Metropolis- Dir: Fritz Lang, 1927
In the early age of film, some of the most well-renowned of that time were German Expressionist films, which were prominent in the 1920s, after the First World War. The twisted imagery and shadows has lent itself to the imagination of audiences of the black and white era. Like Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari (Dir: Robert Weine, 1920), the sets played a big part on the visual representation and how it impacted the viewers; however, Metropolis had subtler connotations to expressionist design, as the frenetic insanity of Expressionism was built more around the metropolis of the films sheer size and intimidating and overwhelming scale of tower blocks and buildings. Towards the end of this period was the release of the ground-breaking epic Metropolis, directed by Fritz Lang. The film was a risk, being the most expensive of its time, at 5 million Reichmarks for the budget, and a massive size of extras for crowd shots and the miniature sets. The look of the film was ahead of its time, having a set design that was based on modern and futuristic symbolism, though also taking biblical motifs to create a unique style of its own.
The city of Metropolis one of the first elaborate futuristic cities on screen, meaning it had to capture the technology and progression of man in an accurate way. In an article from The Centre of Creative Media, a website for posting ideas and articles about Film and Television media, the writer Tim Martin expresses the notion of comparison to modern filmmakers being influenced by the design and working it into their own sets. ‘In his 1982 neo-noir science fiction classic, Blade Runner, Ridley Scott takes key elements from German Expressionist cinema and uses them with such accuracy that his film becomes, at a base level, a colorized expressionist film,’ Martin writes, referencing Metropolis’s influence on popular culture. Where modern films have access to CGI and better ways of editing and film making, Metropolis’s use of model work, and using pyrotechnics and lighting in those shots is dying out in contemporary film, but still lending itself to a unique vision of the future, whereas now, films have the option to adapt and use new techniques, which is at the heart of the design of Metropolis. While modern films have used German Expressionism as an influence and though the many adaptions, growing further apart from its source, some of Lang’s shots and set design of buildings by Erich Kettlehut, the films concept artist look to be inspired by Das Cabinet des Dr Caligari.
Instead of just being solely a film about the design of a completely fictional fantasy future city, the design references some real world places, imagery and ideas. Most notably, it has both design elements and plot points based around Biblical ideology and themes. The conflicts of the film, from good versus evil to rich versus working class, to other conflicts, come from the earliest of literature. A source from a website called Strange Horizons in an article about the film’s themes, talks about the religious imagery from the idea of the saviour of both classes of the city to certain motifs of character. One part of the film is referenced by the writer of the article about the ancient civilisations mentioned several times through the film, “Below this paradisal upper city, hordes of workers toil and die so that the machinery of the great city may roll on uninterrupted. Freder calls the mechanical Juggernaut that powers the upper city "MOLOCH," a Canaanite word meaning "king." Moloch was a god of the Ammonites, and not a kind god. Moloch's worshippers engaged in the ritual sacrifice of children, specifically sacrifice by fire. The vast machine churns in the depths of the city, belching clouds of steam onto the masses of workers who know neither hope nor rest. It takes little imagination to visualize these enormous factories as the biblical underworld wrought not in fire and brimstone, but in molten steel and smoke-blackened iron. Indeed, Freder imagines just such a sight after he witnesses an accident that kills several workers; his mind conjures up visions of helmeted demons feeding legions of helpless worker-slaves into the ravenous maw of the demonic machine. More sacrifices tossed into the ever-hungry belly of Moloch, to be consumed in fire and smoke and ash.” This is also true of the other vision we see of civilisations built by oppressed workers seen as slaves, for the Tower of Babel, built as a feat of Man’s great intelligence and strength and also as a challenge to the Gods, to be able to get on the same level as them. Maria’s whole character is connected to this, being seen as a Saint, like the Virgin Mary, caring for children and bringing prophesies of better times, then the Fake Maria being compared to the Whore of Babylon, manipulating men to kill and die for her, imagery of her wearing red and purple silks riding a great beast bringing about the collapse of the empire. The film is really an allegory to the future, where history seems to repeat the patterns that doomed men to failure. Only a mediator of such visions of grandeur can create a perfect world.
Despite having what many audiences claim to be spectacular sets and visual effects, Metropolis was critiqued for its long running time and puzzling subplots, which caused Lang’s epic to be shortened dramatically. Scenes were taken out and replaced with blocks of text which served to depict what the characters were saying and what was part of the action. This breaks up the pacing and dates the film more than it would be just as a film 88 years old. Despite its critical representation, Metropolis is said to have defined the Science Fiction genre due to its revolutionary set design. Lang hired effects expert Eugen Schüfftan who had pioneered techniques that can be seen in later films. Philip French, writer of an article on the Guardian’s website noted that “we find it easier than earlier audiences and critics to accept the mixture of expressionism, melodrama and German romanticism, to go along with the abrupt switches in style and to accept the apparent conflict of ideological positions.” Now that audiences can look back on periods and of the art of that time, new opinions can be recognised from what was before dismissed.
The Centre of Creative Media, author Tim Martin, 2015
Strange Horizons, author David Michael Wharton, 2003
The Guardian, Metropolis review, author Philip French, 2015http://www.theguardian.com/film/2015/mar/15/metropolis-fritz-lang-philip-french-classic-dvd