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Home #Hwoodtimes Into the Future: The Genre of Sci-Fi in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927)

Into the Future: The Genre of Sci-Fi in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927)

A Young Fritz Lang

By: Sarah Key

Los Angeles, CA (The Hollywood Times) 07/13/20- Movies made most impactful to audiences are the ones that create the most memories. The plot of a film may include morals that teach from right or wrong and the dialogue might prove to be touching to one’s heart. The scoring of the film or even the casting choices made by directors and agents may sway an audience, too. Poignant and heartwarming films also can impact a person based on the genre the film is placed in, such as romance, comedy, or even a history. In 1927, all of these ideas synced together to create the silent masterpiece of famous film director Fritz Lang’s Metropolis.

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With the film produced by Erich Pommer and the screenplay and book Metropolis (1925) written by Thea von Harbou, the film is two hours and 33 minutes long. The film was originally deemed a lost silent film in time, however, just as recently as 2008, the film was rediscovered in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Only segments of the film survived, and in went the process of restoration to save what was left. Multiple versions of the film existed at one point, such as that the running times would fluctuate as time continued. The original running time, in total, was 153 minutes (2.5 hours), and in 1927, upon release and editing, it decreased to 116 minutes.

In the beginning of his career, Fritz Lang was widely known in German cinema, and was most notable for Metropolis, M (1931) starring the incomparable Peter Lorre, and Dr. Mabuse the Gambler (1922), which starred Rudolf Klein-Rogge, who also plays ‘Rotwang’ in Metropolis. Though it is stated Lang wasn’t moved by the outcome of Metropolis, this film would prove to be one of his best in the early era of cinema. He married Thea von Harbou from 1922-1933.

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Maria’s Transformation

In 2010, The Complete Metropolis was released upon its rediscovery in Argentina, after it was announced that a 16 mm reduction negative of the original cut had been discovered in the archives of the Museo del Cine. The version found was a safety reduction, which was intended to safeguard the contents in case the flammable nitrate the film was made up of would become destroyed. The footage would almost match the running time as before, however a tad bit shorter, at an estimated 148 minutes.

German composer Gottfried Huppertz composed the film’s original score for a large orchestra, and became inspired through the works of Richard Wagner and Richard Strauss with their combined classical orchestral styles, that were mixed with modest touches, to portray the city of workers in Metropolis, itself. For the 2010 restoration, his score was performed live and re-recorded by the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Frank Strobbel, in which he received an outstanding response from media.

Metropolis, set in the future of the 21st century, is the first feature-length film of the science-fiction genre, and it highlights the class struggle between the wealthy class and working class. Joh Fredersen (Alfred Abel) and his son Freder Frederson (Gustav Fröhlich) live wealthily on top of the working class, who run Metropolis City’s power. Under strict orders from his father, Freder curiously investigates his way down below, and sees the harsh conditions his father put the workers through. While snooping around, Freder falls deeper in love with Maria, (Brigitte Helm), who is a part of the working class as a mediator, telling the workers that all the classes will unite as one. Joh investigates the catacombs for his son with the guidance of evil scientist Rotwang (Rudolf Klein-Rogge), and finds Maria’s ideas are not associated with the working class. Their plan was to gain control over the working class, and Rotwang had the idea to kidnap Maria and create a robot, Maschinenmensch, or Machine Man, in the image of his dead wife, Hel, to ruin Maria’s reputation and prevent rebellion among them. However, Rotwang would prove his evilness through wanting to kill Joh and take over Metropolis himself, against plan. As chaos ensues, the race to save Metropolis lies in the hand of Freder, who later realizes Maria was switched into a wicked and seductive duplicate.

A film revolved around the ideas of Marxism and social divide, Lang does an outstanding job at representing these qualities while also including the sci-fi appeal that would soon impact the world of cinematography. A quote from the film states, “Death to the Machines!” and a theme highlighted is that these machines were taking over the lives of people. Marxism exemplifies the notion of how to work in a capitalistic society and grows to show the divide among classes. In Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times (1936), he is working at a factory in an assembly line, showing how dehumanization took over the people around him. Chaplin is also swallowed by one of the machines he was working with to show how he was stuck working with machines in his class; he couldn’t escape it. Marx described this idea as the theory of Alienation, perfectly fit into Metropolis, as the workers solemnly walk to their workplaces in line, also working on powering the city in sync all together.

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The perfect example of a futuristic scene would be when Maria’s body is placed into Machine Man’s body. She is laying flat on a table with probes and wires placed upon her head while inserted into a cathode ray tube machine. As Rotwang flips a switch, lightning bolts exert out of her body and circle around the robot’s body, also hooked up to wires. As liquid boils in beakers and wires shake around the room, the robot begins to fade and fake Maria appears in its place.

Another great example would be the wide shot in the beginning of the film where you see the Metropolis Tower of Babel in the midst of the screen, highways as tall as the skyscrapers, and airplanes at their same height. The shots and angles captured on screen create a glow to the city that is unnatural, yet appealing, leading the audience to know it is futuristic-like.

