fredersen’s omnipresent overview of the social conditions make him appear like a neo-feudal king.

If you are interested in learning more about the role of Mesopotamian / Babylonian Architecture in cultural arts & works of all kinds, I can highly recommend the in-depth article Tower of Babylon: Cultural Cradle of Urban Dystopias to you.

Vertical Segregation of Classes

The cityscape represented in Metropolis is also characterized by vertical contrasts. This gets underlined by the architectural arrangement of the different buildings, the representation of the unequal working and living environments, as well as in the divergent social situation of the different social groups in general:

“While the Jeunesse dorée3 enjoys a sweet life in the paradisiacal gardens of Yoshiwara4 in the upper city, the working masses vegetate in the lower city of the machine center, operating the machines like robots”5

Characteristics of the upper city are in particular the numerous skyscrapers, constructed in various ways on multiple levels. The intervening deep gorges and the ubiquitous traffic routes that seem to run through the entire city, form cross-connections between the different structures on several levels.

On the other hand, the masses of workers live under the city in segregated quarters. These are close to the infrastructure and production facilities, to which the workers use giant commuter lifts to commute in their respective day shifts. The contrasting, oppressive forms of light and dark cubes of facades and windows stand out clearly from the presentation of the more varied upper city. The dreary unit buildings indicate a forced unity of the inhabitant’s lifestyles – like the uniforms of the working masses.

In the center of the lower city is a great gong, which signals the change of work shifts. It emphasizes the special position of its function and its significance as a metaphorical element of the tension between the working and living conditions with its contrasting appearance compared to its surroundings.

Metropolis - Upper City Street, Metropolis, 1927, UFA Babelsberg
Metropolis – Upper City Street, Metropolis, 1927, UFA Babelsberg [Timestamp: 01:16:59]
A question arises due to the size of the huge upper city buildings and the two-class society: Which inhabitants use these buildings at all – whether as living quarters or as working space? Apart from a few passers-by and the occupants of the various vehicles, there does not seem to be a distinct middle class in Metropolis at all.6 This indicates a deceptive glow of life in a vacant city.

Exemplary Cinematic Heirs of Metropolis

Metropolis has influenced various cultural works since its release in 1927. In this section, I would like to present some exemplary works from some eras to give you a brief overview of some of the topics and their re-interpretations. We will take a specific look on them in regards to elements of their presentation that got inspired by Metropolis in one form or another.

Things to Come (1936)

The film “Things to Come”, directed by William Cameron Menzies, is loosely based on the novel “The Shape of Things to Come”7 (1933) and the related screenplay by the renowned science-fiction author H.G. Wells. The plot revolves around the fictional English city “Everytown”, whose change over a period of approximately 100 years is accompanied by the viewer.

Everytown, Things to Come, 1936
Everytown, Things to Come, 1936

Due to a decade-long World War, the increasing decline of social order, decaying infrastructure as well as rampant epidemics, technological and social decline of the presented city are shown in manifold ways. However, some victorious invaders of a technologically advanced faction of pilots and scientists, the “Wings over the World”, are finally causing the city to rise from the ashes to new heights.

Particularly noteworthy is the depiction of the relocation of human settlements to the underground: The post-war ruins of the warlords get abandoned and the surface landscape almost completely renatured, as the human society goes into the depths of the earth.

Underground City / Vertical Levels, Things to Come, 1936, via FilmFanatic.org
Underground City / Vertical Levels, Things to Come, 1936, via FilmFanatic.org

However, a vertical social structure is revealed at the same time, which is established under the earth’s surface: It finds its expression in the vertical architecture of the city – the scientific and political elite lives and governs in the upper levels. The rest of the citizens stay in flat living and working units underneath, which are connected to each other via various transport routes, such as bridges and elevators. The architecture shown here is dominated by an almost sterile, bright color scheme and the round course of shapes is reminiscent of buildings of the style of Art Deco.

