Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927) is a German expressionist science-fiction silent film that is widely known for being the originator of most Sci-Fi films. Along with its set design being phenomenally significant, it also works as inhabiting numerous themes explored within the film, such as deception, death, and destruction. The definition of the word metropolis itself means a large and representative city, and the sets are so grand and intimidating that the characters are forced to live up to the grandeur of the city. As Fritz Lang’s Metropolis epitomises the definition of the word metropolis, it however portrays much more character through its cast and plot.
Presented as a running city with a beautiful art-deco inspired design, the surface of the city embraces the spirit of the 1920s, a time in which was a profitable paradise of cultural edge and economical prosperity, yet the depths of the city greatly contrast by depicting the harsh and discriminatory consequences of the work that goes into powering the city through the suffering of the workers. Expressed to Freder during the early stages of the movie, Maria states: “These are you brothers” implying that his carelessness in enjoying his father’s wealth is a destructive force towards those that are suffering for his happiness. That to which he later decides to investigate, Freder becomes horrified to see the conditions that the workers are in and even volunteers to work a machine whilst the worker takes a break. Perhaps his compassion for the workers comes from his understanding of what it is like to be “Dismissed…and sent to the depths” by his father as we also discover that his father, although wealthy, is a high strung man who has little disregard for others concerns. It could be said that to be dismissed by Roh to the depths is to be dismissed by God and sent to Hell. An example of Freder’s father, Roh’s wealth is displayed through his office, but for effect, all of the objects within his office are dramatically oversized to enforce empowerment over those below his position. Another effective use of Roh’s wealth is displayed through his garden in which inhabits exotic wildlife and a luxurious fountain.
Jane Barnwell states that Metropolis was: “a landmark in terms of concept & technical achievement… and was so visually ground breaking that its influences are still in existence today, and they can be identified most in Steven Spielberg’s A.I: Artificial Intelligence (2001)”. Other features in Metropolis that have been highly influential to other films include the character of Maschinenmensch, which portrays strong similarities to the character of C3P0 George Lucas’s Star Wars films, along with the character of Evelyn Seymour in Noel Pemburton Belling’s High Treason (1925) showing similar characteristics as the character Maria.
The notable qualities of the production design and settings in Metropolis is that they work as being either havens for the characters or threats. With the mechanisms of the factory in Metropolis being a threat, the workers work in syncronised movements, and the strain of their work has forced them to lose their identity and has inflicted them to work the same way as the machines they are powering. A contrasting example is the Church and the underground Chapel run by Maria, in which work as a haven for the workers to plan their escape from the work that is destroying them. The design of the factory includes using a steep staircase, institutionalized work stations, steam powered units and a labour intensive set up to threaten the workers. It is notable that the character of Freder views their work as being so horrific that he imagines them as being treated like slaves forced into a temple that devours them. It is obvious that this is highly dramatized due to the film’s influence from the story of ‘The Tower of Babel’; Maria even states that “Today I shall tell you of the Tower of Babel” in which the workers similarly want to plan an escape to “reach a heaven” out of the city, but are labelled as disrespectful in the thought of doing so by the head of the city Roh Frederson. Despite films futuristic plot, Lang it uses the idea of religion and past ideas to ground the workers, which is possibly why Maria makes speeches to the workers in the underground of the city; where the setting is manmade and untainted.
A different of the settings being used as threatening within the film include the underground staircases and tunnels in which C.A Rotwang chases Maria, as they work as being claustrophobic devices to portray a lack of direction and escape. They also aid in providing an imprisonment, such as when Freder is pursuing Maria and the body of doors keep closing him in, trapping him from being able to save Maria. The remarkable device of the torch that Rotwang uses to “expose” Maria also assists in adding terror as her reactions inflict terror upon the audience.
During the final scenes of the movie in which the city begins to flood, it is significant that the gong in which Maria bangs continuously to call for help is portrayed as being challenging to use. It is also significant that the children of the worker’s crowd around her below her platform, as this aids in portraying her as a figurehead that the workers look up to. The gong demonstrates an example of difficulty that the workers face when trying to seek help, and the fact that the gong doesn’t make any noticeable sound even during an emergency also demonstrates the lack of care that the workers receive. The workers homes also depict such plain and discouraging designs, which also promotes the fact that the workers feel imprisoned.
A merrier example of the use of set design is during the social gathering in which Joh and C.A. Rotwang attend, and they experience the atmosphere brought on by the Maschinenmensch disguised as Maria. Using the same impact of a gathering, such as gatherings thrown in Baz Luhrmanns’ The Great Gatsby (2012), the ambience exceedingly becomes so mesmerizing due to “Maria” seducing the guests by dancing, and the guests become so engulfed by her that they agree to rebel against the power of Metropolis. Stating that the workers have “Lubricated the machine joints with their own blood…” and “Fed them with their own flesh” “she” urges them to “let the machines starve, you fools!”. Whilst all of this is happening, Freder is being supposedly nursed back to health in bed, but it is so overdramatized that he is portrayed to be on his death bed, and to prove this point would be when Freder envisions a Pope visiting him stating the Maschinenmensch’s teachings. He eventually arrives at the gathering stating that “Maria speaks of peace, not killing”, however, the workers join forces against him despite his innocence as he is the son of their torturer - Roh.
The overall fulfillment of the film comes from realizing that a grand city such as Metropolis should be build with the head and hands, using the heart as a mediator. Siegfried Kracaucer states that “Metropolis was rich in subterranean content that, like contraband, had crossed the borders of consciousness without being questioned.” (Phillip 2015). To this extent, Metropolis is a film way ahead of its time because it combines numerous interesting scenarios and allows them to rely on the existence of the the city of Metropolis in which to utilize them.
Figure 1 - http://vigilantcitizen.com/musicbusiness/the-occult-symbolism-of-movie-metropolis-and-its-importance-in-pop-culture/
Figure 2 - http://pyxurz.blogspot.com/2011/10/metropolis-page-1-of-6.html
Figure 3 – http://metropolisbabylon.blogspot.co.uk/2015/04/apocalyptic-visions-in-fritz-langs.html
Barnwell, J. (2003) Production design: Architects of the screen. LONDON: Wallflower Press
Bradshaw, P. (2010a) Metropolis. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/film/2010/sep/09/metropolis-restored-film-review (Accessed: 2 October 2016).
French, P. (2015) Metropolis review – Philip french on Fritz Lang’s visionary epic. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/film/2015/mar/15/metropolis-fritz-lang-philip-french-classic-dvd (Accessed: 2 October 2016).
sjfilmhistory (2014) The influence of Fritz Lang’s ‘metropolis’ on future films. Available at: https://sjfilmhistory.wordpress.com/2014/02/03/774/ (Accessed: 2 October 2016).
Metropolis (1927) Directed by Tomatometer .