The praise: Metropolis is old enough to predate all the major film awards, so it can't claim "Oscar winner" as a descriptor. Instead, it has to settle for distinctions like "first great science-fiction film" and "godfather of all sci-fi movies" and "one of the most influential movies ever made." Empire magazine ranked it 12th on its list of the best non-English films.
The context: Fritz Lang, an architect's son, studied civil engineering at the Technical University of Vienna before switching to art. All of those influences can be seen in his films, and especially in Metropolis. Also on display is Lang's perfectionism, his fondness for German Expressionism, and his intensely bizarre creative vision.
At the time of its release, Metropolis was the most expensive movie ever made, costing the equivalent of something like 1.5 million U.S. dollars. Watching the film, you're liable to think $1.5 million -- in 1926 -- was a bargain. Lang had huge sets constructed, assembled massive crowds of extras, basically designed an entire fictional world from the ground up. For the locales that were too large or ornate to be created in full, Lang's special effects guru, Eugen Schufftan, employed what came to be known as the "Shufftan process," using mirrors to "project" actors into miniature models or drawings.
While science fiction had been part of movies since the beginning (you've seen images from the 1902 short "A Trip to the Moon"), there had been very few feature-length forays into the genre before Metropolis. The definition of "science fiction" is somewhat fluid, and not every film from the silent era is accounted for today. But we can say with some confidence that Metropolis was, at most, the 20th sci-fi movie of at least 60 minutes in length, and probably more like the 15th or 16th.
The point is, all this stuff was pretty new. Anything Metropolis did was bound to be considered "groundbreaking," if only because no one had done it yet. But except for The Lost World (1925), no other sci-fi movies from the silent era besides Metropolis are still discussed today. Turns out Lang was pretty visionary even by the standards of brand-new genres still being explored.
Which could explain why it was a flop. It's the whole "ahead of its time" dilemma. It performed marginally in Germany, and did even worse when it was exported. Adding to the problem: It was 2 1/2 hours long, or about an hour longer than theater owners liked their features to be. So when it played in Europe and the United States, it was drastically cut to about 90 minutes, making the plot seem even more strange and incomprehensible than Lang intended. A version of approximately that length was released in Germany, too. Oh, and then a lot of the original footage was lost, and no one apart from those first few audiences in Berlin in early 1927 ever saw the complete film again.
Some of the deleted material was restored for a 2001 rerelease, but about 30 minutes were still missing. Then, in 2008, in one of the greatest discoveries in cinema history, most of the remaining footage was found in an archive in Buenos Aires. After painstaking repairs and cleaning, a 146-minute version of the movie was released in 2010 and is now on DVD and Blu-ray. All but a couple scenes from the 1927 premiere are restored, with intertitles explaining what happens in the missing parts. (One of them is a fight scene! It sounds awesome! If you know any 90-year-olds who saw the original version and can describe it in detail, please let us know.)
The movie: The film takes place in ... THE FUTURE! The city of Metropolis is a vertical, gleaming masterpiece, a modern Tower of Babel. While the wealthy and elite frolic and play up above, the workers toil down below in underground factories. We have no idea what they're making, or who's buying it, or even what the workers' actions are doing. Billionaire capitalist Joh Fredersen owns the city and its workers. His idealistic son, Freder, is enchanted by a beautiful working-class woman, follows her down below, and learns the city's secrets. There is also a mad scientist, Rotwang, who creates a "machine-man" (i.e., robot), in female form, to mislead the workers.
What it influenced: Virtually everyone who saw Metropolis saw the radically reduced, bastardized version. Entire subplots were missing, character motivations unclear. With all those obstacles, how did the movie become so important? By the strength of its visuals, which remained intact even if the context was muddled.
A movie fan watching Metropolis for the first time will recognize its influence on dozens of other films. It starts with the futuristic design of the city, emulated by everything from Blade Runner to Dark City to The Hudsucker Proxy to Tim Burton's Batman films. All the heavy-hitters of sci-fi -- Stanley Kubrick, Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, Ridley Scott, James Cameron -- were inspired by by Metropolis in the way they designed their fictional worlds.
C3PO is a dead ringer for the Machine-Man. The workers trudging in unison in Joe Versus the Volcano, the striking shot of hands pointing up at the sky in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, pretty much everything from The Matrix -- you'll see it all in Metropolis.
Rotwang, with his wild hair and laboratory full of bubbling devices, became a model for cinematic mad scientists. Bride of Frankenstein (1935) paid homage to him, and then countless films paid homage to Bride of Frankenstein. (There's more than a little of Doc Brown from Back to the Future in Rotwang, that's for sure.) The title character in Dr. Strangelove is a modified Rotwang.
A character known only as the Thin Man, hired by Fredersen to spy on his son, is likewise memorable. Crispin Glover played a Thin Man in the Charlie's Angels movie; plenty of other references have been less on-the-nose.
This was almost certainly the first movie in which someone creates a synthetic version (robot, clone, etc.) of a human being. Rotwang gives his Machine-Man the image of Maria, a working-class prophetess, and subsequently deceives people into thinking it's the real Maria. You've seen that plot device a hundred times.
What to look for: The basic story is melodramatic and fairly predictable, its sci-fi trappings notwithstanding. But what a visual feast! If the hugeness of the sets doesn't impress you, it's because you've forgotten that the film was made in 1926, with primitive equipment. When you see a crowd of several hundred people moving in unison, it's because Lang filmed several hundred people actually moving in unison. The sheer logistics of the project are mind-boggling. Watching the film is like touring a recently excavated long-lost ancient city: How did they do that?
The best way to watch the film might be on a big TV, joined by friends who are also movie buffs. Since it's a silent movie, you can get away with discussing it while you're watching it. Perhaps you would even play a drinking game wherein you take a drink every time you see something and think, "Oh! So that's where [other movie] got that from!" (You will be very drunk.)
Fredersen talks to a subordinate on a video phone. Television barely existed at this point, and Lang imagined that someday you'd be able to talk on the phone and see the person you're talking to on a video monitor. Details like that, not to mention the film's overall craziness, will probably make you think Lang was as much of a mad genius as Rotwang. Dude did wear a monocle, which definitely is not normal.
What's the big deal: Even in its butchered form, Metropolis managed to impress people with its visual innovation, to the extent that practically every sci-fi movie made in the last 80 years owes something to it -- or, at least, owes something to a movie that owes something to it. Some of the plot devices probably would have been conceived by someone else sooner or later, and it's not like Lang created the conflict between men and machines. But the boldness of his vision has reverberated through the decades, influencing the way sci-fi ideas are brought to life.
Further reading: For amusement's sake, check out the contemporary reviews from Variety and The New York Times. (Note that some of the characters' names had been Americanized for the U.S. release.) Here's an enlightening interview with Lang from 1972, here's Roger Ebert's appreciation of the film's restoration, and here's a good summary of the indignities Metropolis has suffered over the years.
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Eric D. Snider (website) is from the future.
What's the Big Deal?: Metropolis (1927)