Famous Library Films
No. 20
"Metropolis" (1926)
by H.A.V. Bulleid
Originally published in Amateur Cine World January 1941.
Copyright H.A.V. Bulleid. All rights reserved. Reprinted by permission.

Production . . . . . . . . . . . . Universum-Film Aktiengesellschaft (UFA) Berlin
(Shooting started May 22nd, 1925, and was completed by October 30th, 1926)
English Trade review . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . March 24, 1927
English release . . . . . .. . . September 26, 1927. Distributed by Wardour Films
Length . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 10,500 feet
Directed by . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Fritz Lang
Scenario . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Thea von Harbou
Photography . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Karl Freund and Gunther Rittau
Schüfftan photography. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Helmar Lerski
Model photography.. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Konstantin Irmen-Tschet
Montage . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Fritz Lang
Design . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Otto Hunte and Erich Kettelhut
Sculpture . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Walter Schultze-Mittendorf
Derivation . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Novel by Thea von Harbou
Music . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Gottfried Huppertz


 35mm version 9.5mm version
  Brigitte Helm  as Mary Maria
 Gustav Fröhlich as Eric Freder
 Rudolph Klein-Rogge  as Rotwang Rotwang
 Alfred Abel as John Masterman Fredersen
 Theodor Loos Joseph Josaphat
 Heinrich George as Grot (Foreman) Not named
 Fritz Rasp as Slim (Secretary) Not named
 George John as Machine man Machine man

Pathescope Library, 5 reels, 9.5 mm = 3,750 ft.
British Film Institute Library, 9 reels, 35mm


a critical commentary by H.A.V. Bulleid, M.A.

"Metropolis" is a production of the "Golden Period" of the German cinema and has its place in the list of classics due to its remarkable technical craftsmanship, its inspired architectural form, and its typically "Langish" direction - though hampered by having as a foundation a story of the penny-dreadful category complete with trite motto.

The technical craftsmanship is reflected chiefly in the style and fluidity of the camerawork and the realism of all detail. The architectural form has evoked unstinting praise from all quarters, and the film is supremely "Langish" - by which term is meant the uniquely individualistic style of Fritz Lang with his insistence on dramatic gestures, high camera angles, wide foregrounds, and massed movements. "Metropolis" has these cinematic action effects in abundance, and their presence proves the director's complete control.

Fritz Lang was born in Vienna in 1890 and studied architecture and art before turning his hand to writing film scripts in 1916. These scenarios were accepted and directed by Joe May and others. Lang's first assignment as director was "The Half-Caste" photographed by Karl Hoffman from his own scenario for Decla-Bioskop in 1919. His first film to achieve fame was "Destiny" (1921) with Lil Dagover and Bernhard Goetzke, photographed by Fritz Arno Wagner and others, and designed by Warm, Herlth and Rohrig. His subsequent films were:
- 1922: "Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler" with Klein-Rogge and Alfred Abel (17,650 ft., camera -Karl Hoffman, design - Otto Hunte and Stahl-Urach)
- 1923-24: "Die Nibelungen - Siegfried" and "Kriemhild's Revenge" (camera - Karl Hoffman and Gunthur Rittau, design - Hunte, Kettlehut and Vollbrecht).

Lang then visited Hollywood to study American methods and, on his return to Berlin in December 1924, began planning "Metropolis." His next films were:
- 1928: "The Spy" with Gerda Maurus, Willy Fritsch, Klein-Rogge, Lupu Pick and Fritz Rasp (10,800 ft., camera - F.A. Wagner, design - Hunte and Vollbrecht)
- 1929: "The Girl in the Moon" with Gerda Maurus, Willy Fritsch and Fritz Rasp (10,000 ft., camera - Curt Courant and others, design - Hunte and Emil Haslwer)
- 1932: "M" with Peter Lorre, Theodor Loos and George John (8,000 ft., camera - F.A. Wagner, design - Vollbrecht and Hasler)
- 1933: "The Testament of Dr. Mabuse" with Klein-Rogge and Gustav Diessl (12 reels, camera - F.A. Wagner, design - Vollbrecht and Hasler)
- 1933: "Liliom" with Charles Boyer (10,500 ft. approx., Erich Pommer production for Fox-Europa in France, banned in England, from Molnar's play; camera - Rudolph Maté)
- 1936: "Fury" with Spencer Tracy (camera - Joseph Ruttenberg)
- 1937: "You Only Live Once" with Henry Fonda (camera - Leon Shamroy)
- 1938: "You and Me" with George Raft (camera - Charles Lang, Jr.)
Note: The leading lady in the above three films was Sylvia Sidney.