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The special effects artist was Eugen Schüfftan, and two examples of effects he created on screen were the use of miniatures of the city and the Schüfftan Process, which was his process of using mirrors to create the illusion that the actors were occupying those miniature sets. Perfect for a science-fiction film of its time, the process uses scale models, which make gravitational effects appear convincing to an audience. Forced perception is another term for this process in which objects appear either farther or closer than they really are on screen. Another film that uses these techniques is French director George Méliès’s Le Voyage dans la Lune (A Trip to the Moon) (1902), which used double-exposure, miniatures, and stop-action.

The Metropolis Tower of Babel

Though the film looks beautiful on the big screen, the behind-the-scenes experience wasn’t all that pleasant. Lang was known as a perfectionist in his craft, and if he saw a scene that didn’t look right in his eyes, he would shoot it numerous times to reach perfection. The reels weren’t just damaged, but so were the actors. Brigitte Helm recalls having multiple bruises and loads of exhaustion on set, just as the 25,000 extras had, while playing both Maria and the Machine Man.

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“The night shots lasted three weeks, and even if they did lead to the greatest dramatic moments – even if we did follow Fritz Lang’s directions as though in a trance, enthusiastic and enraptured at the same time – I can’t forget the incredible strain that they put us under. The work wasn’t easy, and the authenticity in the portrayal ended up testing our nerves now and then. For instance, it wasn’t fun at all when Grot drags me by the hair, to have me burned at the stake. Once I even fainted: during the transformation scene, Maria, as the android, is clamped in a kind of wooden armament, and because the shot took so long, I didn’t get enough air,” Helm stated in an early interview.

Helm on set in her costume

There was also a scene where Fröhlich would collapse at Helm’s feet. Lang had the scene reshot numerous times to the point of collapse on Fröhlich’s part. The set was also freezing cold all the time, and the on-set conditions made it hard for the crew to maintain their health, especially during the shooting of the water scenes.

Although filming took 17 months to complete, the conditions behind the camera make audiences appreciate the creation of such a film and for what actors go through on set, to perform the idea of a “perfect” role.

Sculptor Walter Schulze-Mittendorff created the Machine Man robot that Helm would be encapsulated in throughout filming. With Helm fainting from the heat numerous times, due to those many re-takes, a whole-body plaster was firstly cast of her body then the costume was constructed around it. Mittendorff discovered a sample of “plastic wood,” or wood putty, a pliable substance designed as wood-filler, and it allowed him to build the costume in a way to look more metallic, and allow Helm some free movement.

Hundreds upon thousands of posters have been made into the likeness of Helm’s robot, being it highlighted the social, political, and disruptive divide between classes, through manipulation and seduction. Believed that there are only four originals in existence for the film, Metropolis posters are a part of the top ten most expensive film posters. California collector Kenneth Schachter purchased the acclaimed crown jewel poster for a record $690,000 in a 2005 private sale. He was sadly forced to sell the poster along with eight other posters he bought, declaring bankruptcy. With The Invisible Man (1933) on the list, an original Metropolis poster was bought at a grand total at auction of, $1.2 million in 2012 from vintage movie memorabilia collector Ralph DeLuca at the LA Bankruptcy sale. Actor Leonardo DiCaprio is currently rumored to have one of the four original posters.

In popular and modern culture, the film has inspired and been referenced in numerous films, television shows, and in music videos. One famous example of a music video inspired by the Tower of Babel and city of Metropolis is Rock Band Queen’s 1984 Radio Ga Ga. Their music video commentates on television, overtaking radio’s popularity. Nominated for Best Art Direction in the 1984 MTV Video Music Awards, Radio Ga Ga is built upon the artwork and visuals of Metropolis. The music video shows multiple clips from the film itself and Freddie Mercury, Roger Taylor, Brian May, and John Deacon recreated the scenes themselves. Mercury actually stands in front of a reproduction of the clock that Fröhlich struggled turning for turning on the power to the city. They also pretend to drive a flying car through the city and clap in sync with the “workers” on a similar set, to add to the sci-fi and futuristic genre.

Another exciting impact to cinema would be that the Maschinenmensch inspired George Lucas to create C-3P0 for the Star Wars series. The posters engraved with a golden robot Maria grew to become impactful to Lucas and conceptual designer Ralph McQuarrie’s eyes. With Star Wars also being a science-fiction series, adding that little touch of the creation of C-3P0 shows the importance Metropolis still has on audiences today.

(Insert- Photo #6- Joh (L), Rotwang (M), and Machine Man (R))

Joh (L), Rotwang (M), and Machine Man (R)

“The mediator of the head and the hands must be the heart,” is what Maria quoted in the film, and it couldn’t be any truer as to how to solve class divide. It also defines the purpose of the film. The head (upper classes) and hands (working classes) come together as two pieces of a heart in forming a union together. Metropolis is a sensational film worth watching. Even though it is set for this century, the film does not prevent anyone from imagining the possible.

All Photos Courtesy of photo12.com and IMDb