Since its release in 1927, the silent science fiction fable, Metropolis, has loomed large in the minds of moviegoers as a towering achievement in filmmaking. Quite a feat, considering that when the film was made, sound technology and modern CGI special effects, which made such films as Star Wars, Blade Runner, and Dark City, arguably Metropolis’ heirs apparent, into modern classics, had yet to be fully incorporated into film or even invented. Yet it is exactly film director Fritz Lang’s daring use of the technology available at the time that helped make Metropolis such a memorable viewing experience.
Who can ever forget the scene in which the evil scientist, Rotwang, clones his robot creation into the film’s beloved heroine, Maria? But most notably, it is the film’s use of scenic or set designs that makes it so unique. It was the set designs, so detailed and innovative for its time that helped create the film’s distinct visuals, its mood and atmosphere. They also enhanced the plot and the film’s social message. Like many German Expressionist films of the Weimar Republic era, the set designs also reflected the predominant filmmaking style favoured by so many German directors, symbolizing the social movements that beset Germany during the 1920s.
In Lang’s Metropolis, scenic designs embellish the film’s visual mood and style. Our first images in Metropolis, which takes place in the year 2026, where a dystopian, futuristic society is divided between the powerful, ruling elites who dwell in the city, Metropolis, and the downtrodden masses who live in the tenements and man the massive machines which operate the city below, immediately sets the stage for the drama. The first shots that fill the screen are of monstrous, smoke-spewing machinery whose pistons churn and thrust with a relentless rhythm. Elevators, onto which the workers, all dressed in identical black clothing, march with the same monotonous rhythm, drop into the city’s bowels, where the machines and crowded tenements exist, as though they were delivering the workers into Hades.
Shift sirens and huge clocks that number only up to ten alert the beginning and ending of work shifts. This is our introduction to the city below Metropolis, and it is a dark, brooding, nightmarish, and bleak place completely oppressed by industrial machines. When the story shifts aboveground where the aristocracy live, the scenery dramatically changes, but it is no less impressive. Our first impression of the city is through the fantastic and lush garden in which we are introduced to the film’s hero, Freder. Here, peacocks, egrets, and flappers frolic around a fountain in an “Edenic” wonderland dominated by the Art Deco style of the 1920s period (though the film takes place in the distant future, much of the style, such as the flappers’ clothes, the cars, and planes, are very much period oriented).
But it is the city that is absolutely splendid in its detail and design. In this city, towering skyscrapers, at once modernistic and Gothic, press into one another with impressive grandeur. Miniature airplanes glide effortlessly through the city’s aerospace and cars rumble in convoluted directions on elevated highways. While this futuristic urban landscape would look familiar to any city dweller of the 1920s (indeed, the New York City skyline was a major inspiration for the film after Fritz Lang visited the city in 1924. In awe of the massive and powerful architecture, he noted that the city, “lived as illusions lived,” and knew that he had to make a film about the “sensations” he experienced on his trip), Metropolis is also fantastic and dreamlike, unlike anything that had been envisioned on film before.
Some details, i.e., the statues depicting the Seven Deadly Sins and a Tower of Babel dream sequence, seem superfluous to the drama, but are actually well within keeping of the film’s Biblical allusions. Such details are important to the film because they not only draw us into Lang’s imaginary universe, but they also inform us that Metropolis is a strange, otherworldly place where strange, otherworldly things can and will occur. The set design’s enhancement of the film’s mood allows us to suspend our disbelief to the wildly implausible narrative.
For this reason, the film’s scenic designs also enhance the narrative. The action begins when its young hero, Freder, the son of Metropolis’ ruler John Frederson, while chasing a flapper around the garden fountain, encounters a young woman named Maria, one of the many denizens of the underground city. Maria has come up to the city from below with some of the worker’s children, imploring empathy from the city’s elites to their plight. “Look, these are your brothers,” she says. Intrigued, Freder follows Maria down into the underground catacombs, but eventually loses her in the pursuit. Instead, Freder comes face to face with the underground workers, who toil endlessly with the oppressive machines that run the city.