Six films, including the very Langish "Man Hunt," preceded the recent "Scarlet Street" (1945) with Edward G. Robinson. A point of special note is the director's effects in later films with different cameramen.

The scenarios of his German films were written in collaboration with his wife, Thea von Harbou, known also as a writer of sensational novels, one of which was "Metropolis" - a literary shocker, but useful film material. The full German version of the film exploited this material correctly so that the architecture and the visions of the future formed the underlying theme. For the specially prepared English version, however, stress was laid on the hackneyed motto that "Brain and Arm have one link - the Heart" at the expense of Lang's intended and unstated moral that Man's pride and squabbling cause disasters.

In the 9.5mm version, the same motto is backed up by only the equivalent of 3,750 feet, hence it looms embarrassingly large. This terrific condensation in length, although admirably done, removes, to a large extent, the characterizations and the motives of the players and the wealth of incidental detail, but cleverly manages to preserve all the key points of the narrative.

The Story
The film opens with shots of the City of the Future, dependent on the listless workers living below ground. Contrasted with them are the "idle rich" among whom is Freder, son of the Master of the City. Maria, bringing a party of the workers' children into the sunlit gardens, is seen by him. In trying to trace her, Freder discovers the underground machines and is the frightened witness of an accident. He goes to his father's office in a tower commanding the city, and the Foreman also arrives with plans found on workmen killed in the accident. Fredersen sacks Josaphat, his secretary, for failing to have found such plans. Freder saves Josaphat from suicide and they strike up a friendship.

Fredersen visits Rotwang, the scientist, and the Robot is shown working. They go to the place in the catacombs shown on the workmen's plans and there find Maria preaching a doctrine of Understanding. Freder stays behind at the end, and they meet. Fredersen instructs Rotwang to give Maria's form, but a devil's heart, to the Robot to destroy the workmen's faith in her. Rotwang catches Maria after a chase and carries her to his laboratory, but her shouts have attracted Freder's attention - and, dashing in to help, he is trapped. Rotwang completes his experiment, and the Robot Maria exists.

In the Catacombs
Rotwang releases Freder and tells him Maria is with his father. In the office, Freder finds them, and the shock of "Maria's" appearance transformed unbalances him. Rotwang gives a huge "at home" whereat "Maria" appears in a wild dance act while Freder, in his bed of sickness, has a premonition that "Death menaces Metropolis."

Freder and Josaphat go to the catacombs where "Maria" has succeeded in starting a revolt. In spite of the Foreman's efforts, the main controlling machine is stopped by the mob. To his consternation, Fredersen sees the lights of the city fail. Maria escapes. Floods start in the workmen's city. Maria collects the children and sounds the huge alarm gong. Freder and Josaphat find them, and all escape through the ventilating shafts.

At last, the Foreman brings the mob to reason, and they demand vengeance on "Maria the Witch." They find her in the wealthy part of the city and burn her at the stake when she reverts into the mechanical form of the Robot. Rotwang, mentally unhinged, makes off with Maria, but Freder saves her. It is then learned that the children are safe. The mob's animosity vanishes. Freder and Maria bring about a "New Understanding" between Fredersen and the Foreman.

Such is the treatment-synopsis of the English version from which it will at once be seen that the action is studded with big scenes, namely the first accident, the giving of Maria's form to the Robot, Rotwang's "at home," the mob's revolt, and the flooding of the underground city. Contrasted with these in the build-up of the action are the quieter-toned scenes in the Eternal Gardens, Maria's telling of the legend to the workmen, and, in particular, the calm and measured vastness indicated in the opening views of the city and of Fredersen 's controlling office.

H.G. Wells said. . .
This excellent choice and arrangement of material, however, cannot quite gloss over the trite "Brain-Arm-Heart" motto, which probably explains why H.G. Wells applied the comment, " . . . quite the silliest film . . .." Mr. Wells was misled by failing to appreciate the architectural form and the supremely cinematic qualities of "Metropolis" which are remembered while the tabletop models and rambling construction of "Things to Come" are largely fading into oblivion. Paul Rotha sums it up well in "The Film Till Now":

"'Metropolis' was very remarkable, based on a brilliant filmic conception and, had it been shown in its entirety, would have afforded a wonderful exposition of cinematography. "Metropolis," with its rows of rectangular windows, its slow-treading workers, its great geometric buildings, its contrasted light and shade, its massed masses, its machinery, was a considerable achievement. Its actual story value was negligible; the architecture was the story in itself.

