Senior Thesis Part 5: Metropolis (1927)

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Discharged from his position as an infantryman during World War I in 1916, Lang worked as a scenarist for Otto Rippert, whose generated crowd and horrific laboratory inspired many of his films. Decla Bioscop hired him as a director in 1918, where he completed his earliest films Die Spinnen (1919) and Dr. Mabuse the Gambler (1922) both of which had complicated, overlapping framed stories. An established director, the UFA hired him and he completed other films like Destiny (1921) and Die Nibelung (1924) which showed another side of his genius: his love for dramatic, stylized sets.  At the pinnacle of his career, Fritz Lang’s Expressionist spectacle Metropolis used extraordinary sets, shadowing, embellished acting and camera techniques to show the detrimental effects of an industrialized, tyrannical society. Though excessive, Metropolis, as American novelist William Brayer perceived, “is a cinematic miracle reflecting Lang’s special ability to create an atmosphere by visual means and to propel a story by using a moving camera and by staging scenes in strong geometric patterns”.[1]

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The film begins with two synchronized lines of people going to and from work and shifts to the upper world where Freder, the son of Metropolis’s director Frederson, meets Maria and a group of children from what they call the depths. He falls in love with her and runs after her into the workrooms. There he witnesses a mechanical failure in the main power plant and returns to his father’s office scarred by the monstrous entity the machine turns into that seems to be eating the workers as if part of a ritual sacrifice. After confronting his father about the explosion, he returns to the depths as his father meets with an inventor Rotwang who has created a human like machine. Eventually he reunites with Maria, who names him the mediator who will bridge the gap between the workers and those on the surface. After they meet, Rotwang captures her and uses her as the model for his robot that he and Frederson plan to use for different purposes. Pretending to be Maria, the robot commits terrible atrocities and incites the workers to destroy the power plants, which cause their city to flood. Maria and Freder rescue the worker’s children from the flood and once the inventor is overthrown, the fake Maria destroyed and the children returned, Freder joins the hands of a technician Grot and his father as a bridge between two divided people.

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Lang used Expressionist stylization to contrast the bright, industrialized city of Metropolis whose people lived without moral or economic limitations and its dark underbelly where its workers, expressionless and broken down by years of hard labor, lived in menial conditions. The upper city, styled after New York City, had tall skyscrapers and its elites lived in oblivious luxury with free access to nightclubs and extravagantly built gardens. In contrast, the worker’s city deep underground where “the cubes of houses placed corner to corner, the uniform rows of windows, or the few slanting doors all with the same number of steps. . . (was) an appropriate background for the mechanical distribution of the impersonal masses”.[2] Reinforced by Lang’s incredibly lavish sets, Metropolis “posited a future society where the technological luxury of a ruling class (was) maintained by an enslaved underclass”, their differences not as clear as the film progressed.[3]

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This Expressionist stylization extended especially to workers’ design. “Impersonal, hunched, servile, slavish beings dressed in costumes of no known historical period”, their movements were perfectly synchronized and lacked any semblance of individuality.[4] For example, in the scene when Freder followed Maria down into the machine rooms and witnessed the workers at the machines, Lang portrayed the workers as essential components of the machines. Their actions patterned simultaneously “in several rectangular or rhomboidal divisions, whose absolute sharpness of outline (was) never broken by an individual movement . . . their entire person (was) geared to the rhythm of the complicated machines”, the individual lost to the mechanism’s demands.[5]

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Lang’s architecturalized crowd was nevertheless alive despite its “geometric stylization”.[6] As seen through images like the swarming workers climbing onto the elevators, the many children reaching helplessly to Maria as the worker’s city flooded, or even the men leering at the robot’s erotic dance, Lang’s incited collective mass was as effective as it was frightening. Hitler, who greatly admired this film, would use tactics similar to the ones used by the artificial Maria to control the elites and workers. As the famous novelist, Aldous Huxley observed, “The driving force which has brought about the most tremendous revolutions on this earth has . . . always (been) a devotion which has inspired them, and often a kind of hysteria which has surged then into action”.[7] Sometimes however Lang restored the workers humanity and individualism to contradict the illusion shown at the beginning. Some examples include Georgy who sacrificed his life to protect Freder and Grot who tried to reason with the enraged mob trying to destroy the core machine.

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All the characters, universally memorable and integrated into popular culture, employed Expressionist gestures and facial expressions, especially when displaying intense emotions like fear, anger, hatred and depression. For example, in the chase scene between Maria and Rotwang through the dark corridors of the catacombs he slowly, using a small light, pushed her into his laboratory, her terror and his villainy evident in every movement and facial expression. The intriguing contrast between the two Marias, one who represented purity and the other avarice, showed how each both the forces of good and evil are powerful and persuasive. Enveloped in light, her features clear, and free from darkening makeup, Maria symbolized and advocated for peace and collaboration. The robot, sensual, with heavy makeup, and without conscience, brought to the surface man’s bestial tendencies and under the inventor’s control encouraged chaos and violence.

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Metropolis also shows the detrimental effects of separating people into dynamically different, separated classes.  It was in this state that both became susceptible to the pervasive influence of the machine woman or “whore of Babylon”. Enflamed by the artificial Maria’s speech, the workers lost control of their reason, destroyed the machines and consequently flooded their city where their children had been left behind. Likewise, watching her erotic dance, the elite men discarded their morality and became a leering, besotted crowd willing even to kill to have her for themselves. In the end, in order to bring peace and bridge the gap between them Freder joined the hands of his father and a worker, for “the mediator between the head and hands must be the heart.”[8]

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Lang’s ex-wife Thea von Harbou co-wrote the original script and in time become a firm supporter of the Nazi movement. As Einser observed, “Her sentimentalism and her deplorable taste for false grandeur were to make her lapse rapidly into the darkness of Nazi ideology” her predetermined Nazi tendencies surfacing through Metropolis.[9] The film’s slogan, coined by Harbou, ‘the heart mediating between the directing brain and the toiling hands’ couldn’t have reflected the Nazi attitude any better than Goebbels, future director of the German cinema in the Third Reich. He concluded “Power based on guns may be a good thing; it is however better and more gratifying to win the heart of the people and keep it”.[10] Lang’s left wing political sympathies and Roman Catholic ideals intermingled with Harbou’s vision and tempered her ideas with the powerful message “science and industry will become the weapons of demagogues” if left untempered by love and devotion to God .[11]

[1] Bayer, William. The great movies,. New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1973, 199.

[2] Eisner, The haunted screen, 225.

[3] Hunter, Allan. Movie classics, 142.

[4] Eisner, The haunted screen, 225.

[5] Eisner, The haunted screen, 226.

[6] Eisner, The haunted screen, 229.

[7] Huxley, Aldous. “Propaganda under a dictatorship.” 249. Quoted in Seamons, R. (Ed.) The way of wisdom. Rexburg, ID: BYU-Idaho. Retrieved from

[8] Lang, Fritz, dir. 1927. Metropolis. UFA.  Accessed May 26, 2014,


[9] Eisner, The haunted screen, 232-33.

[10] Goebbels, Joseph. Quoted in Kracauer, From Caligari to Hitler, 164.

[11] Ebert, “Metropolis”. The great movies, 294.


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