1 October 2016

Metropolis, 1927

Fig. 1 Poster art
Fritz Lang's 'Metropolis' (1927) is a film of great power; the production design has had a profound influence on film, particularly the science fiction genre. '"Metropolis" (1927) fixed for the rest of the century the image of a futuristic city as a hell of scientific progress and human despair.' (Ebert, 1998) Metropolis has clearly influenced films such as Blade Runner, with its gloomy depths and robots in human form, and Star Wars, with C-3PO taking so much inspiration from the Machine Man. The film's Rotwang was cinema's first version of what would become the standard image for the mad scientist that is still around today (see Fig. 2)

Fig. 2 The mad scientist and the robot
In addition to the influence of the films themes and characters, Lang also made an impact with camera effects. There is a scene in which Freder reaches for a piece of fabric belonging to Maria and the camera shows a point of view angle, which is very different from the still straight on shots that feature in much of the film and in many films before it. Showing the scene in this way puts the viewer into the scene and allows for greater emotion to be felt. Also very effective is the movement of the camera as Maria and Freder climb away from the flood later in the film; there is an explosion off screen that is shown by the camera swinging back and forth as the characters stumble. These effects feel very modern and bring a definite excitement to the film.

The city of Metropolis seems massive, the geometric shapes, sharp shadows and crowded arrangement of the set work very well to create a feeling of size and power. This geometry and sense of power is visible in all of the sets, but there are key differences in the lighting of the upper Metropolis and the Workers' City. The city above is lighter, cleaner and more spacious (see Fig. 3), whereas the city below looks dark and dirty; there are ceilings and barred gates holding the people in and the cramped darkness of the set creates a visual representation of their oppression (see Fig. 4).

Fig. 3 Metropolis

Fig. 4 The Workers' City
There is a clear divide between the working class and the upper class, as the people in the light above live in luxury as those below work endlessly to satisfy the needs of the machines of Metropolis. There is a very powerful scene early on in the film, when Freder, the son of Fredersen, ruler of Metropolis, witnesses an explosion in the depths of the workers city. The viewer sees through Freder's eyes as he has a vision of the machine as a great monster to which the workers are sacrificed (see Fig. 5). The viewer also sees the workers who were injured and killed in the explosion carried away by their colleagues with such efficiency that it is clear these disasters are a common occurrence. This is made even clearer when a new set of workers immediately replace the casualties, and begin work on the machine as though nothing has happened.

Fig. 5 Freder's vision
One of the film's themes is about the importance of understanding between people; the quote 'THE MEDIATOR BETWEEN HEAD AND HANDS MUST BE THE HEART!' (Lang, 1927) is repeated at several key moments in the film. Maria, who speaks this phrase, is a woman from the workers city and a firm believer in peace. She brings hope to the workers with her speeches in the under city and she tells them of a mediator that will come and encourages them to wait patiently for change. She holds a lot of influence among the workers and this does not go unnoticed by powers in the upper city. Under Fredersen's instruction, Rotwang copies Maria's image on to the Machine Man and uses the robot to cause disaster for the workers.

Lang relies largely on visuals to distinguish between good and evil in this film; characters such as Freder and the real Maria are often bathed in light, whereas the false Maria has darkened makeup and moves in a strange, sharp fashion. This robot Maria is powerfully provocative and, under Rotwang's instruction, incites violence not only among the workers, but also among those living in luxury in the city above. The over the top acting that is often found in silent films works well here to bring a sense of added chaos to the fast paced scenes of destruction and revelry. 'Brigitte Helm is striking as Maria, in both human and Evil Robot form, with those soulful eyes entrancing anyone who dares look into them too long.' (Twelftree, 2016). The false Maria is compared to the Whore of Babylon as she dances strangely in a nightclub, and the men around her fall into sin (see Fig. 7). This contrasts nicely with the earlier scene of Maria preaching peace to the workers in the catacombs, where her movements and the light surrounding her are soft and gentle (See Fig. 6). Both characters are made captivating through lighting effects, camera angles, clever acting and other elements of production design.

Fig. 6 Maria
Fig. 7 The Machine Man
The visuals of the film work to complement the strange nature of the story, but in some ways the plot and dark themes come across as an accessory to the visual effects and set design of the film. 'Its parable of crowds and power, automation and liberty, a saint and a seductress, is not just complex—it’s a mess.' (Thomson, 2010) The plot of the film is absurd, there are moments where logic is non-existent and the confusion of the characters on screen is mirrored in the mind of the viewer.

Despite the supposed moral of the story, 'THE MEDIATOR BETWEEN HEAD AND HANDS MUST BE THE HEART!' (Lang, 1927) being repeated several times, this sentiment is lost amongst the messy plot and the overwhelming visual effects. 'The movie has a plot that defies common sense, but its very discontinuity is a strength.' (Ebert, 1998) This distraction doesn't seem to be an accident; the question of what the film is supposed to mean goes unanswered, leaving the viewer in a heightened state of information absorption. This works well to enhance the startling effect of the fantastic visuals of the film.


Thomson, D. (2010). The BACK LOT: The Menace of ‘Metropolis’At: https://newrepublic.com/article/76533/metropolis-classic-movies  (Accessed on 01.10.16)

Metropolis. (1927). Directed by Fritz Lang. [DVD] UFA, Kino Lorber.

Ebert, R. (1998). Great Movie MetropolisAt: http://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/great-movie-metropolis-1927 (Accessed on 01.10.16)

Twelftree, R. (2016). Movie Review – Metropolis (1927)At: http://www.fernbyfilms.com/2016/06/27/movie-review-metropolis-1927/ (Accessed on 01.10.16)


Fig. 1 Poster art

Fig. 2 The mad scientist and the robot
Lang, F. (1927). Metropolis. [Film Still] At: http://www.myfilmviews.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/12/metro1.jpg (Accessed on 01.10.16)

Fig. 3 Metropolis
Lang, F. (1927). Metropolis. [Film Still] At: https://s-media-cache-ak0.pinimg.com/originals/b6/d4/11/b6d411dd22f66f0a43e8f2dbf076f470.jpg (Accessed on 01.10.16)

Fig. 4 The Workers' City
Lang, F. (1927). Metropolis. [Film Still] At: http://images.adsttc.com/media/images/55e8/9cbf/e258/46b8/1d00/00a6/newsletter/metropolis02.jpg?1441307817 (Accessed on 01.10.16)

Fig. 5 Freder's vision
Lang, F. (1927). Metropolis. [Film Still] At: http://theredlist.com/media/database/settings/cinema/1920-1930/metropolis-/010-metropolis-theredlist.jpg (Accessed on 01.10.16)

Fig. 6 Maria
Lang, F. (1927). Metropolis. [Film Still] At: http://www.fernbyfilms.com/2016/06/27/movie-review-metropolis-1927/ (Accessed on 01.10.16)

Fig. 7 The Machine Man
Lang, F. (1927). Metropolis. [Film Still] At: http://deeperintomovies.net/journal/image08/metropolis2.jpg (Accessed on 01.10.16)


  1. Excellent review Ellie :)

    Just a very minor nit-pick; your bibliography should be ordered alphabetically by surname... this become more important once you are using a lot more source material and have a great long list of names! (Don't worry about changing this one - just bear in mind for the next one)