The film was a year and a half in production at the UFA studios in Neubabelsburg. Terrific interior and exterior sets were constructed. The first five floors of the underground city were actually built on the studio grounds, shooting being done by night. Rotwang's house was built full size, including the exterior. The machine shops, catacombs, Rotwang's laboratory, and the Eternal Gardens were the largest interiors. Models were used for the exterior scenes of "Metropolis" with its vast buildings, elevated railways, planes and moving roads - also, for the tower of Babel. Photographs prepared from the models were used for views through Fredersen 's windows. Niceties such as the decimal system clocks were, of course, specially made incidentals. For Fredersen's television-phone, ordinary back projection was used, and a painted panorama was employed for the drive through the Metropolis streets. (Both cut from the 9.5mm version). For the rest, the machine accidents were real, the builders of the tower were real, the floods were real, and the fire under the Robot was real.

As a matter of interest, contemporary films released in September 1927 included "It" (Clara Bow), "The Kid Brother" (Harold Lloyd), "Michael Strogoff" (Ivan Mosjoukine) and "The Scarlet Letter" (Lillian Gish and Lars Hanson). "Ben-Hur" was approaching the end of its famous 49 weeks at the Tivoli.

The stately opening shots are flawlessly realistic. Dissolved close-ups of machines follow, then the decimal clock approaching the hour, then the hooter. The workers change shifts, and those relieved are followed by the camera to their underground city. This is established with a huge long shot of a square flanked by buildings of which nine stories can be seen. The lower five were built full-size; the remainder were painted (to a convenient scale) and placed proportionately nearer to the camera.

Immediately contrasted with the underground city is the vast, sun-drenched sports stadium and then the fresh gardens where Freder is introduced. The place is charged with beautifully gowned ladies, statuesque peacocks, and sparkling fountains. Through immense swinging doors ventures Maria with a party of children from below. Freder's attention is caught. The shots of Maria are arranged to put emphasis on the girl by using a gauze with a hole in the centre and a light nearby so that the surrounds of the picture melt into diffused whiteness.

They retreat through the doors at the unspoken suggestion of four footmen (nicely conveyed), and Freder follows. Hands stretched in front of him, he pushes through the doors, and we note the hard shadow cast by light from the gardens streaming through after him. This is very Langish - the outstretched arms and the sedately swinging doors. Compare the hotel doors in "The Spy" and the barbershop doors in "Fury."

Vast Machine Rooms
Freder proceeds underground to the vast machine rooms. These again are conspicuous for their purity of design and their impressive reality. The operators are shown in patterned movements of typically Langish conception and arrangement. Then, in mid-shot, the operator of the central machine is picked out. Faced with two banks of gauges and control switches, his work is of key importance. By his look of horror, we are warned of danger . . .
M.S. He feverishly operates the necessary switches.
M-C.S. The same - fear lines his face.
C.S. A fluid indicator-gauge rises ominously.
C.S. (from high angle, looking down) He pulls another switch, reaches desperately up, falls away.
C.S. The indicator reaches the danger level.
L.S. A rush of steam starts from the bank of machines.
M.S. A force of steam blows an operator away from his platform.
M.S. (flying camera shot) Freder starts forward in horror, recoils, covering his eyes.
L.S. Steam issues everywhere. Operators are hurled to the ground from their platforms.

There are many points of great interest in this excellent sequence. George John makes a vivid portrait of the fear-haunted operator. He can be seen in "Siegfried" as the Mime and also as Alberich, in "Cinderella" as the coachman, and in "Vaudeville" as the sailor. The high-angle close-up is a fine example of director and cameraman combining to achieve the maximum effect. Looking-down-on-fear has an emphasis value enhanced by the actual frame composition and by Lang's directorial insistence on jerky hand movements.

The flying camera shot of Freder is a perfect choice, giving, as it does, the effect of the danger rushing towards him. The camera was suspended at the end of a platform supported from a point above the set by four ropes, one at each corner, so that it remained in a horizontal plane throughout the swing. At the rehearsed moment, it was released and allowed to swing toward the actor.

Born in "Vaudeville"?
Cameraman Karl Freund stated that this idea was born during the shooting of "Metropolis," and, indeed, it is a Langish idea. But I feel convinced that, fundamentally, the idea originated at that moment in "Vaudeville" when Freund had the inspiration of taking his camera on the trapeze with Emil Jannings to shoot the famous close-up against the confused flashes of the audience below.

To Freder's mind, the machine appears as a Moloch with men being sacrificed - a straightforward piece of imagery and set dressing. Optical distortion (by moving a piece of bottle-glass in front of the lens) is very appropriately used here. Then Freder stands against the light background of the concrete wall while the injured are shown in the foreground in dark silhouette. Freder proceeds to his father's office (where, in the abridged version, it is tantalizing not to see the working of all the gadgets around the walls!), and the machine Foreman enters with the catacomb plans.

