Few films are as easily recognizable as director Fritz Lang’s film Metropolis which, at the time, was a staggering achievement in filmmaking. Though not the first science-fiction film ever made, it is certainly one of the most timeless and inspiring, having influenced countless films since it first premiered in 1927.
Set in 2026, Metropolis depicts a dystopian society that is divided between two classes. The planners live in enormous skyscrapers and enjoy wealth and prosperity. The workers live underground and are slaves to a monotonous life of servitude. Freder (Gustav Frohlich) is the son of the city’s ruler, Joh Fredersen (Alfred Abel), and has only known luxury and bliss his whole life. His world is shattered one day when a woman named Maria (Brigitte Helm) brings a group of the workers’ children to the lush Eternal Gardens where Freder is frolicking with beautiful women.
Confused and curious, Freder follows Maria down to the underworld of the workers and is shocked to see the unrelenting conditions in which they live. After he witnesses a man collapse while operating one of the giant machines which powers the city, Freder returns home to plead with his father to do something about the pitiful lives the workers are forced to live. Unable to bear the thought of the men and women being exploited, Freder trades places with worker number 11811, or Georgy (Erwin Biswanger), and puts in motion a series of events that will practically destroy the fragile infrastructure of the City of Metropolis.
Watching the film today, it is impossible to overlook the myriad influences it has had on filmmaking in the 20th and 21st centuries. Practically every aspect of Metropolis has been co-opted by contemporary filmmakers in nearly every genre of film. The robot C-3PO in Star Wars is practically identical to the Machine Man invented by the crazy scientist Rotwang (Rudolf Klein-Rogge) who was also the inspiration for Dr. Strangelove in Stanley Kubrick’s Cold War farce Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. Director Alex Proyas essentially recreates Lang’s City of Metropolis in his masterpiece Dark City, albeit with a much different focus and a much darker message. Other films which are not so subtly influenced by Metropolis include The Matrix, Joe Versus the Volcano and even this year’s Hugo from director (and active film preservationist) Martin Scorsese.
Lang himself was also working under many influences. The divided society of Metropolis was likely influenced by H.G. Wells’ novel The Time Machine which envisions a futuristic dystopian society masquerading as a paradise that is hiding a more violent division of classes. The journey that Freder embarks upon is almost identical to that of Siddhartha Guatama (who eventually became known as the Buddha). According to legend, he, too, was shielded from human suffering by his parents and his inevitable discovery made it impossible for him to return to his life of blissful ignorance.
Lang envisioned his film to be the grandest work yet to be produced in the relatively new medium of film. He succeeded, but in the process he almost bankrupted German film industry. Metropolis was the most expensive film ever made up to that point, but Lang did not let money stand in the way of his monumental undertaking. Unfortunately, upon release Lang’s original two-and-a-half hour cut of the film was shortened by almost an hour to avoid angering the Left, which thought the film stunk of fascism, or the Right, which decried it as Communist. The resultant “film” was almost completely incoherent and devoid of much of what makes Metropolis the classic it is today.
Luckily, over the years significant restorations have been made to the film using new technologies and newly discovered footage. In 2008, an almost complete print of the film was found in Buenos Aires, including 25 minutes of lost footage. Today, true cinephiles can experience the closest possible version of Lang’s original vision.