Metropolis

“Metropolis,” released in 1927, is a black and white piece of cinema history and a cornerstone of the sci-fi genre that still feels incredibly modern. Fritz Lang, along with his wife Thea von Harbou, brought to life a futuristic city split by class—think the high-tech gloss of tomorrow mixed with the stark social divides of today. As one of the most expensive silent films ever made, “Metropolis” was a bold exploration of where society was headed, packed with jaw-dropping visuals and deep, thought-provoking themes that filmmakers are still hashing out nearly a century later.

The story behind “Metropolis” is almost as epic as the film itself. After its debut, much of the original footage was cut away, leaving us with only fragments of Lang’s vision for decades. Then, miraculously, a nearly complete copy turned up in a Buenos Aires film archive in 2008, sparking a major restoration that’s let us see “Metropolis” as it was meant to be seen. This restored version is beyond a treat, showing just how much “Metropolis” has influenced everything in sci-fi that’s come after it. It’s a true classic that bridges the silent era and today’s cinema, proving that great storytelling is timeless.

“Metropolis” was Fritz Lang’s; most ambitious undertaking, pushing the boundaries of 1920s cinema technology and storytelling. Made during the Weimar Republic—a time when Germany was buzzing with artistic innovation and societal change—Lang set out to create something spectacular. The production of “Metropolis” was like the film industry’s moon landing, complete with a gigantic budget and mind-bending visuals that were unheard of at the time. Imagine months of relentless filming, with massive sets and hundreds of extras, all wrapped in the visionary aesthetics of German Expressionism—this was filmmaking on a scale few dared to dream.

Reaching such a goal was not an easy undertaking; the filming process was fraught with challenges that led to grueling schedules which tested the limits of the cast and crew. Actress Brigitte Helm, who played the dual role of Maria and her robotic double, often bore the brunt of these demanding conditions, including being strapped into heavy, cumbersome costumes that left little room for comfort. Despite these hardships, or perhaps because of them, “Metropolis” became a symbol of cinematic dedication. Lang’s insistence on detail and scale didn’t just make a film; it crafted a legend. Every frame of “Metropolis” showcased innovative special effects and set designs that revolutionized how stories could be told on screen, setting a high bar for the future of filmmaking.

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At its heart, “Metropolis” spins a tale of a futuristic city defined by a stark divide between the working class and the elite, and can be considered one of the genre’s first epic science fiction movies. The workers, living deep underground, operate monstrous machines that power the towering skyscrapers above, where the wealthy enjoy a life of leisure and luxury. This setup forms the backbone of the plot, where Freder, the son of the city’s mastermind Joh Fredersen, discovers the harsh realities of the worker’s lives. Shocked and moved by what he sees, especially after meeting Maria, a compassionate figure among the workers, Freder’s journey from naive privilege to passionate advocate drives the core of the narrative. Maria, both the heart and the hope of the underground, preaches peace and mediation, but her message is soon twisted when an evil scientist creates a robotic duplicate of her to incite chaos.

Lang and von Harbou weave a rich tapestry of themes through this stark dichotomy between the upper city and the depths below and in the process tackle an anxiety about industrialization and automation—a fear that machines might outpace humanity’s moral compass and capacity for control. This is embodied by the iconic Maschinenmensch, the robotic double of Maria, which represents both the pinnacle of human achievement and its potential downfall. The film prompts viewers to ponder the cost of progress and whether technological advances are being matched by ethical considerations. It explores the potential for reconciliation between the classes through understanding and solidarity, rather than the upheaval and destruction that often accompany change.

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Moreover, “Metropolis” delves into more existential themes, such as the quest for identity and the soul’s struggle against dehumanization in the face of rampant industrial growth. The city itself, a character in its own right, mirrors the inner conflict of its inhabitants, with its gleaming surfaces and hidden depths. The film’s use of religious and mythological imagery—references to Babylon, the Tower of Babel, and biblical figures like Maria as a Madonna figure—further enriches the narrative, suggesting a universal struggle between good and evil, creation and destruction. This layering of themes makes “Metropolis” not just a story about a city of the future but a timeless reflection on human values and the eternal conflict between technological progress and humanistic ethics.

The film’s depiction of a society where machines both empower and endanger human civilization resonates with contemporary anxieties about artificial intelligence and automation. Fritz Lang’s city of the future serves as a cautionary tale—a vision that echoes today’s fears that machines might outpace our moral compass and capacity for control. As we grapple with ethical dilemmas around AI, robotics, and their implications for equity and labor, “Metropolis” remains a relevant exploration of how technology might reshape society in ways that require careful governance and foresight.

Beyond its thematic foresight, “Metropolis” has influenced a multitude of filmmakers and has become a touchstone in the genre of science fiction. Its visual motifs and the central conflict between man and machine surface in countless works, from Ridley Scott’s “Blade Runner” to George Lucas’s “Star Wars” saga. These films, like “Metropolis,” grapple with the repercussions of advanced technology on individual identity and societal structures. Moreover, Lang’s film has left its mark on popular culture, influencing music videos, fashion, and design, embedding its aesthetics into a broader creative vocabulary that continues to inspire artists across different mediums.

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It’s legacy is also evident in its ongoing discussion within academic and philosophical circles, where it serves as a key text in understanding the intersecting paths of culture, technology, and politics. The film is studied not just for its artistic qualities but as a historical artifact that offers insights into the cultural psyche of the Weimar Republic and its anxieties about the future. This enduring relevance underscores “Metropolis” as a classic film that transcends its era, providing a lens through which to examine modern concerns about technology’s role in shaping human destiny. It encourages a reflection on how we, as a society, can navigate the challenges posed by our creations to ensure they enhance rather than diminish our humanity.

“Metropolis” is heralded as a masterpiece of visual style, heavily influenced by the German Expressionist movement, which is characterized by its use of stark, geometrically abstract sets and high contrast lighting that create a surreal, dreamlike quality. The film’s elaborate cityscapes and towering skyscrapers have become iconic in cinema, capturing a futuristic yet timeless aesthetic that has influenced countless other films and genres. Lang employed groundbreaking special effects for the time, including the use of miniatures for the city scenes and the innovative Schüfftan process, which involved mirrors to create the illusion of actors interacting within massive sets. These pioneering techniques not only brought the intricate details of Lang’s vision to life but also set new standards in film, demonstrating the potential of visual effects to transform storytelling.

The 2008 discovery of a 16mm reduction negative in Buenos Aires allowed historians and film experts to restore “Metropolis” to a state that closely resembles its original 1927 premiere. This restored version, which includes 25 minutes of footage once thought lost, was met with widespread acclaim and renewed interest, allowing a new generation to appreciate its depth and complexity fully.