Josaphat, the secretary, is instantly dismissed. Freder dashes after him and saves him from suicide in another typical Lang sequence of careful camera angles and well-chosen shots. The montage here, too, is outstanding, the action being split into accurately cut detail shots. This is rather unusual for Fritz Lang who has always had the tendency to err on the side of too few shots, being inclined to cover in one shot what might better be split into two or more.

Freder revisits the machine rooms and takes a turn operating a machine - another Langish conception - when the man in charge collapses, and no help is near.

Amazingly Detailed Set
Rotwang, the scientist, is next introduced in his laboratory - again, an amazingly detailed set filled with an apparatus on a grand scale which, incidentally, so took Hollywood's fancy that it has been imitated to the degree of making such sets laughable. In a curtained alcove, the Robot, in metal, is shown for the first time to Fredersen. This is rather uninspiring, but Rotwang's promise to give it human likeness in one more day has a dramatic ring.

They proceed to the catacombs where Freder, with the workmen, has arrived to hear Maria tell the legend of the Tower of Babel. The shot of the converging ranks of men to build the tower is a multiple exposure. The shot of them straining at the enormous block of stone is a magnificently bold composition. Shafts of light superimposed in the corners of the frame somehow express the legendary nature of the tale being told. A fine wide-angle lens shot of men swarming up a vast flight of steps culminates in the idea of strife due to lack of understanding.

The workmen hang on Maria's words. Fredersen tells Rotwang to make the Robot in her likeness. Freder stays to meet Maria and is recognised by her to be the hoped-for link for understanding between the workmen and Fredersen. They separate, and Maria takes a candle to light her way out of the catacombs. Rotwang is near. He throws down a piece of stone; frightened, she backs against the tunnel side. With his artificial hand, black and sinister, he smothers her candle. She runs away but is paralysed by the beam of his torch - and looking around, sees his eyes with a hint of madness over the blinding brilliance of the torch. Detailed shots of skeleton remains and of dark corners of the catacombs add to the horror of this excellent sequence which ends with . . .
L.S. Maria running desperately up the steps towards light and escape . . .
L.S. . . . up into the entrance vault of many doors . . .
M.S. . . . to a door which she hammers on in vain; (pan) to another, hammers, then freezes as the beam of the torch catches her - slowly she turns around . . .
L.S. . . . and stares, fascinated, at Rotwang standing in the foreground.
(Fade out)

The impeccable composition and grouping of these shots add greatly to their dramatic power. Strong backlighting picks out the steps and trap door as a goal of escape. A harsh spot (representing the torch light) catches Maria and "freezes" her in a compelling Langish pose. The last shot expresses "capture."

Freder, outside Rotwang's house, hears Maria's shout and storms the door which opens suddenly. Inside, it slams shut. Thus, Lang expounds the nature of Rotwang's house, ironically contrasted with its old-world exterior. The door motif is repeated, and Freder is trapped in the vault. Then comes the famous imparting of Maria's likeness to the Robot with the spectacular discharges and rings of electricity which Rotwang dramatically controls.

Tribute must be paid to the make-up men as well as to Brigitte Helm for the way in which they have conveyed the soullessness of the Robot Maria. In general, they succeeded in the difficult task of preventing the Robot appearing as a caricature. This was Brigitte Helm's first film, and her success is a tribute to herself and to Fritz Lang. G.W. Pabst, shortly after, featured her in the famous "Loves of Jeanne Ney" and in "Crisis," and she partnered Franz Lederer in "The Wonderful Lies of Nina Petrovna" (English title) by Hanns Schwartz.

On release, Freder is confronted by Rotwang in a single spacious long shot with background action (i.e., appearance of Rotwang through curtain) characteristic of Lang's direction. Freder proceeds to his father's office where his collapse is well shown. Lights seem to pierce his brain. The floor swims under him (by superimposing a shot of the floor taken with swaying camera). Glimpses of Death intermingle with flashes of Maria, Rotwang and Fredersen in close-ups, quick cut. Then he seems to fall endlessly (by superimposing his figure on traced lines moving upwards).

Chez Rotwang, the Robot Maria does a "she-devil" dance act, about which the most interesting point is the application of Lang's direction and Freund's photography. Thus, the posing of the Robot dancer has Langish touches, and the idea of fading-out the huge casket-lid through which she first appears is typically Freund, as is the superimposed composition of staring eyes directed at the dancer, reminiscent of the audience's eyes in "Vaudeville." Intercut are shots of Freder in bed. Quick cutting provokes a feverish tempo culminating in a hooter-blast and the imagined, scything figure of Death.