Scientific Elite, Things to Come, 1936, via Streamline The Film Struck Blog
Scientific Elite, Things to Come, 1936, via Streamline The Film Struck Blog

Although the scenery of the underground city may look utopian-like at first – especially in comparison to the former dilapidated city of the warlord “Chief Boss” (Ralph Richardson) – it also shows dictatorial features with technocratic character: Against the will of large parts of the population, the scientific elite pursues a constantly accelerating progress, at all costs.8

Blade Runner (1982)

The all-time classic of cinematic cyberpunk, the film “Blade Runner”, is based on Philip K. Dick’s novel “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” and got directed by Ridley Scott. The film takes place in a futuristic Los Angeles in a fictitious 2019. Private detective Rick Deckard (played by Harrison Ford) seeks to track down and liquidate so called “replicants” – human-like life forms, produced by biotech processes, forbidden on Earth.

The cityscape in Blade Runner is dominated by large urban settlements reaching to the dark sky. It contains all the fears of urbanization that find their way into visual elements of the setting: The inherent vertical growth of cities, the merge of old and new structures build on top of each other, like a futuristic Kowloon Walled City on steroids.

ToB - Corporate HQ in Ridley Scott's Blade Runner, 1982
HQ of the Tyrell Corporation in Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, 1982, ©Warner Bros. [Timestamp: 00:02:52]
The building of the influential “Tyrell Corporation” forms the core of the city and is the most monumental structure of the cityscape presented in the film at the same time. The step-like rise and the pyramid-shaped outer facades, which are illuminated by countless windows and elevators, show the power of the corporate world in the presented society.

This gets underlined by the location of the quarters of Dr. Eldon Tyrell (played by Joe Turkel), the company’s CEO, senior scientists and the unofficial lord of the city. Located on the highest level of the structure, Tyrell enjoys a similar view over the city like his counterpart Joh Fredersen in Metropolis. Tyrell and Fredersen are both spatially and socially at the top of each society and both have an inherent creative power. While this is expressed by Fredersen in form of the commissioned creation of the artificial Cyber-Maria, Tyrell’s huge potential for power and design capabilities reveals itself in the large-scale industrial production of new forms of semi-biological life.

ToB - Police Station in Ridley Scott's Blade Runner, 1982
Police Station in Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, 1982, ©Warner Bros. [Timestamp: 00:10:34]
Also worthy of note is the building of the police station, which Rick Deckard pays a visit: A tall rotunda, which is similar in shape and design to the main building in Metropolis. Some landing sites for flying vehicles are also available on the roof. The police building is monumental in itself, yet it is small compared to many other buildings that shape the cityscape. It can thus be regarded as a metaphor of the decaying social order and symbolically for an executive that keeps losing its influence.

Similarities such as these architectural parallels between Blade Runner and Metropolis allow conclusions regarding the receptions of both directors:

“Both films can be seen, according to Michael Webb, as ‘a result of a culture shock, more specifically Manhattan’s lasting impact on a receptive European’ – the German Fritz Lang and the Englishman Ridley Scott.”9

Brazil (1985)

The plot of Terry Gilliam’s film “Brazil” covers the career of the professional bureaucrat Sam Lowry (played by Jonathan Pryce), who gets caught between the fronts of an almost omnipresent centralist administration, the freedom struggle of a rebel faction and his own, often bizarre daydreams.

The city areas in Brazil are characterized by narrow, sometimes surreal, high-rise urban canyons, similar to the cityscape of Metropolis, yet with much darker tones – in this world upper and lower city are alike. The vertical segregation has merged with the totalitarian approach of an encompassing bureaucracy.

One of the central places of the portrayed regime is the state surveillance authority, which is the headquarter of one of the most influential and dreaded institutions. The building is a monumental structure with high walls, whose step-shaped, cuboidal levels are characterized by laterally fixed towers reaching up to the ground and include deep horizontal inlays. This is reminiscent of both Babylonian and Kassite architecture, but – due to the design and shape of the cubes – also includes elements of sober administrative buildings of bureaucratic-totalitarian regimes.

