For those who have not heard of it, Fritz Lang’s 1927 film Metropolis is an incredibly powerful silent era work of science-fiction that has a powerful resonance even today in our inherited cultural backpack. Metropolis story-wise tells a rather heavy-handed story about what happens if a society divides into two halves, one a mass of unskilled workers and the other leaders/capitalists who rule society and profit from its surpluses. Metropolis is a heavy-handed film because Lang resorts at several points uses direct analogies to stories out of the Old Testament and to Christian imagery to drive home to the viewing audience the dangers of allowing such social division to reach endemic proportions. Metropolis is usually considered a work of science-fiction because it presents a dystopian society and addresses issues of dehumanization, mechanization and its impact on human life and the human experience, and, of course, the impact of non-human mechanical humanoids upon society. In particular Metropolis is among the first films to explore the question of what happens when something created by humanity that is non-organic expresses a will and mind of its own. (In Metropolis apparently said non-organic entity is blessed with a lovely human appearance and decides to go into the lucrative field of naked dancing.)
So why see this film today? First off because it was made in 1927, a year of high stability for the Weimar Republic (ruling interwar government of Germany and worthy of an introductory post of its own in the future) but also a year in which the ideological challenge and questions raised by Communism created an interesting resonance in the minds of people in Western Europe and the United States. For people at all class levels an interesting question was raised, what was society to do with its unskilled laborers? They produced much of the growing material prosperity of the 1920s but it was a prosperity that these same laboring classes were not as easily able to partake of as the expanding managerial classes. What makes Metropolis particularly interesting is that at the same time the unskilled laboring classes are increasing in number the professional managerial classes overseeing the new engines of production were also increasing in number, it was this second group to which the film was addressed and was the most common viewing audience. Yet, at the same time, that class does not appear much in Metropolis, if at all, and by its absence raises questions about the impact of that class in society and its long-term viability. Issues which a newly minted professional class was itself struggling with in the 1920s, enjoying the benefits of increased leisure time and wealth but also the worries of how real said freedom was and what it meant to society that it existed.
Which is all well and good for the cultural value of Metropolis but that is not why you should see the film, although it is a valuable side aspect of the film. No everyone should see the film because Metropolis provided us with the cultural image kit that we associate today with the idea of “dystopian Gothic city-scape.” The feel of every Batman film made from the 1990s onwards, the feel of dystopian films such as Dark City, Dark Man, Blade Runner – all of these draw upon the images first pioneered by Metropolis. The image of a the android to the modern mind, a humanoid figure made of shiny metal, that also owes a debt to Metropolis to the point that seeing such a figure today in cinema we immediately associate it with a mechanical humanoid entity. Think of the Tin Man in the Wizard of Oz, without that cultural back ground of information already present in society the idea of a mechanical man made of tin is just an odd one. The idea said mechanical figure could aspire to human emotions is even more unsettling, but the cultural groundwork for the idea rests with Metropolis. Today the idea of mechanical creations of our own hand rising up to overthrow us or aspiring to capture the human aspects of our own personality is a theme so common in popular culture many joke about the “robot apocalypse” or nervously believe it real and likely once the popular construct of true “artificial intelligence” is achieved, whatever that might mean.
But the main reason people should see Metropolis is to properly understand the parentage of the imagery in Madonna’s music video “Express Yourself” comes from, apparently the modern mindset believes that imagery comes from the 1990s Batman franchise of films and not this silent film classic.
Wikipedia Entry on Metropolis