After witnessing an explosion on one of the machines, Freder returns to his father to inform him about the underground workers, and is disturbed by his father’s obvious indifference to their predicament and his callous manner in dispatching one of his employees, whom he blames for allowing the underground workers to plan a rebellion against the city’s rulers. Undaunted, and feeling some moral responsibility toward the workers, Freder returns underground to relieve one of the workers who has been worked to exhaustion at the machines. John Frederson, meanwhile, is more disturbed by the influence Maria has on the workers.
As it turns out, she is something of a spiritual leader to them. In one scene, Maria is speaking to the workers at a meeting, promising them that a mediator will one day come to offer hope to their bleak lives. Fearful of rebellion among the workers and Maria’s power, Frederson enlists the help of Rotwang, an evil scientist, to undermine Maria’s leadership, and foster a rebellion among the workers to destroy the machines, and thus crush their morale (why Frederson would employ the destruction of the very machinery which operates the city that he rules to control the workers is but one of many improbable plot points in the story). Rotwang has created a robot prototype that will one day replace the workers.
He clones the robot into Maria, whom he has kidnapped. Frederson and Rotwang use the robot Maria to confuse the workers and foment them into a revolt. Their plan works to a T. The workers, driven into a riotous frenzy by the robot, destroy the machinery, which then causes a flood in the underground catacombs, nearly drowning the worker’s children. The children are rescued by the real Maria, who has escaped Rotwang’s clutches.
The workers, believing that their children are dead, turn on the robot Maria, whom they blame for causing the rebellion, and burn her at the stake. When the flames burn away the Maria disguise and reveal the robot, the workers soon realize that the real Maria is being pursued by the evil scientist on top of a building nearby. The film’s climax occurs when Freder rescues Maria from Rotwang and the evil scientist meets to his death after falling from the building during a struggle. In the end, after being implored by his son to “make peace” with Maria and the workers, Frederson unenthusiastically shakes Maria’s hand. Thus, the mediator that Maria promised to the workers was clearly Freder, who, as Maria insisted, helped unite the brain and the muscle with his heart.
Though the plot is itself implausible (what then becomes of the city now that the machinery which kept it running has been destroyed, or for that matter, the workers, whose livelihood, although bleak and exploitative as it was, has also been destroyed? Do the workers take their place alongside the elites in the upper city, or do they remain to their bleak existence below ground?), nonetheless the film’s set designs sweep it along. Since Metropolis is a silent film, its visuals become even more important in weaving its tale.
The set designs act as exposition to the narrative. The film’s main conflict, the division between the elites and the workers, is illustrated when both the upper and the underground cities are shown. We are also made aware of the kind of lives the elites and the workers live. For instance, the garden in which we are first introduced to Freder, with its lush flowers and roaming peacocks, alert us to how pampered a lifestyle the elites are accustomed to, while the cold, sterile machines and the minimalist, barren design of the tenements underground (in contrast to the sweeping grandeur of the city’s skyline) illustrate just how bleak and hopeless the lives of the workers’ are.
These first scenes beautifully and concisely set up the film’s plot. When we are first introduced to Rotwang, the pentagram in his laboratory becomes a signal alerting us that he is a force of evil and will spell danger to the film’s heroine. The designs also play an important part in furthering along the plot. While Freder initially entered the underground world because of his interest in Maria, this interest cannot wholly explain why he decided to take his place amongst the workers and enlist himself in their cause.
His empathy for the workers can alone be explained when he realizes their plight. This realization is enhanced by the environment in which the workers live. In the scene in which Freder witnesses an accident at the machines, he imagines one of the machines as a demonic fiend to which the workers are sacrificed. It is this experience, along with his father’s reaction, that leads him to join the workers below.
Had he not had this reaction, Freder would not have become the “mediator” Maria and the workers longed for. Yet this reaction would not have been as strongly felt if the set designs did not fully illustrate the worker’s oppressed lives. We become empathetic to their plight, just as Freder does, and, in doing so, immediately relate to Freder’s sudden rise in moral conscientiousness.