Dark City (1998)

Director Alex Proyas filmed “Dark City”, which depicts an alien-built, artificial metropolis, in which the human race gets analyzed in search for a cure for the critically endangered alien species. The inhabitants themselves are unaware of this situation, as the aliens are able to manipulate identities, their specific sense of time and the memories of the human population. The spatial arrangement of the city and its buildings is also constantly changing in all directions to the will of these builders.

Cityscape and Skyline in Dark City, 1998, via Nir Shalev, Commentary Track, 2011
Cityscape and Skyline in Dark City, 1998, ©New Line Cinema, via Nir Shalev, Commentary Track, 2011

The depicted cityscape is characterized by lingering darkness and numerous buildings, whose common feature is the contemporaneous representation of anachronistic elements. This gets perpetuated by the everyday changes of the builders. As a result of this constant change, the recipient is left in the dark regarding the exact temporal era of the setting. Early to Mid-20th century elements mix with visual aspects of the industrialization and the present –architecturally and technologically. Nevertheless, monumental constructions, such as e.g. high archways of public buildings and colossal overhead passages in side streets, are characteristic elements for every phase of change in Dark City.

Cityscape and Skyline in Dark City, 1998, via Nir Shalev, Commentary Track, 2011
Cityscape and Skyline in Dark City, 1998, ©New Line Cinema, via Nir Shalev, Commentary Track, 2011

Compact Conclusion

Almost a century has passed since the release of Metropolis and it has not only fascinated young kids in arbitrary waiting rooms. It has inspired various cultural works over the course of the decades. Countless of artists and professionals of the media industries were influenced by elements of its visual impressions. Especially urban-dystopian scenarios in numerous movies borrowed from Fritz Lang’s masterpiece in manifold ways.

The iconic buildings and cityscape of Metropolis, as well as their inherent vertical segregation of people, were a blueprint for many artistic works. The foundation of these aspects, based on Babylonian Architecture and the associated mythologies of urban fear underline the importance of this work: Metropolis acts as a media bridge between past, present and future.

JHS

 

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  1. The exact time of Metropolis’ setting depends on which edition you consider canon: Some say 2000, others place it in the year 2026 and others like the original Paramount US release place it even in 3000 CE. So the choice is up to you.
  2. Fritz Lang 1924, Broadway in Göttler & Huppertz 1988, p. 4. Translation by JHS / Planet Dystopia
  3. French expression for “Golden Youth” / young, rich and privileged people. Cf. Babylon Ltd. 2010
  4. Former and notorious red light district in feudal Tokyo, in Metropolis the name of an upper-class amusement establishment. Cf. Oldtokyo.com, 2010
  5. Gehler & Kasten 1990, p. 127. Translation by JHS / Planet Dystopia
  6. Cf. Geser, G.: Fritz Lang. Metropolis und die Frau im Mond. Zukunftsfilm und Zukunftstechnik in der Stabilisierungszeit der Weimarer Republik. Augsburg; Meitingen: Corian. 1996, p. 86
  7. The novel “A Modern Utopia” (1905), whose utopian perspectives were taken up by H. G. Wells in numerous other works, is considered to be an inspiration for this and also fundamental to the development of the science fiction genre. Cf. Erzgräber, W.: Utopie und Anti-Utopie in der englischen Literatur. München: W. Fink 1980, p. 96; Zeißler, E.: Dunkle Welten. Die Dystopie auf dem Weg ins 21. Jahrhundert. Marburg: Tectum. 2008, p. 34
  8. Originally, H. G. Wells had other intentions in his literary works: He emphasized a clear demarcation from Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, both in content and in the depiction of a city of the future, which could only be transferred to a more progressive form of community through the sole rule of scientists. Cf. Tormin 1996, p. 40 f
  9. Arnold 1999, with a quote of Webb 1996, p. 44. Translation by JHS / Planet Dystopia

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