Superlative Long Shots
Stirred up by the Robot Maria, the mob breaks loose, and, worked up in a series of superlative, action-laden long shots, they are shown swarming down to the machines, overpowering the Foreman, and stopping the central machine. The unity of movement of the vast mob is amazing. Then, well-contrasted, the real Maria appears alone. She proceeds down a lift. As she walks from it, another lift suddenly crashes with a blinding flash. This vividly tells the tale of the machine wreckage. The lights of the City fail. Fredersen's new secretary reports the disaster in what must be about the most ludicrously worded title ever put on the screen at a dramatic moment.

Then, the dreaded flooding starts. First, the water forces a crack in the concrete road. Then a mighty spout shoots upwards. Water swirls darkly down a road and down steps, whence the children run for safety. Maria gathers them at the gong in the square, and sounds the gong. Its sound is perfectly conveyed by the expedient of placing the camera lens at the position of the going surface. Freder and Josaphat hear. Terrific flood scenes follow ending in the collapse of the underground buildings shown in L.S. (a model).

A raft was built to enable the necessary camera position to be taken in filming the flood scenes. Freund's choice of dramatic angle is inspired. It is of extreme interest to compare his work in "Vaudeville" and "Faust," also his later work in America such as in "Dracula" (Bela Lugosi). The flood scenes are also remarkable for the realistic acting of the principals. Freder and Maria are efficiently heroic, and Theodor Loos as Josaphat is in magnificent contrast to his nervousness as secretary. This player will be remembered as King Gunther in "Siegfried."

Dramatically Arranged Mass Movement
The mob, still in frenzy, dances fanatically around the machines they have wrecked - again, shown in full long shot - till called to order at last by the Foreman. Shown in full close-up, he whistles piercingly, and they become still. Then recriminations, followed by another frenzy against "Maria, the Witch." Then more spacious long shots when the Robot comes in a wild procession from the rich quarters, is seized and lashed up to be burnt.

Lit by the flickering light of this fire, the demented Rotwang carries Maria onto a church roof - the Robot in the fire turns back to steel, in a perfectly contrived mix. Then comes a fight on the church roof which, though embellished with Langish touches and vivid, stark photography, is weak compared to what has gone before - and savours of anti-climax. Rotwang falls. The crowd surges forward past the kneeling figure of Fredersen. These two shots are outstanding examples of dramatically arranged massed movements and are still frequently copied.

Then the Foreman leads the workmen up to Fredersen, and the film ends with the rather trite and uninspired reconciliation done all in mid-shot with titles printed over it.

The best brief tribute that can be paid to the photographic excellence, directorial power, and architectural form of "Metropolis" is to point out that, in spite of the great abridgements made in the sub-standard version, the shots still match in tone and composition, the force and fluidity of the direction cannot be lost, and the artistry of design triumphantly persists. But, above, all, credit must go to the man in control who welded each efficient production phase into its place in the monument of cinematic power - which is why the film is often referred to as "Metropolis - directed by Fritz Lang."

ENDNOTE by Kevin Brownlow: It is coincidence that this article should appear on this website so soon after the presentation of the latest restoration of "Metropolis" at the Berlin Film Festival in February 2010. Fernando Peña of Buenos Aires discovered the missing footage after many attempts. Alas, the collector who owned it had used the most primitive copying techniques, and the result has to be viewed through a hail of scratches and blobs. (The original nitrate print was disposed of.) The new version was shown on French and German television simultaneously by Arte. Prof. Martin Koerber, in charge of the restoriation writes:

"Haven't seen the Arte emission, obviously, as I was in the room where it was coming from. I hear they had to interrupt the film with quite a number of 'live' shots showing the orchestra in fear of piracy, as if that helps . . . Blu-Ray DVD with the real thing should be coming out by Christmas at the latest after a studio recording of the music in June.

"My article about the 'Metropolis' saga has been published widely in German and English already almost a decade ago. You may have it in your library if you have "The Moving Image" or "Preserve Then Show." I have updated it with a few lines about the Argentinian bit for Werner Sudendorf's splendid new book on 'Metropolis' (Belleville Verlag, München), certainly worth getting just for the fantastic pictures. Other than completing the film, the Buenos Aires material does not change the story of how the film was made and massacred, but it is a saga in itself told by the Argentinians in another article in the book.

"Find a cheap flight to Berlin and come to see our exhibition "The Complete 'Metropolis'" showing all the 'Metropolis' stuff we have, which is A LOT - including the oiginal set designs, the music, etc., etc. Open until April (2010)."

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