Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis” at 90 – Still Influential

Metropolis movie poster

On March 14, 1927, Metropolis made its debut on the silver screen in Germany. This iconic film broke new ground being one of the first feature-length science fiction movies. Directed by Fritz Lang, and co-written along with his wife, Thea von Harbou, this silent film was produced for a then-astounding amount of 5 million reichsmarks. Metropolis opened to mixed reviews, being praised for its visuals and special effects but being criticized for  its “naive” story line and extremely long run time of 153 minutes. As a result, worldwide showings were edited down to approximately 90 minutes. Much of the film was considered lost for decades until a 2010 restoration allowed 95% of the entire film to be viewed as intended.

Maria from “Metropolis” and C3-P0 from “Star Wars”

Groundbreaking

Audiences were stunned by the imagery presented in on the screen. Inspired by Art Deco, Cubism and Bauhaus it presented a unique vision of the world of 2026. Eugen Schüfftan pioneered a number of special effects for the film.  Miniature cityscapes first appeared in Metropolis and his “Schüfftan Process” of using mirrors make actors appear to be within the models continued to be used for the first half of the 20th century until replaced by matte painting and CGI.

Metropolis was one of the first cinematic appearances of a robot. The term “robot” had only been coined seven years earlier by Czech writer Karel ?apek for his 1920 play R.U.R. Referred to as a “maschinenmensch” in the film, the robot is disguised as the heroine, Maria. No mindless laborer, the automaton is tasked with shaking apart the very civilization by leading a revolt. In this regard, she is the precursor to HAL9000 and the Terminator among other malevolent AI.

Influential

Even those who have not seen Metropolis are familiar with its female robot villain, Maria. Her iconic image is the very face of the movie starting with the posters. Early concept art by Ralph McQuarrie for C3-P0 clearly drew inspiration from her. There is also a very obvious influence of the 1927 character upon the 1966 appearance of the Cybermen from Dr. Who.

The Heart Machine and Freddy Mercury’s tribute

More subtle, however, is the influence elsewhere in pop culture. In the video for Queen’s “Radio Gaga”, Freddy Mercury replicates several scenes from Metropolis, including working the hands of the clocklike Heart Machine. Madonna also incorporated similar visuals of machinery and the city itself in her “Express Yourself” video. And, while clearly inspired by Marilyn Monroe’s “Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend” song, Madonna also borrows from the Biblically-inspired “Whore of Babylon” scene where Maria incites the workers.

 

Beyoncé, Janelle Monae and other musicians have also been inspired by the movie and its iconography.

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