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  • Robert Lynch

Review – Metropolis (1927 film)

Metropolis is a science fiction silent film, one of the first feature-length scifi films ever made. Directed by Fritz Lang, screenplay by Thea von Harbou (adapted from a novel she wrote of the same name), starring Gustav Fröhlich and Brigitte Helm. Released in 1927, the film cost 5 million Reichsmarks to make (converting for inflation over 93 years doesn't mean much, but if you make the effort and convert to US currency, you get US$17.3 Million)

Metropolis has been on the list of foundational scifi stories that I have wanted to watch for a long time. Watching a silent film is a very different experience to watching a newfangled "talkie," and I found myself focused on the experience a lot. Unlike watching a film with the subtitles on, an old school silent film is a different beast. The actors move very differently, exaggerating their movements and becoming almost a parody of what modern films would think of as acting (more than once during this film does someone raise the hands over their head and run about). Actors may speak to each other several times, but the audience is presented with a single title card.

It's a very different way of conveying information to the audience, and I do not doubt that my inexperience means that I didn't understand some common conventions from back then. It's like reading Mary Shelly, or HG Wells, sentence structure from hundred-year-old stories can feel very alien and take some time to get your head around.

That said, I very much enjoyed the film.


The story itself is fairly simple, examining the relationship between the ruling elite and the working poor. Ok, I say simple, but the film is two and a half hours long, there's a lot of simple stuff. An old rival in love tries to destroy the city using an android who is a body double of a woman the workers' trust. A prince learns about the working condition of his people. A guy gets fired and tries to kill himself, but the prince offers to hire him. One dude parties a bunch. I make it sound a lot less coherent than it is, but the constraints placed on the storytelling form mean that the story points are simple, but by laying them out one by one the film puts together a complex series of simple events. Then again, I suppose that's not so different to films now.

There was one thing that knocked me over, and that was the raciness of some of the scenes. Early in the film there is a scene where the prince character is choosing which of the assortment of girls he is going to have "fun with." He then chases her around, and they kiss, but she is wearing a see-through blouse that I couldn't believe I was seeing. Later in the film, there is a three-minute sequence where the android, now in the human form of Brigitte Helm, basically does a striptease. In my experience, the older a movie is, the more prudish it is, yet here is this 93-year-old film which shattered my preconceptions. I don't think either scene is unjustified, or gratuitous; it was just so unexpected that it ripped me out of the film.

The snapshot of the future envisioned by the film is what I found to be the most interesting. Android women and massive steam-powered engines are very interesting visions of the future. Like flying cars in the '50s, or hoverboards from the '80s, the vision of the future is also a lens we can use to look at the past. The idea of the maschinenmensch (machine man) in contrast with the other vast steam-powered machines the workers run shows how mechanisation was viewed at the time, that we would become slaves to the machines, and that they would replace us. The movie doesn't give the android any autonomy of her own; she has no ideas but is rather just a tool for the powerful. Just another machine. Perhaps the idea of creating a machine with sentience was just outside the zeitgeist of the time.

One last thing, Brigitte Helm is fantastic in this film. She plays both Maria and the maschinenmensch in the film, and it was easy to identify which character was on screen at a glance. It is a testament to her acting skill that with just the movements of her body language and facial expressions that she was so completely able to differentiate between two characters. In other films I have watched where an actor is playing two roles, I don't know that I have ever seen a better example of how body language can convey different personalities.

Metropolis is an incredible experience that any scifi nerd should take the time to watch.