The film’s message about class structure as well as the differences between the intellectual elites and the working masses and how they must be united by the heart, is movingly depicted through set designs. Each scenic detail, from the city’s skyscrapers to Rotwang’s laboratory; to the great machines that dominate the underground city and its tenements to the clocks that count to ten, symbolizes the film’s message.
When Rotwang invents the robot to replace the workers, Lang is clearly alerting us to the danger of industrialization and machinery to replace the human heart in life’s endeavors. Would Lang’s message had as much impact if he had not already filled his cinematic creation with symbols of industrialization such as the blasting shift siren, the powerful factory machines, the crowded tenements, and the ever-present clocks? Perhaps not. As implausible as the film’s narrative was, the visuals and set designs helped make the film more intelligible. This alone makes Metropolis a wholly satisfying viewing experience.
The years between 1919-1929 were a golden era of silent filmmaking in Germany. This era was otherwise known as the German Expressionist period. German Expressionism, taking its cues from the art movement of the same name, was a highly stylized form of filmmaking. Films like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Nosferatu, Faust, and Pandora’s Box, while different in subject matter and genre, were united by their style. This style included wildly exaggerated sets that played with perspective, street-style filmmaking, lighting, and inventive camera work. Along with its lighting and cinematography, the set designs in Metropolis were very much out of the German Expressionism school of filmmaking.
This style was best exemplified by the city’s skyline, whose tall angularity can be harkened back to the expressionist paintings of an earlier period. In his research paper on Metropolis and German Expressionism, Mark Robinson alludes to this similarity in the 1915 Ernst Ludwig Kirchner painting Red Tower in Halle.1 Many historians suggest that German Expressionism, which was largely concerned with the effects of the modern, industrialized city on society, was a response to the social movements of the time. Yet the industrialization movement was well over a hundred years old by the time Metropolis was released.
Perhaps its popularity with German filmmakers such as Lang, G.W. Pabst, Ernst Lubitsch, and F.W. Murnau was a response to the demoralizing effects of a collapsed German economy after World War I and the decadence and political corruption that was rampant during that country’s Weimar Republic era in the 1920s. Many of the films that were released during this period, Metropolis being but one, dealt with issues such as corruption and decadence or moral ambiguity lurking beneath the surface of a so-called civilized society, issues that were very much expressionistic and contemporary by design.
Still, it is surprising to learn that Hitler, whose devastating rise to power was a direct backlash against the Weimar Republic, was said to have been a fan of Lang’s other film M, about a murderous child molester. Lang’s wife, Thea Von Harbou, who wrote Metropolis, would soon go on to become a director for the Nazis.
Yet, her husband (who divorced her), fled to the United States like so many of the filmmakers and theater artists who comprised of the German art community of that era after he was offered a position at UFA, the studio which had released Metropolis and came under Nazi control after the party rose to power. He continued his career as a filmmaker in Hollywood, directing upwards of thirty pictures, though none of his films during his second leg as a director matched the visionary style of his earlier German releases.
Ironically, at the time of its release, Metropolis was a critical and box office failure. One famous pan of the movie, by H.G. Wells, called it “quite the silliest film.” Yet this silly film has managed to stand the test of time, the true test for which all art must be judged, and has become a classic not only of science fiction films, but of movies in general, taking its place right alongside other cinematic giants. It has influenced scores of film makers and inspired awe in moviegoers.
Had not Metropolis been made (and indeed, the film had little support from UFA during and after its shoot), would countless films like 2001: A Space Odyssey, Blade Runner, Dark City, or even Chinatown or Citizen Kane, which also owed so much to their scenic or set designs, have existed? Of course. Still, there is no denying that Metropolis was a precursor to these and so many other films, inspiring film makers over the years to believe that they, too, can make their vast and unquenchable imaginations live boldly on the silver screens for generations to come.